While South Africa is increasingly visible on our screens, South Africans have yet to to be given a real chance to shine as Hollywood A-listers from Denzel Washington to Morgan Freeman flood in to play South Africa’s heroes. But South Africa has does have some astounding homegrown talent – and a tiny handful of actors have stormed the world stage and screen.
1. Charlize Theron
Born in Benoni, in the greater Johannesburg area, South Africa in 1975, Charlize Theron has a German mother and had a French father but grew up speaking Afrikaans as her first language. Trained as a ballet dancer, she moved first to Europe, then to New York as a model and dancer.
Heading west to Los Angeles in 1994, she landed her first speaking role in 2 Days in the Valley in 1996, rapidly moving up the rankings with films such as The Cider House Rules (1999) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Although consistently voted high in the rankings of the world’s most beautiful people, she transformed herself for a tour- de-force acting performance in Monster in 2004 and gained an Oscar. She remains one of Hollywood’s hottest properties.
2. Anthony Sher
Born in Cape Town in 1949, the son of Lithuanian Jewish parents and the cousin of playwright Ronald Harwood, Sir Anthony Sher moved to London in 1969. In the 1970s, at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, he worked with actors including Julie Walters and Jonathan Pryce. He later joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and won his first Olivier Award for Richard III in 1985.
He has gone on to play many leading roles on stage to huge critical acclaim. Anthony Sher is also a writer (books and plays) and artist, has directed the play Breakfast with Mugabe, and has played various roles on TV and film, notably the Chief Weasel in Wind in the Willows (1996), and Disraeli in Mrs Brown (1997). In 2000, he was knighted for his services to theatre.
3. Sid James
Solomon Joel Cohen was born in Hillbrow, Johannesburg in 1913 and grew up in the city, first earning his living as a hairdresser. In 1937, he joined a repertory company in Johannesburg, and got some radio work with the South African Broadcasting Corporation. He went through the war in an entertainment unit and in 1946 arrived in the UK, getting his first small film role the following year. His big break came in 1951 with The Lavender Hill Mob and in 1954, he became a regular on the smash hit radio (and later TV) series, Hancock’s Half Hour. From 1959 onwards, he became one of the leading and best loved characters in the Carry On films. His transformation to cheeky Cockney was complete – he had become a British icon. He died in 1976.
4. Sharlto Copley
Born in Johannesburg in 1973, Sharlto Copley moved to Cape Town on leaving school and set up the production company which produced Neill Blomkamp’s early film, Alive in Johannesburg. It was this film on which District 9 was based and when Peter Jackson produced the feature-length blockbuster in 2009, directed by Blomkamp, Copley starred as Wikus van der Merwe, launching him as a Hollywood screenstar. Since then, he’s played Murdock in the movie version of The A-Team and is due to appear in Men in Black III and Blomkamp’s new film, Elysium (alongside Jodie Foster and Matt Damon). He still also runs the media production company in Cape Town.
5. Janet Suzman
The niece of South African politician and human rights activist, Helen Suzman, Janet Suzman is both an actor and director who has had magnificent success in South Africa, the UK and America, in film and on stage. She was married for many years to legendary theatre director, Trevor Nunn.
Brought up in a liberal family, she studied at the University of the Witwatersrand then moved to the UK, making her stage debut in 1952 in Billy Liar. She then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to play many of the great classic roles on the Stratford and London stage.
In 1970, she made her screen debut in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, following it up by playing Alexandra in Nicholas and Alexandra, for which she received an Oscar nomination (1971). Various other films display an astonishing range. They include Peter Greenaway’s extraordinary The Draughtsman’s Contract, the harrowing A Dry White Season, and the broad comedy Nuns on the Run. She has also done a number of fine TV appearances including, recently, Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic and Trial & Retribution.
Since the late 1980s, she has also been teaching and directing, both in London and South Africa and actively helping develop new South African talent.
6. John Kani
As yet, the number of black South African actors who have made the international role call is pitifully small. Born in 1943, Bonsile John Kani has been a trailblazer all his working life. His first plays (never published) were performed in the snake pit of the Port Elizabeth zoo from 1965. In the early 1970s he teamed up playwright Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona and one of the world’s great theatrical partnerships was born. Their plays Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, (about Robben Island) created for the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and starring John and Winston, transferred to New York and won a Tony Award. Since then, John Kani has continued to act, write and direct in South Africa, the UK and the USA. He was the first black South African to play Othello and caused an uproar in a multi-racial production of Miss Julie when he kissed his white leading lady on stage!
Over the years, he has had roles in a number of feature films including Sarafina!, The Ghost and the Darkness, A Dry White Season and Endgame, but in spite of being a magnificent actor has never been offered the lead.
Today, John Kani is a director of the Market Theatre Laboratory, a trustee of the Market theatre and now Chairman of the National Arts Council of South Africa.