François Pien­aar talks to Keith Dug­gan about be­ing im­mor­talised in In­vic­tus,

In 1995, François Pien­aar led the South African rugby team to world cup victory. Stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with the team was the na­tion’s new pres­i­dent, Nel­son Man­dela. It was pos­si­bly the best move of the tour­na­ment. Keith Dug­gan finds out what the f

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“I wouldn’t ask the guys to sing the an­them, you ei­ther do it or you f**k off. You sing or you are out. There is no com­pro­mise here”

POISE dis­tin­guished François Pien­aar dur­ing the tu­mul­tuous, emo­tional sum­mer when he led the Spring­boks to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, even as his na­tive South Africa strug­gled to find its legs as a post-Apartheid coun­try. Nel­son Man­dela’s stroke of sin­gu­lar ge­nius in the build-up to that tour­na­ment had been to set in mo­tion a gen­eral re-imag­in­ing of the Spring­boks from the tra­di­tional sym­bol of white South African supremacy to the na­tional dar­lings of this brand new and frag­ile so­ci­ety.

Fif­teen years later, that morally freighted sport­ing tour­na­ment has be­come the sub­ject of Clint East­wood’s big-hearted bi­o­graph­i­cal film In­vic­tus. And so Pien­aar has not only been re­liv­ing those days, he has be­ing so in the odd­est of places. On a frigid lunchtime in Lon­don last Sun­day, Pien­aar stood in the dark­ened ball­room of Clar­idges ho­tel ex­plain­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of his first – and only – visit to Man­dela’s cell on Robben Is­land.

He had been among the crowd lis­ten­ing to East­wood, Mor­gan Free­man and Matt Da­mon talk­ing about the project. Da­mon, who plays the role of the Sping­bok cap­tain, had be­gun to re­flect on the au­then­tic­ity of the Robben Is­land scene be­fore his eyes fell on Pien­aar’s broad, chis­elled sil­hou­ette in the crowd. He cheer­fully passed the ques­tion on to the man him­self.

And so Pien­aar told the gath­er­ing about his visit to the place that had been Man­dela’s home for 27 years on a swel­ter­ing dawn morn­ing when South Africa had gone un­abashedly daft about rugby. In­vic­tus takes many lib­er­ties with the ac­tual events of that teem­ing sum­mer, but Pien­aar de­clares that the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the prison cell is so apt that he gets the tin­gles ev­ery time he sees it now. Above all other el­e­ments of the story, it was as if the visit to Man­dela’s place of in­car­cer­a­tion was sacro­sanct. He first watched it in the dark­ened au­di­to­rium at a pre­miere in Los An­ge­les, and it was as if he was cat­a­pulted back to that mo­ment – he found him­self sob­bing hard, to the be­muse­ment of his lit­tle boys.

Now, watched from the stage by this trin­ity of Hol­ly­wood peren­ni­als – Pien­aar still gives a giddy, child­ish grin when he talks about golf­ing with East­wood – he demon­strated all of the poise that that fa­mous sum­mer de­manded. But he ad­mits the shenani­gans of big-time film pro­duc­tion have been breath­tak­ing in com­par­i­son to winning world cups.

“It is to­tally bizarre,” he says an hour later, sit­ting back in a suite in the ho­tel. Pien­aar re­tired from rugby a decade ago, but looks so lean and tanned that it is clear that he has hardly gone to rack and ruin since. Up the corridor, the stars of the film were go­ing through the usual roulette of in­ter­views. “For them, this is prob­a­bly mun­dane. But I find it very ex­cit­ing,” he says.

Pien­aar’s role in the film was pri­mar­ily ad­vi­sory. Mor­gan Free­man quizzed him about his friend­ship with Man­dela. When Free­man ar­rived in Cape Town, Pien­aar took him to see a rugby match in New­lands Sta­dium. “I think he thought I was nuts be­cause I asked him to meet my on this side street. He had no tick­ets, there was no se­cu­rity – I wanted to do it un­der the radar. I have this box that I share with a lovely Ir­ish guy and a Scot­tish friend of mine, and when we walked in, their mouths dropped open. I asked them not to ask Mor­gan for au­to­graphs or take pho­tos be­cause I just wanted him to re­lax.

“And af­ter­wards, I in­vited him around to my house for din­ner. I said, come round; if you don’t mind, I will in­vite a cou­ple of friends, fam­ily. So that is what we did. I cooked din­ner. And my wife was pan­ick­ing, you know, it won’t be ready. The house! And I said, its fine, this is who we are.

“And Matt Da­mon ar­rived that evening too. I hadn’t met him yet. Mor­gan Free­man was on the pa­tio hav­ing a drink. I opened the door in my apron and Matt didn’t even say hello. He just looked at me and said, I look much big­ger on the screen. And at two that morn­ing, we were still sit­ting there talk­ing about South Africa and Hol­ly­wood and rugby. It was like we be­came friends in a short space of time.”

Over the fol­low­ing weeks, Da­mon spent count­less hours train­ing with Pien­aar and get­ting to know him. The ac­tor would later at­test that the phys­i­cal de­mands for this role far ex­ceeded the ef­forts he went to for the Ja­son Bourne se­ries.

