Ilse Klink is an award-winning actor, singer and television personality. She is best known for the role of Vanessa Booysens on the daily soap, Isidingo. Her stage credits include Mamma Mia!, Rent, Chicago, Show Boat, Menopause -The Musical, Kristalvlakte, Scorched and Caeser, to name a few. She has graced South African television screens by appearing in Roer Jou Voete, iNkaba, 7de Laan and Broken Vows. Her movie credits include Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, Cold Harbour, Dis ek, Anna and Stroomop for which she was recently awarded a 2019 SAFTA Golden Horn for Best Supporting Actress. Ilse is currently treading the boards as Mama Morton in Chicago, a role she has returned to for the third time, a decade after she played it last.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think that I was an actor. Some people have their calling from very young. I had this calling from the age of very little. I would say the people that inspired me were the people that I saw coming to the door that I used to imitate. If somebody had a bit of a limp or a lisp or something, I would imitate them apparently, as far as my parents are concerned. I was always observing people and wanting to imitate. It comes from imitation. I didn’t see anyone who made me go, “I want to do that.” It was just in me, which is a really great thing because I think that a lot of people struggle with finding the thing that makes them happiest in terms of their career. Maybe it’s from a previous life where I used to be an actor and thought, “Let’s continue it in this one.”
You did your training at Pretoria University. What was your time there like?
It was a very hard experience, I must say. I started there in 1990 so it was Pre ’94. I was the first black person to graduate from the University of Pretoria’s drama school, I was the first person who had gone through three years of drama. Being a pioneer was really hard and also, it was in a language that was my second language. Because of non-transformation, they didn’t accommodate you in terms of you being an English student. You had to do it in Afrikaans. I must say, I did for a very long time carry the fact that it was one of the hardest experiences of my life up until that point. I carried around a lot of anxiety as a result because you are English, you are black, you are the first student that they’ve ever encountered in that capacity. I think that I became a lesson for the people around me, the students and others. It was the first interaction that a lot of them had with people of colour. I eventually made sense of it because that was the sense that I made eventually after university. It was the fact that I became a lesson for them and it was a very hard lesson for me and that’s what I got out of it, eventually. Drama courses generally are very taxing because you have to go internal. It’s not something you can add on. You can’t add layers on from the outside. It’s a very internal process and within that internal process as an 18/19-year-old, you are still trying to find out who you are. For me, it was a huge growth experience. It was a tough experience. I learned a lot. I’m very grateful that I actually did study in Afrikaans because a lot of my work is for the Afrikaans market. I am forever grateful for that, that I was able to speak a language that I wasn’t able to before. Big growth experience, learned a lot, very hard but very gratifying in the end and a lesson well learned.
It’s so surprising to hear that because I didn’t realise you grew up English-speaking because your work has spanned so equally between the two languages.
Absolutely. It’s a huge advantage. As a performer in South African especially, we have the opportunity to do so many things. I do voice work in Afrikaans, I do radio stories in Afrikaans, I’ve never touched the radio stories in English. I’ve never been asked to do that. As well-rounded as you can be in this industry, gives you longevity and that is important especially because it can become very tricky but what is wonderful is that the Cape Town market has opened up for soaps so a lot of Cape Townians get to work more regularly than they did before which is really good.
This is your third encounter with Chicago. What was it that first attracted you to the production?
Musical theatre also happened by the way. It was one of those things I could do, I could sing and I had been doing a lot of singing for two years prior to that. A lot of people knew me as a musical theatre performer but it was the first big musical that I actually did. I didn’t read up about Chicago. I was a serious theatre actor in my head but I must say musical theatre has been my staple a lot of the time. It’s nice to switch between. It was very exciting. 900 people auditioned for Chicago and to be chosen out of 900 to play the part of Mama Morton, within everybody auditioning, was such a privilege. I was astounded as well. I was like, “What? Me?” I was very grateful for the experience because it taught me so much. It was the first time I had worked with international directors and choreographers and the way they work is very different from the way we work. They always said to us, “Each and every one of you were chosen to be here.” So we don’t give notes to each other. We don’t say, “Hey, move over there please.” As South African’s, we like to give direction as actors to each other. It’s a terrible thing. It really is. That was one of the big things. Respect your fellow performer. Don’t give them notes because you don’t know that the director has told them to stand over here and that’s exactly where they are standing. We have numbers on the stage because it is a carbon copy of the show on Broadway. Your interpretation is your own but the direction, as in where you are moving on the stage because there are spotlights that are going to hit you which makes the show more effective, you have to be in that position to get the right spot. It was an incredible experience because it was an iconic show and I was part of something that was really huge so that was a big bonus for me. I’m so happy.
