Nicola Hanekom has been a freelance actress, director and writer for the past twenty years. Her theatre work as writer/director includes a series of site-specific productions; Betésda, Lot, Babbel and Land van Skedels. As a writer and performer, Nicola created Trippie, and her self-penned one-woman show Hol/Running on Empty. These together with her latest play In glas have garnered twelve Kanna awards, eleven Fiësta awards, two ATKV writing awards and one Aartvark award. Nicola was also awarded the Eugène Marais Prize for her collection of plays Die pad byster. She has written and directed two short films, Trippie and Unspoken. Her short, Trippie won two Silwerskermfees awards. Cut-Out Girls is her first feature film and arrives in local cinemas on November 22nd.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was a gymnast. I walked on my hands a lot as a kid because I read this book called Cindy Gaan Sirkus Toe. That was a thing that got me into gymnastics. It got me fascinated with circus and that, I think, lead into a performer’s diploma at UCT which is where I ended up.
I actually only went to City Varsity to get recognition of prior learning because I coach at ACT. Even though my husband and I both developed the entire curriculum of the school where we teach with our colleagues, because of the way they structure the education department, we couldn’t teach there anymore because I only had a diploma. I went to City Varsity merely to get me up to grade level. They were lovely. They were actually the only varsity that was really trying to accommodate us and that understood that these middle-aged people needed to get a qualification and couldn’t study full-time. I loved UCT. I still love that department and have a lot of respect for it. I’ve been back since, sometimes as an external examiner. I just find it to be such an inspiring place. Obviously, their training is still quite classic but it’s shifted and it’s grown over the years but I just find it completely inspirational. There was also very little boundary there and [such] encouragement to do your own work, which I loved.
Cut-Out Girls was originally written and staged as a theatre piece. What was the process of creating it for the stage?
I had these talented students and I do it quite often when I work at ACT, there are courses I teach where I push actors and extend them and see what they are good at. When I write them a play, I try to play into their strengths. I had written it for this specific bunch of students and then there was quite a lovely response to that and that made me write the screenplay which I wrote over two months. That was quite hard actually. I’ve made a couple of short films but I’ve never done a feature before. This was completely uncharted territory. I was obviously a little bit aware that I didn’t know if my screenplay was any good. I had a couple of people that I sent it off to and asked for advice and feedback. I was very lucky enough to have a very thorough rehearsal process because the actors gave me their time freely, which was amazing and I had a rehearsal space. On the floor, we didn’t really shift the script that much but we tweaked dialogue. If anything sat uncomfortably in an actor’s mouth, we’d throw it out and find something better.
How did this specific story present itself to you? It’s a story that deals with quite difficult subject matter and I imagine it must have been challenging to write.
In retrospect, after making the film, I look back and I obviously see incidences in my life that on a deeper level prompted me to do this but the initial thing, the base reason for making this thing was simply that I had a lot of women in my class and I had to write them a play. This was the only thing that occurred to me. Originally it was just to get words out there for people to perform. It wasn’t driven by something but as I look back, I see that obviously, it comes from things in my life and things that I’ve seen. Everything is shaped by your entire life and it looks superficial the first time you do it but if you delve, you see that this actually resonates. I’ve had such a journey with the cast because I basically taught them for three years, so I really know them well. I knew them from when they walked in and hadn’t done any acting to now being in cinemas. I never in a million years thought we would go to the cinema. I really never thought. Within our strange little fragile budget and small team, I was just aiming for a TV or internet release. I can’t believe we are going to be on the big screen.
Because you are utilising young actors, who were students at the time, what was done to ensure that this subject matter was treated sensitively and respectfully?
This is now off the subject but I’m a member of SWIFT and they’ve got intimacy co-ordination and the other day I was lucky enough to be on the first set where Sara Blecher was the intimacy coordinator. I was present in the scene where another actress had to do quite a brave scene. I really care about the process and making actors feel safe. Luckily, because we’ve done three years together, I felt like we really knew each other. I think I tried not to make it personal and to make the intimate or violent intimate scenes in character and I found just from being an actor, I know exactly what makes actors uncomfortable. Because I’ve been on the other side of the camera, not always with proper processes, I sort of understand what you can do. For me, the most important thing is to create physical barriers but then also how to negotiate where people’s lines are, what are they comfortable with, where do they really not want to be touched, where do people feel uncomfortable, and just to check in because you aren’t psychic. I don’t know where another actor’s boundaries lie, nor does their fellow actor. We quite openly talk about it and say what is ok and what’s not ok. The hard part after that is to suspend disbelief and make it real. That is as hard for people portraying perpetrators as it is for people portraying victims. It goes both ways. We have decent, beautiful human beings acting as these perpetrators.
Thank you for answering that. I think it’s so important that we investigate what is being done to ensure that actors feel safe.
The last thing I want to do is scar someone psychologically and make them regret afterwards where they went with a scene. Even when I’m an acting coach, I say to young actors, “Really think long and hard about these things before they even occur and be quite specific about what you’re comfortable with. Just decide. You can stipulate that in your contract.” I think self-knowledge is important in all careers but especially when you are an actor.
