Free State of Mind: Actress Nicola Breytenbach on Getting in Character

Free-State-Updated-PosterThis is the second installment of “Free State of Mind”, a series of Q&As with the cast and crew of a South African film currently making the rounds at film festivals. You can read my review here, and find out more about its creation from producer Terwadkar Rajiv here.

Today’s interview is with Nicola Breytenbach, who plays Jeanette, one of the two romantic leads. While she has spent the past several years as a successful model, with her career taking her to runways across the world, Free State marks the beginning of her acting career. Just last month The Blue Mauritius began filming in Montreal, with the US and German co-production being her second ever silver screen role.

Jeanette is first introduced returning home to her father after finishing law school. While it isn’t heavily covered in the film, what kind of impact do you think that education had on how she views life, especially after she meets with Ravi [co-lead and love interest]? 

As Jeanette went to Wits University, which was a more liberal university than many others, it would have changed the way she viewed and felt about apartheid and the immorality act. She pursued higher education as it was instilled upon her by Maria and her father, but her true desire was to be a wife and mother.

Jeanette was raised in the very small remote town of Memel and even though it was a Christian white community it was very sheltered, and as she says in the beginning of the film that’s why she was a real ‘political innocent’. She wasn’t exposed to the reality of it much, except for a few remote incidents which completely shocked her. As her mother also passed away at such a young age and her father had a difficult time reaching out to her because of his grief, she was raised almost solely by Maria who is black South African Zulu.

Hence when she met Ravi, she didn’t think about his race and it didn’t deter her from seeing a friendly man who went out of his way to help her in this traumatic incident of a near accident. She only saw his compassion and how selflessly he had helped her. As time goes on, they both come to the realize the severity of the situation they are in, as well as the fact that they are engaged to others, but at this point it is too late, they have already fallen in love.

How would you describe Jeanette’s relationship with Maria?

Maria is Jeanette’s mother figure and her closest confidante. Maria raised her solely from a young age after her mother died due to the fact that her father was completely unavailable emotionally, dealing with his own grief.

This is your first role in a feature film. How was that experience, especially with it being a South African production instead of a big Hollywood movie?

It was the most unbelievable experience. I enjoyed every part of the creative process, especially getting into this character. Carving out her past, and researching all that surrounded her in that time and the political climate in South Africa.

Being on set was just the absolute culmination of that. It was a big learning curve for me and being around these incredible actors, artists and people who are the best in their field in South Africa made me feel extremely safe. They were such an inspiration and made me a better actor for the belief they had in me, and the support they gave me on a daily basis. They helped me so much and it was such a wonderful cast and crew. I believe that it was always meant to be that my first feature is a South African production with my own people. It gave me such freedom.


How much did you know about South Africa’s Immorality Acts before signing on to this film?

Not very much originally.  I did quite extensive research on the subject because as much as I knew about apartheid, I was too young at the time to realize the gravity of it. It was more theoretical and I only realized what was going on and how cruel it was when I moved out of South Africa. I needed to have it be living in me viscerally, as Jeanette is living in it.

My parents were the same age at that time so I started off with them and other members of my family. I spent a lot of time talking to them and others who were young adults during that era trying to fully understand what it was like at that time. Real life stories, firsthand.

I also read an amazing book by author John Carr called An Act of Immorality. It’s a beautiful but haunting tale about the author’s relationship with his wife, Cynthia, and how the Immorality Act forced them to keep their relationship a secret and the details of how they managed through it, had a child and eventually how he got her out of the country to England.  This story personalized the extent and severity of the immorality act for me.

Religion plays a large part in Free State for both Ravi and Jeanette’s families. Did you come from a religious background, and did this have any affect on how you played the role?

I do come from a religious background. I was raised Christian and my mother was quite a strong believer. We attended church every Sunday, went to Sunday school every week and practiced at home. It was a very big part of my childhood and earlier years.

In terms of its influence on how I played Jeanette, it was important to go back into those personal memories and experiences to appreciate how important it is for her, given her relationship with her father. I attended a couple of Afrikaans church sermons during filming as well.

Religion plays an integral role in this film both in the characters’ relationships with each other but also individually in their own circumstances. Jeanette’s relationship with religion caused her to be at times internally conflicted, between her loyalty towards her father and his vocation and the loss of her mother.

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