You’ve now returned to it for the third time, 10 years after the last time you performed the role. How has your take on Mama Morton evolved?
Mama Morton has matured quite a lot. You know when you start in the industry and it’s the first time you are doing things, you always doubt yourself and you are like, “I’m the worst person on the stage!” There’s a lot of self-doubt. Actors are like that. Actors just are full of self-doubt a lot of the time. “Am I doing the right thing? Should I do more? Should I do less?” Your brain is constantly doing that. Mama Morton has matured now. She is more relaxed. I think she knows what she is doing now. That, for me, the growth of a character, is so wonderful to see how she’s grown in the last couple of years. The essence of her is still corrupt. She is still manipulative. She’s still running things with an iron fist in the jail but she has grown and matured and is more relaxed which is what I like about her.
How do you keep it fresh after performing the role so many times?
What they do encourage you to do so that you don’t get bored, every time you do a reincarnation of the character, they ask you to try a different attack. It might be subtle or it might be big. The manner in which you sing the song now changes. Your interpretation changes a little so that you bring something fresh to it. They try to get you to bring something fresh. The manner in which she carries herself now has completely changed. She’s got an arm that comes out here, she’s got a little finger movement here that every time she hears the word money she does that automatically. That is part of her character now. They try to encourage you to reincarnate the character again.
In your career, you’ve managed to successfully balance TV, Film and Theatre. Has it been a conscious choice for you to balance all three or have you just gone with the flow?
I am somebody who goes with the flow. I try not to plan too much. Initially, I did a lot of planning in terms of what it is that I wanted to do when I started out but that was 102 years ago. When you are still developing and you are trying to make inroads in your career path, you kind of plan. Recently I started doing ads. I never used to do television ads. That is also something new that you add to your pot of experiences but my favourite thing about my career is that I never know what’s coming next. That really, I think, is part of my personality as well. It slots in perfectly with who I am. Going with the flow is what I like to do.
You recently won a SAFTA Golden Horn for your performance in Stroomop. How are you feeling about everything?
I mean it’s great. You work so hard in your career and the accolades come later on because people go, “Ok.” Also because people know what they are buying when they employ you. There are certain standards that you’ve held yourself accountable to. There’s a professionalism that you’ve decided. All you’ve got is your reputation. You’ve got your name and your reputation and so that, for me, is also very important. They know what they are getting when they “buy” Ilse Klink the product because it is. I’m a product. I’m a human commodity. It’s really great when you get celebrated for the work that you’ve done. It’s not all for nought. Although, when you are doing a role, you don’t go, “This is going to get me a SAFTA or a Fleur du Cap.” You bring the best to your character that you possibly can and if it gets noticed, fantastic.
Out of all the projects that you’ve been a part of, which one has challenged you the most?