Pien­aar was in­ter­ested in com­mu­ni­cat­ing the psy­che of that Spring­boks team. “It was about tough­ness rather than beach mus­cles,” he smiles. Da­mon worked with Pien­aar in the gym, stud­ied his move­ments and en­tered a char­ity cy­cle race with him, but it was through the quirkier ex­er­cises that he got to un­der­stand the Spring­bok men­tal­ity.

“The Spring­boks had this drill where we would hold a medicine ball tight.” He leans for­ward on the couch and flexes his arm so you can imag­ine a ball cra­dled against his chest. He is for­mi­da­bly strong. “And I said to Matt, you have three min­utes to get this ball off me, how­ever you want. And by the end of it, he was knack­ered. Then, I had to take it off him. And that is the kind of stuff we did. But he trained in­cred­i­bly hard.”

The rugby scenes in the film are, Pien­aar be­lieves, dis­ap­point­ing. It has taken him time to as­sim­i­late the flights into fic­tion that the film takes and he was sur­prised at some of the ab­sences that form cru­cial el­e­ments of John Car­lin’s book In­vic­tus (orig­i­nally en­ti­tled Play­ing The En­emy), which was the in­spi­ra­tion for the film. There was, for in­stance, noth­ing of Man­dela’s fa­mous visit to the Spring­bok’s dress­ing-room min­utes be­fore the fi­nal against New Zealand. And he is a bit sheep­ish about the fact that his team are por­trayed as use­less mis­fits prior to that world cup revo­lu­tion. Also, his fa­ther’s role is pri­mar­ily used to il­lus­trate the fear and an­tipa­thy that many South Africans of his gen­er­a­tion felt when Man­dela was swept to power.

“This is a movie; they had to use those char­ac­ters to plot the com­ing to­gether in the end. And it is hellishly dif­fi­cult to tell this story in two hours.”

Pien­aar was struck by Da­mon’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of him and praises him for nail­ing a “dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult ac­cent”, but there were rep­re­sen­ta­tions in the film that he sim­ply had to ac­cept as sto­ry­telling. The pri­vate truths gave way to the over­all mes­sage.

“When I was in Amer­ica watch­ing the film, I met a white South African there and that

was when the penny dropped for me of what this film means.

“For me – you know Matt’s por­trayal of me, for in­stance, I wouldn’t throw a beer can against the wall af­ter a game. I wouldn’t ask the guys to sing the an­them, you ei­ther do it or you fuck off. You sing or you are out. There is no com­pro­mise here. That is not my style. So those things you see in the film and you say, okay, fine. But this South African said to me that, af­ter watch­ing it, he felt he should have and could have done so much more. And the op­po­site must be so true: that black South Africans now feel they can do more in our coun­try. If that is all the film achieves, then that is per­fect. For­get about the li­cense – which is a lot. That makes it worth it.”

But the scene on Robben Is­land was faith­fully re­pro­duced. Da­mon stretched his hands wide in the cell, closed the iron door and sat on the floor in per­fect iso­la­tion for a few min­utes, just as Pien­aar had done that sum­mer as his team mates shuf­fled up the corridor. It was, un­ques­tion­ably, one of the still points of Pien­aar’s ex­is­tence and even as he re­called it to the au­di­ence in Clar­idges, you could hear the rev­er­ence in his voice.

A few min­utes later, some­one asked East­wood if he had felt a sim­i­lar emo­tion and the di­rec­tor gave that in­scrutable gri­mace be­fore sigh­ing and declar­ing: “Ahhh, I was looking at it very tech­ni­cally. So I was cry­ing for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. I was won­der­ing how to get a cam­era in there.”

East­wood was born in 1930, some 12 years af­ter Nel­son Man­dela. They both have lived epic, wildly dif­fer­ent lives, and as the Amer­i­can elab­o­rated on what drew him to Man­dela’s story and, in par­tic­u­lar, to this re­demp­tive sport­ing tale, he nailed it with cus­tom­ary brevity.

“To think a per­son spent 27 years in there crack­ing rocks and dig­ging in the salt mines is over­whelm­ing. And to come out then as open and mag­nan­i­mous as he was. That he put so much po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal on the line [for the Spring­boks], it was al­most like he was clair­voy­ant in a way.”

Pien­aar hap­pily ac­knowl­edges that Man­dela recog­nised the greater im­por­tance of that world cup be­fore every­one. That it has been trans­formed into a free­wheel­ing in­ter­na­tional pic­ture is dizzy­ing to Pien­aar and he still feels faintly light-headed when he watches it on the big screen and tries to as­sim­i­late the golden-hued Hol­ly­wood reen­act­ment with what were ex­traor­di­nar­ily vivid days. “When you have lived it, it is sur­real,” the big man says, lean­ing over the dainty cof­fee ta­ble that sep­a­rates us.

“One thing stands out. I got the team down in the foyer in the morn­ing of the fi­nal, rather than lie in bed, flick­ing chan­nels and wait­ing. So we would go for a run and stretch. The guys were tense that day. You could see it. There was si­lence on the street. You could just hear our run­ning shoes on the road. And then the voices of kids: Spring­boks! Jou­bert! There were four kids on the cor­ner sell­ing news­pa­pers. Black kids. And they ran along side us with th­ese huge smiles. I can re­mem­ber their faces to­day.”

Os­car-nom­i­nated Mor­gan Free­man as Man­dela and Matt Da­mon as Fran­cois Pien­aar in In­vic­tus. Be­low left: Pien­aar lift­ing the World Cup tro­phy as South African cap­tain in 1995

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