My part in the Hollywood Boks
Cape Town club rugby player THOMAS BOYD was chosen to play Springbok bruiser Hannes Strydom in Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. He tells his star-struck story to GQ.
‘DO YOU wanna be in the movies?” These are not words I’d expected to hear standing around after a match, looking rather battered, drinking my fifth beer. I’d played two days of rugby in 30°C heat in the Cape Town Tens rugby tournament. “About what?” I asked the man suspiciously. “It’s a rugby film, I’m scouting for players.”
No one’s ever captured the passion, the physicality, the camaraderie and the skill of this wonderful game on film. I was about to decline when the scout continued: “The movie is about Mandela using the Rugby World Cup to heal the nation. It’s based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin.” My interest perked up. “Who’s in it?” I asked. “Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.” “Yeah? And who is directing it?” “Clint Eastwood.” All noise seemed to stop, people froze, as the signature tune of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly echoed through the tent. Clint Eastwood, the legend. “My friend, I am your man!” I said. I found myself at the audition a few weeks later – in a studio in Black River Park, Cape Town. They wanted me to play Hannes Strydom, the giant Transvaal lock. Now, although I have spent 10 years or so running around SA’s rugby pitches, I am a Brit with an accent more Thames Valley than Transvaal. But I was itching to be in this film and for the preceding weeks I had been duplicating the guttural tones of Afrikaans teammates and not-so-friendly opponents.
I did my best for the casting director, grimacing at all the right places, growling aggressively and flexing my guns. “Thank you, Thomas, that was good.” The rest would be up to Clint.
Three weeks later I got the part. There had been auditions for the teams of France, England, Western Samoa, Australia, the All Blacks and, of course, the Springboks. The Boks were the only team with speaking lines. I had made it from rugby extra to actor.
The budget for the film was $75 million and the attention to detail was incredible. Production had taken over a vast threestorey building in Cape Town. Every inch of the place was covered with pictures of the ’95 RWC. It was like stepping back in time to that tournament. It was here that the Springboks first met and it was immediately obvious who was playing whom: there were the spitting images of Os and Joost, Balie and Brendon…
Filming would be at various locations around Cape Town and Joburg, and at Newlands and Ellis Park stadiums. We were given play sheets and told to learn our running lines and actions on the pitch so we could duplicate the plays in the ’95 matches.
To give authenticity to the film, quality rugby players – mostly from Super League clubs in and around Cape Town – had been recruited. We started practising daily at the Gardens Rugby Club and soon looked the part of the ’95 Boks, just slightly smaller. Matt Damon is around 1.78m, so we had to be the right scale for him to fit in and play the part of Francois Pienaar.
We were in our second week of practice, stretching off in a big circle with the Australian team, when Matt Damon wandered over towards us in a baseball hat, T-shirt and shorts. If you want to hear that he was a prima donna or aloof then you’ll be as disappointed as a New Zealander in ’95. He immediately cracked a few gags and put everyone at ease: “I don’t know a lot about rugby yet, but I know a lot about making movies, and we are going to make sure this is one that you will be proud of.”
After that he got stuck into ruck drills, mauling, sprints, passing and playing touch rugby. He’s a smallish guy compared to most rugby players, but he was in good shape and eager to learn. After a few days, the sideways glances diminished, players got used to him and the banter and legpulling, universal in all rugby teams, began. Our Springboks of ’95 started feeling like a proper team.
On the first day of filming, at the Mount Nelson, Clint Eastwood breezed into the locker room where we were looking through scripts and getting ready for a scene. One of the team, Villagers prop Louis Ackerman, playing Balie Swart, did not notice the director’s arrival until a shadow fell over him. His smile froze, his face drained of colour and he took off his Springbok hat and held it in both hands in front of his chest. Clint Eastwood was staring down at him.
“Now listen here, Balie,” came the famous drawl, slow and deep. “In this scene you are none too happy about this song you gotta sing, you don’t want to sing it and that has to come out in your lines and in your eyes, you got that Balie?” All big Louis could do was to nod his head fast and reply, “Yes sir” in a schoolboy squeak.
Mr Eastwood, as we called him, or “Boss” as his crew did – some of whom had been with him for 20 years and obviously loved him – lived up in all ways to his iconic status. He knew everyone’s name, no matter how small their part in the film, and he went out of his way to make it a great experience for everyone. He possessed an aura that made people want to give their best for him. Often, when we were shooting late or had had a particularly tough day – such as when we shot till 2am, covered in mud in the freezing rain for the French match – he would be seen drifting through the teams, growling hilarious one-liners, keeping morale up.
The rugby itself was the real deal. The first game to be filmed was Australia vs the Boks at Newlands, before 5 000 extras watching in the stands. You just can’t put real rugby players in national colours in one of the great rugby stadiums and not expect them to go full bore. We had set plays, which were exact copies of the moves played in the ’95 games, and then free play when we would play just as in a live match. This was when the hits were hardest, the effort total and on a few occasions the fights broke out.
Chester Williams, the rugby technical adviser on set, watching a particularly fiery few minutes where punches were being thrown, said to Eastwood: “I think we better blow it and give them a while to calm down.”
“Let ’em play on, it’s lookin’ mean,” Eastwood drawled with a wolfish grin.
Often I would find myself being raked at the bottom of a ruck and see a camera boring into my face with the grinning smile of Steve Campanelli, the award-winning cameraman, behind it.
Having shot the scenes we needed in Cape Town, including a memorable trip to Robben Island and an impromptu visit from Damon’s friend Daniel Craig, we were flown up to Joburg to film the final against the All Blacks at Ellis Park stadium.
Jonah Lomu was being played alternately by the massive Tongan international Epi Taoni and the New Zealander Zak Feaunati, the ex-Crusaders and Bath number eight, so the intensity did not drop. The producers even flew in the All Blacks haka coach from New Zealand, who created a fantastic fervour in our own All Blacks.
It was exhilarating to face the haka on that great rugby ground in front of a screaming crowd.
After a day’s filming many of the boys headed out in the evenings for serious partying and then rolled out again the next day to give it their all. The team playing the Boks really came together.
Matt Damon entered into the spirit, and half a dozen of us had a great evening in the foyer of the Michelangelo hotel playing poker with him. I cleaned him out with a diamond flush on a big hand, but by the end of the evening he had wiped us all out.
Both teams watched the final again on a huge screen, and the emotion and ferocity of that occasion, which I hadn’t seen since the live game, was truly awesome. We were determined to give our all, to bring to life again the intensity of that incredible day.
Ten weeks later, the incredible experience came to an end and we packed up and flew home. It was hard to adjust to not playing rugby every day, having your clothes laid out and fitted, being massaged and fêted, having your meals cooked, bills picked up and hanging out in the company of movie stars. I dubbed us The Hollywood Boks and had some green-and-gold T-shirts made with our names on the back. I have a feeling the boys will be digging them out next month.
The full story appears in GQ’s 10th anniversary issue, on sale now.
TUNNEL VISION: Clint Eastwood, left rear, watches the action during shooting.
MAGIC MOMENT: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in