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
“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