Antoinette Louw is a multiple award-winning stage and screen actress and writer. She has appeared in leading roles on South Africa’s most popular TV series including 7de Laan and Binnelanders. Her theatre credits include Women of Troy, The Women who Cooked her Husband which she produced and directed, Rudely Stamped, Engele Soner Vlerke, Die Trommel, Die Vagina Monoloë, Afspraak, Dis ek, Anna and ‘night Mother which she also adapted into its Afrikaans translation Nag ma. In 2014 she won a SAFTA award for her role in Deon Meyer’s Die Laaste Tango as well as a nomination for Best Actress in the Afrikaans short film Totsiens, Pa. Antoinette also starred in the Afrikaans feature film ‘n Man Soos My Pa. Her recent film credits include the multi-award-winning films Axis Mundi, Sew the winter to my skin, An Act of Defiance and Nul is nie niks nie. She is currently appearing on screens as Sara in the film adaptation of the beloved Afrikaans folktale Die verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I have no idea. I guess its such a cliché answer but it’s something I wanted to do since I was a little girl. I don’t know where it comes from because I come from a very academic family and I think, till this day, they think, “Where did this child come from?” My brother is a doctor and my parents are both professors in psychology. But even since pre-school when I did a play or a poem, it’s always been the place where I felt most comfortable and where I felt at home. It’s the thing that carried me through school and high school [particularly] because high school was difficult for me. It’s the one place I felt I belonged because I felt I wasn’t good at anything else. Writing and acting was what I was good at. It was my safe space and my safe place.
You studied at the University of the Free State and at AFDA. What was your time like at those two institutions?
In the early ’90s when I studied in Bloem, the department then was very academic so I felt that I didn’t really learn that much about acting. I decided that I wanted to do something more. I went to England. I had never been out of the house, didn’t know where the money was coming from, I thought that I was going to do some caring work, get some money but I was too naïve because I went there on my own. I was there for about five months. I became very depressed. On the plane back, in the inflight magazine, there was an interview with Deon Opperman who started AFDA and I really liked their philosophy, so I went to AFDA. But after that, there were a lot of disappointments at the school and it was very harsh and I’m very sensitive. I decided not to act anymore. It was such a difficult decision for me that I wasn’t able to watch a movie for a year because my heart just broke. I came back and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started working in Joburg as a sub-editor at a newspaper. I was 27 at that stage which is already quite old for this industry and we got the news that Charlize Theron had won the Oscar. We are exactly the same age and I just went cold. I got an agent at 27 and that’s where it all started.
It’s so interesting that you bring that up because in your bio, it lists all the awards you received while you were studying and I was originally wanting to know if that had impacted your career at all. But it’s interesting to hear that you decided to briefly step away from the industry even though you had received so much recognition while studying.
Yes, I did get recognition but it was stuff that happened behind the scenes where I got hurt a lot and disappointed but now I know what to surround myself with. I think it’s a life lesson. It doesn’t matter which industry you are in, it’s to surround yourself with people that you want to work with. You must take care of yourself in that regard.
What was it that attracted you to Die verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer?
In the Afrikaaner culture, in that world, I don’t think there is a single person who doesn’t know about Racheltjie de Beer. I grew up with the story and she was a heroine. Just to be able to be part of the story is exciting. I’ve seen Matthys Boshoff’s work and he is such a wonderful, gentle, sensitive man and I knew that he was going to approach the story differently. It’s not a Disney version of the story. He went dark, which I quite like. He didn’t sugarcoat the story at all.
Because this story is so iconic, did you feel nervous approaching this material? Or did it excite you?
Just excited. Absolutely just excited because I felt safe. I felt safe with Matthys as a director and with Stian Bam, Sandra [Prinsloo] and Marius [Weyers] on board. I felt safe in that space.
The story is led by a 15-year-old young woman. What was it like to have such a young actor leading the charge?
Zonika [De Vries] blew my mind. She was about 14 years old at that stage. She’s such a mature young woman and she doesn’t take it too seriously. She is extremely professional on set but so focused and so disciplined on set, even more so than some of the adult actors I’ve worked with. She’s bright and she’s funny. She’s lovely.
Without giving too much away, the film features quite an epic scene involving a snowstorm which utilised CGI. What was it like to work within the context of that?
