Elsabé Daneel is an actress, director, producer, lecturer and TV presenter. With a career spanning across stage and screen, her select stage credits include Feeskatte, Ou Blare and Deon Opperman’s one-woman show, Bittersoet, which she toured extensively to all the major arts festivals in South Africa over the course of several years. Her TV career includes 18 SABC dramas. In 2001 she started Elsabé Daneel Productions which sees her taking on the role of producer, director and presenter of corporate videos and documentaries for private clients, kykNET and M-Net. She is currently starring as matriarch ‘Sandra Viljoen’ in Ferdinand van Zyl’s complex war drama, The Recce, which arrives in theatres on September 28th. We sat down with her to chat about her multifaceted career and why her role in The Recce is the “deepest” she’s ever gone.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was at Jan van Riebeeck and they entered my name for the eisteddfod when I was seven years old. I had to do this little play and I remember at the end of it, I was so pleased that I had the chance to do it and I took my little dress and I curtsied. I remember that moment, that thing of doing a thing and it going well and being so glad to have been there. Babs Laker was one of the adjudicators and she approached my mom and she said, “Give her to me.” And my mom was like, “I think she wants to be a Voortrekker.” My mom said to me, “We can’t afford both. You are either going to do a course with Babs Laker or we are going to pay for the Voortrekkers.” I actually thought the Voortrekkers sounded nice and then I thought, “I must do the acting. I must go with Babs.” She became my mentor. I went to the Akademie vir Dramakuns for nine years. I grew up with drama, it was never something that I learned as an outside thing. It was always in me. Babs was so amazing because she was so truthful and I just loved her as a person. I learned everything I know from her.
You then went to study at the University of Stellenbosch.
Yes. In Standard 8, when I was 14, Babs sent me to Suzanne van Wyk, that formidable broadcast director. She was a brilliant teacher but she was very strict and harshly honest but she also taught me everything about radio, which is just another form of acting. I did all the children’s stuff and as I grew up, I did the series [and the] Springbok Radio. I was always busy. I did school in the mornings and in the afternoons there were either eisteddfods or broadcast sessions or lessons with Babs and I loved it. I had come from quite a conservative home. When I went to varsity, my mom said, “Are you sure you want to study drama? I think you need to be a teacher and have a job where you can earn a salary.” I said, “Then I’d rather do social work. I’ll work with children or women.” And she said, “That’s even worse. If you don’t want to teach and you’d rather do social work just do the acting.” My parents really didn’t want me to study drama. I said I’d do teaching because I felt I was always doing drama anyway, I was doing the radio stories all the time so it wasn’t like I had to say goodbye to anything. I did the teaching but I also did drama theory and amateur theatre at university as well. We had plays all the time and that way, I met a very important person in my life and that is Juanita Swanepoel who ran the Libertas Theatre. In that time, my roads crossed hers and we started doing work for the Libertas Theatre. She was an amazing teacher and an amazing woman and she also became very important in teaching me how to act and the honest and down to earth quality with acting, which was amazing. I did a lot of plays with her after that. She’s become my theatre mother. The Klein Libertas Theatre is like my very safe space when I think of theatre. Even though it’s burned down now, it’s still my psychological place for theatre.
I read that you were awarded the Most Promising Actress award at USAT. Do you feel like that affected the way that you approached the beginning half of your career?
It did. If you receive something like that, it’s a validation that it’s ok, you can do it so just keep on doing it. I was amazed. I remember it very well because it was on the Klein Libertas stage. It was a good moment. I never expected my name to be read and it was a nice feeling. But there was another person, when I was in Jan van Riebeeck, my Afrikaans teacher was also a mentor. He staged a play when we had some kind of celebration at Van Riebeeck. We were in these costumes and I had this cloak that I wore, that I lent from Babs Laker, and when I put the cloak on, I remember thinking, “I could walk around in this cloak forever.” I spoke to my younger brother the other day and I said, “Do you remember that cloak?” He said, “Since you wore that cloak, it’s always: Elsabé and the cloak. You loved that cloak.” There were very important people who guided me and inspired me and whom I just loved as people, not just as lecturers and teachers, and then little things like the cloak and that award.
What was it that originally attracted you to The Recce?