What do you hope this film contributes to the South African filmmaking landscape?
It’s a two-fold thing. The one would be the very obvious social message that I hope this makes people think twice and changes behaviour and makes people aware when they go out of those sort of obvious things. The second thing, there was a moment where I thought, “Maybe we shouldn’t make this film because we truly just don’t have enough money.” Then I thought I had to look at the glass half full. I had the actors, I had the script, surely I could get the locations for free? If you make a film, people always talk about low budget but then there’s really shoestring. What happens is that the nature of the film changes. It cannot be the same film that I had in my head when I wrote it. It just can’t because we cannot afford that film. You have to decide what you sacrifice. There were scenes I had to sacrifice that would have maybe made the film better or given it more character depth simply because I couldn’t fit it into the three weeks. I couldn’t afford to shoot them. Your form starts changing and it becomes a different type of film. Hopefully, there is a space where it could be inspirational and where it can make the audience go, “We aren’t that attached to the production value and the car chases and the amazing costume design but the film has got heart. It’s got a message.” Perhaps it could be inspirational for people who are struggling to just make their movies because it’s like running into a brick wall sometimes. I’m either going to regret making this or it’s going to be ok. I’m hoping it’s going to be ok. It’s quite frightening to make your film movie because I’ve never done it before. The intelligent thing to do is to line up enough money and get a team of experts to make you really look good as a director and to really get the best DP and pay a lot of money for the art department and costumes and locations and all of that, which we didn’t have. That would be the intelligent thing to do. I think maybe I did the crazy thing but I’ll see.
You entered into the industry first and foremost as an actor but have now also become equally as known for your writing and directing and now filmmaking. Was that a natural progression?
I was an unemployed actress that basically started writing for theatre to employ myself and other people. That is how I got into writing. I didn’t even have a laptop. My husband had a laptop, it was a number of years back and he said, “Just write that stuff down. Stop telling me, write it down.” I wrote my first play which was a one-woman show. I wrote really just to employ myself. Then I decided I really liked it. I still feel uncomfortable because I’ve had no official training and I didn’t go to film school, so I still feel a bit weird going, “I’m a writer/director.” I try to say that now without flinching. I’m slowly getting there but it’s because I didn’t study it. I feel like maybe you need the diploma to prove that you can do something. The first jump was from actress to theatre director and writer and now I’ve jumped the medium to television. I wrote on a TV series and now with the film. It’s hard out there. I heard a friend of mine from SWIFT say, and she was pretty sure that this was accurate, I need to check it out, that there have only been 20 female film directors in this country. She is pretty on it with statistics. She said, “You realise you are one of 20. That’s how unequal it still is.” That is something to be addressed.
Do you actively try to spend an equal amount of time nurturing your acting, writing and directing or does it just happen naturally?
It just kind of happens. I would love to focus on filmmaking. Whenever I’m not working, I get up at 8am and try and write feature films or work on proposals. I’ve got a number of them on my desktop. I’ve been sending them out into the world and it’s been a boomerang, they keep coming back. Personally, I can’t do another one of these. I actually don’t have it in me to do another film this way. I’ve gone grey. Also just because I’ve devoted two years to it without a financial return to it. In fact, I’ve turned down jobs to do this film. I just can’t afford it. I don’t have another one in me in this shape or form but I hope the universe sends me some funding somewhere.
As a lecturer, what is the one thing you always try to instil in your students?
No ego. Kindness. Hard work. That was three. I don’t know what they are doing at drama school if they are not passionate. If they are there to be famous, I’m not quite sure they are in the right place because they can find other ways. It’s about really enjoying the acting. It’s the dance of your life. You don’t want to be stuck in a career you don’t care about. It’s about passion and for me, it’s about not having an ego and working really hard. Max yourself out.
What is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever been given?
Jay Pather was my lecturer. He is an amazing man who taught me movement and he said to not go so hard at it. I was dancing as if I was playing rugby. Also to realise that you are quite fragile and to take care of your body because it is your whole instrument. You have your body, your voice, your brain and then it’s your emotion. Actors need to be two things: very sensitive and tough at the same time. That is the mix that you need.
Because you’ve had such longevity over the course of your career, what is a question you wish you had been asked that maybe you haven’t been?
I don’t see what we do as much more interesting than baking bread. That’s why when people have such anxiety, like the acute anxiety I’m feeling before the film goes to cinema, I sometimes say to the actors as well, “Before someone cuts my hair, they don’t go into apoplexy. It’s just their profession and they do it.” I think it has something to do with the stress levels. The investment is a bit out of wack. One shouldn’t be this petrified just to do your job.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Sara Blecher. Tarryn Wyngaard, as an actress at the moment. She is really super. Liezl Spies has been such a wonderful person on set for years and she is starting to direct a lot of television now and she is really good and on the ball and tough and kind and everything at the same time. I really admired Reza de Wet but she has since left us. I like Zolani Mahola. She is quite stunning.
Special thanks to David Wilson.
All photos were taken on November 5th 2019 at The Blue Cafe.