What helped to create the magic was that there was fake snow. I love snow. It’s really a magical thing for me and for anyone who has experienced snow it is really something special. Having fake snow on set really helped to get into that. We didn’t have to act it. That helped a lot. It was amazing. The wind that they blew and the snow was incredible because it really helps your performance that you don’t have to imagine it. It’s there.
It sounds like such a surface level question to ask you about the CGI but when people see the film, they’ll see how extraordinary and seamless it looks and how advanced that is for South African filmmaking.
We are very lucky because the gentleman who did the CGI does international work. He read the script and he got so excited about the project that he did the CGI for much less than what he usually would have done so. That’s why they were able to afford it.
I’m not sure which came first but due to your participation in the film, you are now also a published author!
Yes, I am!
How did that come about?
I was speaking to my dad and he came up with the idea, “Why don’t you write a children’s book?” I grew up with the story but you don’t see the South African folktales in the book stores. There is a huge demand for that. That’s how it came about. I love writing. I feel that my writing comes more naturally to me than acting. I don’t have to work so hard at it.
What did playing this role or your involvement in the film teach you?
When I grew up, we were taught that the story of Racheltjie de Beer was true and that it really really happened. Then we found out that it did not. That it’s actually based on something that happened in the 1920’s in the States with a girl called Hazel Miner who helped save her two siblings. When I first heard that Racheltjie didn’t exist, because she was an icon for me, my heart was broken. It’s like discovering that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. But in the end, that is not what it’s about. It’s about storytelling, the importance of storytelling, how that can affect people and how important folktales are because there is so much wisdom that lies in them.
I’ve become very familair with your work because of Silwerskermfees. I’m very interested to hear how you go about selecting the projects that you choose to do? Do you choose?
The short films, I don’t choose. They usually approach me and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been involved in short films that were really amazing because you work with people who are inexperienced so you don’t know what is going to happen. But yes, I also have a choice to say, “Send me the script. Yes or no.” I’ve been really lucky in that way because I love being involved with it.
Do you have a particular process when you approach material?
Yes, I do. Whether it’s film, TV or theatre, the process is the same. I always look at what the character wants in her life, the overall arc in her life and it’s usually something I can relate to as well; a deep need or desire for something that is lacking in her life. Then the text analysis starts. That is what I do and I take it from there.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
I’m proud of a couple of things but I think what really took me on an emotional journey personally was An Act of Defiance because we portrayed people who really existed and to try and honour those people and the story of these people really touched me deeply. I am very proud of the film. I think Jean van de Velde, the Dutch director, did a fantastic job telling a South African story.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge?
Theatre wise, it was ‘night mother/ Nag ma. It was a very difficult play for me. I wish we could do it now. I think I might have been too young to tackle that play. I learned a lot but it was a difficult process for me.
You have had such a well-rounded career in terms of balancing film, TV and theatre. Is it a conscious choice for you to actively make time for all of those different mediums? What do you like about each one?
Yes, it is a conscious choice. What I love about theatre is the audience and the energy that is there. Film and TV, I love the intimacy and the smallness of it but in the end, it is very difficult for me to choose. If it’s a lekker story, if it’s a story that I know that is going to have an impact or move people, that is what it’s about.
What is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever been given?
It was while we were doing ‘night mother and we were breaking for lunch. I just felt like I couldn’t do it and I was really struggling. I went outside and I just cried and cried and cried but unfortunately, when I cry, my eyes swell up and everything becomes red. So obviously they saw that I was crying but we went on. After rehearsals, we went to the car and Sandra [Prinsloo] said that I must never forget that she’s also cried thousands of times thinking she doesn’t get it right and at that stage, with this process, she was also struggling. Coming from Sandra… You are not alone in struggling and it’s ok.
Is there anything still on your career bucket list?
Oh yes. I just want to work more! There are such long periods of not working. Really, that’s it. My bucket list is if I could work until I’m 80, wouldn’t that be amazing? But a friend of mine and I are working on a film script and that is a long process and we want to get that off the ground.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Sandra, Mary Twala and Sylvaine Strike. But there are so many.
Die verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer is now playing in select cinemas.
Antoinette’s book, Die Storie van Racheltjie de Beer is available for pre-order here.
You can follow Antoinette on Instagram and Twitter.
All photos were taken on October 14th 2019 at The Blue Cafe.
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