I love the idea of The Recce because [in] the last three years we, as South Africans, have given attention to our Vietnam war but before that, we didn’t really do it. It was something that we didn’t really speak about, that specific Border War. My brother was in the army, I knew people from the army, I saw people who were hurt in that army and I always thought I want to know more about this. I just thought that this was going to be interesting. “If they do this right, it’s going to be a most important movie.” My agent asked me to go and I still remember saying to her, “But just remember, I can’t come in peak hour traffic because I come from Stellenbosch.” I remember it was late and I still went to the Mount Nelson before and I sat there and I had my script and I wanted to learn it properly. I wanted to really understand this character. I sat there and when it was time, I drove and it was already dark and I came into that audition room and here was this guy with a huge cowboy hat and I thought, “This is going to be interesting.” This guy, obviously by the way he looks and the way he spoke… He speaks very softly, he is very gentle. He just looked at me and I was looking at him and we started talking. We had a long conversation before I did the audition and I knew I would quite like to work with him. It was a fantastic journey with Ferdi [van Zyl] and then it just all came together, the fact that I knew it was going to be an important movie and the fact that it was in the hands of this very gentle man.
I don’t want to give anything away but after seeing one of your particularly emotional scenes, I wanted to ask you what is it that you, as an actress, need in order to feel safe enough to produce that kind of work?
I think to a big extent, it always starts with the director but then, how and whatever the film is, that trades down to everybody. At that time, I was already safe with everyone on set. I’ve known Albert [Maritz] for many years. We worked together with Suzanne van Wyk when we were children. I was safe with him. He is such a lovely guy to work with. Then the scene… I know a lot of friends who have lost children through the years and they never recover. The smallest trigger puts them on this journey again and I thought, “When does this start? Lets get closer to the incident.” I was remembering the pain of my friends, how it’s always a little movie that is in their head and it gets triggered 14 times a day. It’s that pain of losing someone. I had lost both my parents at that stage. I know what it’s like to lose blood family. Its terrible when they are older but I think when it’s a child, it must be such a trauma. When I walked onto the set that day, everybody was very quiet. When I saw the pictures and the children’s toys that we were going to burn, I just thought, “This is like this cleansing fire that you have to go through and hopefully she is going to be better off after that.” Because you know that scene is coming up, it’s always at the back of your mind and you start thinking, “How is it to lose a child? How will I do that scene?” With Ferdi’s direction, we just had two shots. When it was put on fire, of course you couldn’t repeat it. It had to be right. He said, “Just run and do the dialogue. We can’t repeat it so whatever you feel.” It’s not acting, you just go into a very deep place of loss and rage.
Because you have to go to that emotional place, how do you come back from that?
Because you fetched it from a place that is already there, my parent’s deaths, I knew the place. You always have the place. You don’t lose the place. It’s marked. It’s stored in a very real place. It never goes. It’s not like a bird that you can put in the air and there it goes. It’s a little bird that is inside you, that is nesting inside your guts. It’s always with you. I know that if I come to experience this in future, I will go back to that bird in my stomach. I will know what it is like. It also prepared [me] in a way for things to come, maybe. Acting is not just preparing. It also looks forward because it’s emotions that can come your way again. I remember on set, we did the wide scene and then the closeups after that and Albert and I just sat in the grass. He didn’t even talk. We were just buggered. Then you stand up and you walk back and your feet are so slow.
What is one thing you learned while working on this film?
I think that’s the deepest I’ve gone into traumatic emotions on screen. The other things that I’ve done, I’m always quite a controlling wife or mother or mother-in-law and she is always fighting for something outside there, for a grandchild or something like that but never the sense of loss. That was quite an experience. Also, that scream that I had… That scream was a big scream of loss and when you do that scream, you just think that is how deep it hurts if you lose that much. I think that’s the one thing I’ve learned because what you do is real, it’s not an enactment. It echoes in your life. I think that is what I’ve learned and it’s ok, you get through it again. You have the little bird [in your stomach] but you stand up again. It makes you strong. You learn your strength is weakness and strength combined because she gets up and she goes on after that.
I’d love to touch on your journalism career. Is that something that you actively pursued or did it just kind of happen?
