ACTORS WHO HAVE MADE IT ABROAD
Sanet Oberholzer talks to two local stars who are shining bright on the international stage about their paths, their struggles and their successes.
Phumzile Sitole caught SA’s eye when she bagged her first international gig with a role in TV series The Good Fight. She has since also appeared in Elementary, Orange is the New Black, Bull and, very notably, as Captain Ndoye in Star Trek: Discovery.
How long were you working as an actress before you landed your first international acting gig?
I’d been a professional actor for two years before I came to New York City to do my MFA in acting. After three years there I booked my first gig, The Good Fight, which filmed in the city. I auditioned on a Monday and by Thursday I was on set. That’s not always the case, but it was good for me. It didn’t give me time to doubt myself and worry. I had to dive right in.
How open is the US industry to foreign actors?
An actor is an actor. We’re treated pretty equally when we come into the room or submit our tapes. There are technical hurdles to jump, for example my visa doesn’t allow me to work with certain networks, like NBC, but once I get a green card it’s an open field. There are deeper politics that come into conversations about foreign actors playing
American characters. I choose not to let them frame my view of the overall openness to foreign actors. We’re all stepping into shoes that are not our own, and the human experience is universal.
A word of advice to those hoping to break into the industry?
Be patient. Persevere. And if you’re thinking of leaving home be sure to weigh up the sacrifices that come with that. For acting in general – if there’s ANYTHING else you may love just as much that you see a steady, fulfilling and paid career from, rather do that.
After one of my bigger scenes on the set of Star Trek Discovery the director, Jonathan Frakes, called cut, walked to me in silence with his hand extended and said: “You’re a wonderful actress, thank you,” and shook my hand. Also, having my mom, Dorah Sitole, watch my Off Broadway debut in New York City. She recently transitioned — my biggest advocate, fan and best friend.
Currently working on?
Myself. Healing and restoring. Surely you’re used to actors being tight-lipped by now! Unfortunately I can’t say but soon to be revealed.
Affectionately known for his role as Bart in 7de Laan, Neil Sandilands has come a long way since his stint on the local soapie. What started out as a guest appearance on House soon turned into something bigger on The Americans, The Hundred and The Flash. He recently played a role in News of the World, a movie that’s been nominated for four Oscars.
Was pursuing a Hollywood career something you always wanted?
It had more to do with let me see how far – as I like to describe it, my hobby – can take me. But I was fascinated with this idea of cultural cross-pollination and the broadening of my own borders, not necessarily international borders but my personal parameters. To assimilate within a culture is a massive challenge. I couldn’t live with the question of “what if?” I didn’t want to have any regrets.
Was it difficult to break into that space? Nothing in my career — we’re talking 32 years — ever came easy. You have to remain focussed. In the US, I had to learn to embrace my anonymity again — I couldn’t rest on my South African laurels. I had to integrate the culture, the way of doing things into what I can offer, which takes time and footwork. Instances happen where people catch a lucky break, that wasn’t the case for me. It was a steady, diligent, slow burn.
Your experience of ‘News of the World’?
My role was small but pivotal to the narrative. The filming process was calm and low-key. In their disciplines, everyone was a master. And to engage with Mr Hanks — I had to pinch myself. Tom was magnificent — gregarious, wholesome — a consummate gentleman, as is Paul Greengrass, the director.
Three big projects are happening in tandem. Sweet Tooth — a Warner Brothers and Netflix DC comics production. I play the antagonist. It’s coming out internationally on June 4. I’ve also been producing an album with some of SA’s best musicians and my collaborator Theo Crous. To work with David Kramer on one of his tracks was a career highlight. The album’s name is “Sangoma Sandilands & Jou Pa se Posse”. The digital launch is on May 7. We’re also in postproduction on a local show for M-Net called Desert Rose in which I’ve been working in a creative capacity as part of a team of executive producers.