Jill Levenberg is an award-winning Film, Television and theatre actress. At the moment, she is currently starring as Mymoena in the long-running TV series, Suidooster. She has been receiving critical acclaim for her role as Ellen Pakkies in Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, which marks her first leading role in a film. Jill has worked extensively in theatre and television since graduating from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Theatre & Performance and English Literature, graduating on the Dean’s Merit List. Her theatre credits include Medea, Blood Brothers and Orpheus in Africa which awarded her a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. Select film credits include Noem My Skollie, Fluit Fluit, Abraham, While You Weren’t Looking and Uitvlugt. We sat down to chat with her about her career and her emotionally demanding and boundary-pushing role in Ellen.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was six years old when I sang my first solo. It was at the Kensington Civic Center. That was the very first time I appeared on stage. I remember my teacher telling me, “Don’t look at the people, just look at that clock at the back of the hall. Keep your eyes focused on that clock.” The entire time while I sang, I was focused on that clock and only when that song was done, did I see the people in the hall and everyone then stood up and clapped. All through primary school, I was in plays and I was in the choir. In Standard Five, we did a kind of eisteddfod where Shaleen Surtie-Richards and Royston Stoffels were the judges. I loved that feeling of acting. I also played another character in a drama that another teacher in Standard Five had written for a different show and I loved it. It was a comedy and the feeling that you could make people laugh and give people joy and that people really appreciated being entertained or that I could identify with it in some way, was just a fantastic feeling. In Standard Eight, I was part of this program that they used to run for schools which they don’t have any more. It’s such a shame because that program gave me such joy. You had to work with people from other schools, put something together and then you got the opportunity to put it on stage at the Baxter Theatre and then we would watch each other’s plays and that was obviously my first feeling of a real stage with the lights, with the curtains in a real theatre. That is where the butterflies started because I couldn’t equate that magical feeling with anything else. I was attracted.
You did your training at UCT. What was that experience like?
It was fun. It was interesting. I was like a sponge. I was so ready to just soak up everything that the course offered me. It was also where I started to ask questions as to what the way forward for theatre was in this country? What is the way forward for “coloured theatre” in this country, and the synergy between the different cultures and how interesting it is that you can watch a play in a different language even though you don’t speak it but completely understand what is going on? That’s the power of theatre and the power of acting. What really interested me was the healing aspect of drama because the course is intense, especially your second year where you deal with your heightened text and emotional work. And then the exercises that we had to go through that strip you from what you think is yourself, to try to get to your core so you can play from your core. I think personally you go through so many transitions in that time, I definitely did. I shed a lot of myself and I also added to me which is what interested me the most, the fact that it was such a cathartic thing and the fact that I could really feel that I was dealing with other issues that I had even though I was just coming to study acting because you have to deal with that in order to be able to access different emotions. You’ve got to kind of wipe that slate clean to know where to tap into for that emotion. That, to me, was the most interesting part. I remember going through so many emotional transitions in my second year and even thinking of quitting because you had to become so deeply honest with yourself but pushing on through and coming outside the other side of the degree was the best thing I could have done.
What was it that originally attracted you to Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story?
I followed Ellen’s story when it broke in 2007 along with so many other South Africans. I often hear that people say that they judged her and that they could never do that. I felt differently when the story broke. I completely understood where she came from because living in Cape Town, you are no stranger to Tik and the effects thereof. Everyone knows someone or has someone in their family who is on that drug. Unfortunately, we live in a country where we are being held hostage by this surge of drugs and gangsterism and it’s not really being attended to. There are certain pockets of communities in certain places in this country which are forgotten places on the map of South Africa and The Cape Flats is one of those places. It seems as though it’s in a time warp. As if it’s just been left to fend for itself and people in power or government have forgotten about it. That is definitely the feeling that you get when you go into places like Lavender Hill, Mannenberg, Bonteheuwel, Heideveld. There are too many to mention. When I heard that they were making a film, I so desperately wanted to be part of just telling the story. I had auditioned for the film a couple of years before when they were going to do the project. That film didn’t come into fruition. Then several years later I heard that they were picking the film up again and that Daryne Joshua was now going to be directing and I had worked with him in Noem My Skollie for the first time. I emailed him and said, “I so much want to be part of telling Ellen’s story because I am so passionate about the issues that surround this subject matter. I don’t care even if I’m playing a neighbour or a dog or a cat, I just want to be part of telling her story.” I didn’t hear anything back from him. Several weeks later he wrote back to me and he said, “You are playing the lead and we are going to wait until your schedule at Suidooster allows you to be available for the film because we really want you for the role.” I couldn’t believe it. I’ve always been an activist, I’ve always been very involved in my community and I believe that we are being held hostage in this country and unfortunately resources aren’t being evenly spread. I was hoping that this film was going to make a huge difference and impact. Then, when I discovered Aunty Ellen, I discovered that it wasn’t a coincidence that I had gotten this role because when I started doing research about her, I discovered that she is born on the 6th of December which is the date that my maternal grandmother is born on. Her deceased son, Abie, is born on the 27th of August, the same day as my mom. I just got goosebumps. I was like, “What is going on here?” When I spoke to her, she said to me that she grew up in Kensington too. I said to her, “I’m so afraid. I really want to do justice to this role and your opinion matters to me the most.” She said to me, “Don’t worry. You can clearly see that God is busy here. Look at the facts. You were meant to play this role.” She gave me a lot of confidence.
