Hail to the chief

Den­nis Hays­bert isn’t re­ally a world leader – he just plays them in movies and on TV. Don­ald Clarke talks to the mono­lithic ac­tor about David Palmer and Nelson Man­dela

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

JUST be­fore I make my way in to meet Den­nis Hays­bert I have a wor­ry­ing con­ver­sa­tion with a col­league from an­other me­dia out­let. It seems that the ac­tor, fa­mous for play­ing the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent in 24, was so over­come with jet lag that he ac­tu­ally fell asleep dur­ing his in­ter­view.

Hays­bert, a charis­matic African-Amer­i­can with a warm, com­fort­ing voice, never comes across as the most an­i­mated of char­ac­ters on screen, so it chills the blood to think what ef­fects ex­treme ex­haus­tion might have on his con­ver­sa­tion.

Well, at no stage in our dis­cus­sion would you mis­take Den­nis for Quentin Tarantino, but he man­ages to stum­ble his way through en­tire sen­tences and just about main­tains con­scious­ness through­out. It helps that he is pro­mot­ing a project about which he cares very much. Bille Au­gust’s Good­bye Bafana, a solid if un­ad­ven­tur­ous piece of work, de­tails the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Nelson Man­dela and James Gre­gory, one of the great man’s warders in prison. Joseph Fi­ennes plays the jailer. Hays­bert plays the ANC leader.

“When Bille asked me, I se­ri­ously thought about say­ing no,” Hays­bert drawls. “The fact that he [Man­dela] is still alive wor­ried me. I im­me­di­ately won­dered if I was up to the task. But then I thought, I re­ally love the man. What he did is so im­por­tant. This man sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing: his youth, his child, the rais­ing of his other chil­dren, his mar­riage, the lives of his friends. All this to re­alise a dream of a united South Africa. That is a story worth telling.”

Hays­bert, born in the sub­urbs of San Fran­cisco 52 years ago, will, if prompted, ex­plain how he re­gards Man­dela as one of the five most sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures in re­cent his­tory. It is cer­tainly true that few other in­ter­na­tional lead­ers – and cer­tainly none with a revo­lu­tion­ary past – have man­aged to main­tain such lev­els of af­fec­tion in the world be­yond their own coun­tries.

“He went into prison as a crim­i­nal and he came out a saint,” Hays­bert says. “And ac­tu­ally, in a sense, the guards them­selves were in prison and he freed them too. Some­body once asked him the ques­tion: ‘What was it inside you that helped you spend 27 years in prison?’ He said: ‘I had to free my jail­ers.’ And that is what he did.” Now, here we run into a spot of bother. Good­bye Bafana,

which was largely filmed on the ac­tual lo­ca­tions in South Africa, sug­gests that Gre­gory, touch­ingly played by Fi­ennes, came to be a close friend of Man­dela and that the jailer, orig­i­nally an ar­che­typal racist, soft­ened as a re­sult of his con­ver­sa­tions with the detainee.

Un­hap­pily for the film-mak­ers, the late An­thony Samp­son, Man­dela’s of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­pher, has writ­ten that Gre­gory barely ever spoke to his pris­oner and that he fab­ri­cated the ac­count, orig­i­nally pub­lished as a book, merely as a way of mak­ing money. Gre­gory is now dead and Man­dela has re­mained omi­nously silent on the mat­ter.

“That doesn’t les­son the im­pact of the film,” Hays­bert says cau­tiously. “We didn’t take the book as nec­es­sar­ily be­ing a ver­ba­tim ac­count. And I think it is as much about Den­nis Hays­bert ac­cept­ing Joseph Fi­ennes as it is about those char­ac­ters. Maybe the film does ro­man­ti­cise the re­la­tion­ship, but I think it still works.”

I take this to mean we can re­gard the film’s Gre­gory as an art­ful vari­a­tion on the real thing. Fair enough, but one is still bound to ask whether Den­nis feels that Gre­gory did have a close re­la­tion­ship with Man­dela.

“Oh, I’m sure he did,” he says. “Maybe it wasn’t as close in real life as it is in the film, but you could not help but be af­fected by Nelson. You’ve seen the man speak. How could you not be moved by him?”

The con­tro­versy gath­er­ing around Good­bye Bafana will do no harm to Hays­bert’s grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a hugely like­able char­ac­ter ac­tor. He has worked fairly con­sis­tently since he stum­bled into act­ing 30 years ago – that’s him as the doomed driver in Michael Mann’s Heat and the ballplayer ad­dicted to voodoo in Ma­jor League – but it is only re­cently that he has achieved proper fame. I won­der if he re­grets not be­com­ing a movie star in his 20s when he could have re­ally abused his promi­nence.

“Ev­ery­thing in its own time,” he laughs. “There are no ac­ci­dents. I may not have been ready at that time. Right now I can han­dle the suc­cess.”

What re­ally changed things was his per­for­mance as David Palmer – first sen­a­tor, then pres­i­dent – in the breath­less television se­ries 24. Ap­par­ently a man of strong moral be­liefs, Hays­bert fi­nally wakes up prop­erly when I men­tion that ear­lier in­ter­views sug­gest he was un­happy about his char­ac­ter be­ing killed off in sea­son five. I am pretty sure that his out­rage does not stem merely from his los­ing a good gig.

“It was just a stunt for rat­ings,” he says. “We cre­ated the first ever AfricanAmer­i­can pres­i­dent. That is im­por­tant. Don’t kill him off. Let him ride into the sun­set. Our legacy is that all our lead­ers have been killed: Martin Luther King, Mal­colm X, Bobby Kennedy. Let’s do some­thing dif­fer­ent for once. Let’s break the pat­tern. Why not have him con­front evil in the last episode?” My good­ness. He’s re­ally on a roll here. “Do any­thing else. But by killing him you are feed­ing a legacy of our coun­try that makes us weak. Why would you do that? Why? Why?”

I ex­pect the next per­son in­ter­view­ing Den­nis Hays­bert to thank me for prop­erly wak­ing him up.

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