It developed. I always loved languages so I did Afrikaans and English and German and then the other subjects that you need for teaching. Very early on in my career, I was always writing. One day, I want to do a one-woman play about my life. I’d love to write. When I started producing, you write all the time. You write all your press releases and you write all your stories for people. I always find that they will give you a couple of questions but then they always say, “Just write what you like.” I enjoy it. It’s something that easily comes to me. I’m writing all the time. I have a book in front of my bed and every time I think, “This is what I want in the one-woman play,” I just quickly write it down and it’s there. I edit scripts. When I worked on Deon Opperman’s Bittersoet, I worked on the Afrikaans translation from his original English and from the translation that we had, I rewrote a bit of that just to make it my own, with Deon’s permission. I like thoughts. I like people and their thoughts and that leads to stories. It’s just the same journey really, even teaching. It’s about people and understanding life and working with life.
You mention your parents reaction when you announced that you wanted to become an actress. What was your reaction when your daughter [Roeline Daneel] came home and informed you that she wanted to be an actress?
She didn’t inform me. I think I informed her even since she was in my hands as a baby. I looked at her and I thought, “I wonder.” This acting thing is so strong in me and I wondered if it was going to jump to her. It’s not that I did it as a kind of plan but ever since she could think, I was telling her stories and then she, as a little girl, would come to me and she’d say, “I’ve written this story now.” She drew these stories with little speech bubbles when she was three. Then she would say that I must write in the speech bubble that this one is saying this to that one. All that time I thought she’s creative and she loved puppet shows. I wasn’t surprised. I saw it so strongly. Then again her dad, like my parents, said, “Theatre? You have to earn a living.” She decided she would do sociology and she bought the books home and she went for four days and she came back and said, “Mom, if I wanted to learn this, I would read it. Why do I have to study it?” I said, “What do you feel like when you sit in the lecture room?” She said, “The lecturer is so small. I sit right at the back and it’s just this voice.” I said, “Do you want to go to the drama department?” I was teaching there at the time and I went to Temple Hauptfleisch and I said, “I’m so sorry. She went to sociology and she actually wants to be here.” And he said, “But you are so late.” And I said, “Please, a light died in her eyes.” He said, “Send her tomorrow.” She went and she never left. She loved it. With Roeline, it is also something from within.
What is something that you are most proud of?
My children. They are all strong but all three of them are very different in their own way. I love them. I really love them. I have fantastic people in my life, all these drama people, all these mentors and then a fantastic circle of friends and we do fun things all the time. We go on trips, we discover things, we are forever going on missions. I love history. I love art. I love people. I always say, “Roeline, if I drop dead now, you mustn’t mourn me. I have such a full life. I’m doing exactly what I need to do and what I’m born to do.” I’m proud I’m in that spot in my life where I can say it’s good.
You’ve had a great career in terms of balancing film, TV and theatre. Do you make that a priority or do you just go along as you find projects?
I always say to my students, “Everything you do is frightfully important. If doesn’t matter what you are, you have to do it to the best of your ability and it will lead to something bigger.” I just go instinctively into things and I try to do my best. I think it’s important to retain very good relationships with everybody. I think it goes for everything, you must be very careful about how you treat people, what you say, how you say it. I think it comes with a kind of EQ but you do have to have an EQ everywhere you work. You can’t estrange people or push them away. You must be kind to them because if you are kind to them, they’ll want to work with you and it becomes a joyful experience. I believe work should be a joy. It’s good to work and to do well in your work. It’s an unconscious thing and I think that has led to all this diversity. I never look for it actively, it comes my way and I think I’m just very lucky that it has turned out that way for so long.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are so many. Tinarie van wyk Loots is like an acting animal. She has an instinct for acting. I think she is incredible. I put my money on her, I really do. I think Antoinette Kellerman is something amazing. Obviously, Sandra Prinsloo is amazing. Dorothy Ann Gould is amazing because I remember her from [Othello]. That part that she did, to me, was a big inspiration. I think Jennifer Steyn is amazing. Anna-Mart is amazing. She is something else. She is a force. Martelize Kolver is amazing. I’ve worked with her a lot. She is something else. Those are the ones that jump to mind.
You can follow Elsabé on Instagram.