Did your process change at all because you were portraying a real person?
No, I portrayed a real person before, who is also still living. I portrayed Beulah in the film Abraham and that was the first time I played someone who is still living. With Ellen, it definitely helped me because I could tap into her and I could meet up with her and I could ask her questions. She took me around Lavender Hill and we spent time together. We are still friends. I met Abie’s friends, I frequented locations where he would and I also went to the church twice where he was buried out of. I went to a service and I took Jarrid [Geduld] along with me and I spent time there walking around with her, sitting in the park which doesn’t resemble a park. There is just grainy sand and a roundabout. Just sitting there and looking at this forlorn place definitely fuelled me and helped me in my passion for just wanting to convey what thousands of people in this country are living through daily and nobody is seeing or hearing about it. Nobody is paying attention.
This is one of the most emotionally demanding performances I’ve seen in a while. What do you as an actress need in order to feel safe enough to produce that kind of work?
I moved away from where I was living. I changed my environment and I hired a tiny place near the sea because I knew that I needed open scapes where I could run every day and empty myself of myself. I ran every day and I isolated myself. I knew I needed to be alone. I knew I needed to become really quiet and isolate myself. I listened to a certain song during that time that was my personal soundtrack. I listened to it whenever I could and I knew that I needed to change who I am because I’m a very vocal person and very friendly. Aunty Ellen had expressed to me that she wasn’t very communicative for most of her life, that she didn’t have a voice, that she was very quiet, that she didn’t know how to use language and sound and how to articulate herself. I knew that I had to become really quiet, almost like I had a band-aid on my mouth the entire time. I had to suppress in order to access her and what that silence must feel like and what that band-aid on your mouth must feel like. That’s what I did. I did lots and lots of research, medical research on the state of dissociation, research on families going through this kind of trauma and just research about places in Cape Town, statistics, women, post-traumatic stress and that kind of thing. I definitely needed a director like Daryne Joshua because he was incredibly sensitive. He has an organic way of working so that he doesn’t dictate to you. He arrives at a certain point with you. He is open for suggestions. He is open for interpretations. He is even open to me adjusting a line here and there. He trusted me and I trusted him and that was important because he trusted me sometimes more than I trusted myself. That relationship was incredibly important and then it was just a treat working opposite him and opposite an actor like Jarrid who has the same intensity that I do and the same type of work ethic like I do. I was very pleasantly surprised about that because we worked with the same type of energy.
That’s exactly the right word for it. Watching the two of you is like watching two people with the same sort of voltage together.
I couldn’t have asked for a better co-actor because from the beginning we knew we were going for it, even with the violent scenes. Even though we had stuntmen on set, we said we knew we had to bring it because this is what happens every day so we have to bring it for those people who are voiceless. We have to do justice to this. It’s important because I feel the film has come at the right time. I’ve been part of a march twice in the last two months in my area against gangsterism and drug abuse because innocent lives are being lost on a daily basis. It’s incredible how that goes totally ignored and I ask myself, if people had to live like this in Pinelands or in Sea Point or in Constantia with the amount of violence we live with, for example in Bonteheuwel where there is not even a police station, how long would it be allowed to carry on for? Because in these areas it’s been carrying on for years and blatantly ignored. We are living in a war zone. As we know, our crime statistics have just recently gone up. Cape Town is the murder capital of South Africa. All our crime stats in 2018 show an increase in every single crime. Why isn’t this being seen as a war zone because it is a war zone that we are living in? I think that fuelled Jarrid and Elton [Landrew] and I during the entire time of making this movie because we have all lived that reality. We all live in similar areas.
Given the emotional nature of your work in this film and the subject matter, what did you have to do to bring yourself back to who you are after that filming experience?
I’m going to be honest with you and I’m going to tell you that for the entire five weeks that we shot, I didn’t turn off Ellen once. That is why I was alone. I didn’t come home and put her down. I would come home and sit until 2am just prepping the next day’s work or the day after that. I never once left the character in the entire five weeks that I was with her. It was hard to leave her because there was just a weekend. We had the wrap party on the weekend and on the Monday, I had to jump into Mymoena’s shoes, the character I play on Suidooster, which is the nature of the beast because we are actresses and we always need to work in this country. There wasn’t really time to take time out to debrief and Mymoena and Ellen definitely wrestled with one another. I found myself emotional for a long time after I shot Ellen. Ellen didn’t want to really leave me. I run and I meditate and I pray and I cook and I laugh and I go for drinks with friends sometimes. I had my dog who is my angel and I’ve got a very supportive family who also carried me and the craziness that was me during that time, and other actors in the industry who have become friends, that know about holding the space. As an actress, you do need good actor friends because they are the only people who really understand the way it is. That was essential as well and, of course, various mentors.