The one I just won a SAFTA for which was Stroomop. It was a film that we did in the Northern Cape right at the Namibian border on the Orange River. It was certainly emotionally, physically, every aspect of your life that could possibly be challenged was challenged. Your ego, your everything. To start off with, we stayed in tents for a month in the Namibian…I don’t know how to describe the landscape. It’s just dust. It’s very dry. It doesn’t rain there. You are living in the bush on this farm, your makeup call is at 5am. Makeup takes from 5am- 5:45am. At 6am you are in a 4×4 driving towards the river where you are not going to film. You are still travelling. You get down to the river, you are taken along the Orange River. It was absolutely beautiful. Every day was so beautiful. It’s so scenic. I cannot begin to describe the beauty that I saw there. It was just absolutely incredible and I always say, with the very hard experiences, comes a lot of light. It’s just one of those wholesome experiences, very hard but also very beautiful. Then you are on the river for 10 minutes. They had a bit of a motor so you weren’t rowing up the river…that comes later. You get back onto land and then you have to hike to the place where you are filming that particular day. Sometimes we did a 20-minute hike and by this time, 8am, it was already 25 degrees and the sun is just starting to beat down. You eventually get to where you are going to film. You are going over rocks and you’ve got your hiking boots on and your backpack. You’ve also got your life vest that you have to carry. You’ve got to carry everything. Everyone is carrying everything. People are carrying equipment. It was treacherous. Eventually, you get to the spot where you are filming. Then you are chasing the sun because the mountain is throwing a shadow so you have to finish filming by 4pm. Now it’s like 9:30am already and you haven’t started. It’s hot and it’s hard. You are climbing over rocks. You are slipping and injuring yourself. No one twisted an ankle or fell down anything but it was physically very taxing. Then there are the emotions of the scene and sometimes you are just frustrated. It was just so hot. And then you are rowing! I remember the one day, we were chasing the sun so that one of the actresses could put her hand in the water. The sun is going down so we are literally rowing to catch the sun so that we can get that one shot of the hand in the water and they never used it! The interesting thing about being an actor is [that] we are human. All of these factors put you in a bad mood or a great mood or you start in a great mood and you become this little monster by the end of the day. That’s what it was every day and then I would have a debrief with the girl who played my daughter every day, Carla Classen. We’d sit and have a debrief about the day and how terrible and how hard it was and then you go to sleep because it’s lights out by 10pm. It’s hot, your tents been in the sun the whole day. The fan gets turned on to cool it down. You fall asleep. 5am comes and you are in makeup and the day starts again. We went on like that for a month. I worked every day. We had Sundays off which was great and then we would get into these tubes and float down the river or get onto one of the boats and go out and just spend a day on the river. It was lovely. The rewards were so wonderful. It was one of the hardest projects I’ve done and I’m grateful for it because it also taught me a lot about who I am and who I become, as well, in hard circumstances. That was very enlightening. It was a spiritual experience actually.
Is there anything still on your career bucket list?
I don’t have a bucket list. I’m like, “I didn’t expect that project to be so amazing.” I always find, and it’s good to have expectations but if you have too many… There aren’t many Shakespeare’s that are going to be coming around. I think that would be on my bucket list, just to be part of a Shakespeare. I’ve never done classical theatre ever. That’s on my bucket list. Give me any character. It must just be some Shakespeare. That’s one thing I haven’t done. Somebody like Anthea Thompson, she is like the South African goddess of Shakespeare. She’s one of the people who I really admire. I just bow down to her when she takes Shakespeare and she just makes it sound like she is chatting to you. She’s a goddess!
As a performer, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know that I’ve received a lot. I’ve watched and observed. That’s how I’ve learned. I’ve never been told. I’ve watched people who are absolutely professional who don’t have airs and graces about themselves. They don’t see themselves as stars. They are because they are just incredible. They are just that good. They are stars in what they do. They don’t demand. They don’t make crazy demands. They are not self-important. They just graft. They do the job that they are being paid for. I like professional actors. That’s what it is. Just be professional for crying out loud. Stop complaining. Just do the job and do it well to the best of your ability. If there is something to complain about, of course, absolutely but don’t be a wet blanket. You are getting paid to do this job. Just do it properly.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Anthea Thompson for sure. I also love Anna-Mart van der Merwe. Lesedi Job, a wonderful director. Nicole Fortuin, young actress. Just so inspiring in terms of what she does. She is so thorough. She really is an inspiration as a young woman. Also Layla Swart. She did Sew The Winter To My Skin. Wow. Young people really inspire me. They really do because they are not afraid. They just take things. They are not waiting for somebody to tell them they can own it. Layla and Nicole are just so inspiring. They just go, “Here is a thing that I want. I’m going to work hard to get it but I am going to take it.” It’s inspiring.
Special thanks to Debra De Souza.
All photos were taken on March 27th 2019 at Artscape.
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