You’ve done a lot of press for the film, is there anything that you haven’t been asked that you wish you had been?
I’ve spoken about piracy a lot because what people don’t understand in this country is that when you buy a movie ticket, you don’t make the actor rich. That’s their misconception so they wait for it to come out on a stick but what people need to understand is that they need to support South African films because it enables the next story to get told. It also creates employment. We are in a recession at the moment. Make a positive contribution to our economy and our employment rate and our economic growth by buying a ticket to South African films. The other thing is that our artists really need to get behind policy in this country. SAGA just recently took the Performer’s Protection Act to parliament and I ask myself, “How many artists have actually signed the petition? How many artists even know that they are being fought for?” We should all be rallying up and getting involved and be SAGA members and support bills and laws that are trying to be changed in order to protect us. We should all support one another’s films. We should all get behind the machine because the last time they looked at this law was 1967. We are working and we are contributing to this economy but the laws around our image is not protected. The fact that reruns of our shows can be seen on TV till doomsday comes without us getting any remuneration for it, do people even know that? What is the minister of arts and culture doing about this and making living conditions better for artists? My call is to artists to get educated on our policies and get behind it.
As an actor on a long-running TV show, what do you need to do as a performer in order to still feel challenged?
To be honest with you, I think my gratitude takes care of that. I never forget how lucky I am to be employed and with that comes the driving force to not become complacent because there are so many people looking for work and you have to cherish the fact that you are working and the fact that you have the opportunity to be on a set every day and bring something to a character. The fact that you’ve got that, that you are exercising this machine every day, is a gift for me. I will always look for ways to keep Mymoena interesting because complacency is not something that I gel with. I get tired of myself and I get bored easily so I am always going to try to find ways to keep Mymoena interesting.
Because you have such a wonderful balance between film, TV and theatre, is it a conscious choice for you to balance all of those different aspects?
As an actress, I am interested in all genres and I am always curious as to what kind of discipline is required for each medium and it definitely differs. With theatre, if you are in a musical every night, you really can’t be talking loudly or go to smoky places. You have to wake up at a certain time to exercise your voice. You have to keep yourself really fit. You have to go through your ritual every night. Set is a different discipline because after you are done at work, you are not done with your day. You have got to go home and dissect texts and keep reading your script. That is a different form of discipline because you are at it every single day. It’s always interesting to me how the mediums differ in terms of the discipline that’s required from you and I enjoy that variation because it challenges me and it keeps things interesting so I want to keep on doing as many different forms of acting as I can for as long as I can because it definitely changes things up and I think it’s healthy for the actor.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Can I send you a list?
Sure. (She did.)
Shaleen Surtie-Richards, Lee-ann van Rooi, Denise Newman, Sandra Temmingh, Sara Matchett, Liz Mills, Faniswa Yisa, Amy Jephta, Bianca Flanders, Ilse Klink, Amrain Ismail-Essop, Quanita Adams, Khadija Tracey Heeger, Marlene le Roux, Kate Liquorish, Roxanne Blaise, Shihaam Domingo, Lara Foot, Lara Bye, Rehane Abrahams, Daneel van der Walt, Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange, Carmen Maarman, Bronwyn Peach van Graan who has passed away. Chuma Sopotela, Greta Pietersen, Megan Furniss, Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Nicole Fortuin, Melanie Burke, Nosipho Dumisa. Euodia Samson, Carla Diamond, Jolene Martin, Celeste Mathews, Kim Cloete, Kim Engelbrecht, Vinette Ebrahim, Nicola Hanekom, Michelle Botes, Connie Ferguson, Charlize Theron, Antoinette Louw, Antoinette Kellermann, Portia Joel, Theresa Sedras, Simone Biscombe, Jennifer Steyn, Milan Murray, Margot Luyt, Kay Smith, Madeegha Anders, Elize Cawood, Lika Berning, Aletta Bezuidenhout, Amalia Uys, Desiree Gardner, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Illse Roos, Karen Zoid, Ilse Oppelt, Karen Meiring, Charlene Le Roux, Elsabé Daneel, Erika Wessels, Gerwen Simon, Didi Moses, Edith Plaatjies, Heleni Handt, Shirley Ellis, Karin Kortje, Tracey Lange, Shimmy Isaacs, Tarryn Lamb and Jenny Reznek. Those are just the first few that come to mind. The list goes on and on. I’m inspired on the daily by the women in our South African art’s industry, especially those who have come before us and paved the way.
All photos were taken by Chanel Katz on September 21st 2018.