Gérard Rudolf: The Renaissance Man

Gérard Rudolf is a Renaissance man. Best known as a familiar face in South African films, he is an actor, writer, director, photographer and poet, who has been working and creating for three decades now. As South Africa approaches turning the corner and opening productions once again, we spoke with Rudolf about his life and career.

Growing up in a “dreamy, secure” Cape Town, you daydreamed, played pretend, and some of your poetry suggests you had a very thoughtful relationship with your family, can you share any formative experiences which influenced you?

I was born in Pretoria. I grew up in Cape Town between the ages of 5 and 13 – certainly ‘formative’ years. The ‘dreamy’ and ‘secure’ aspects of these years most probably form part of my personal fiction, the ‘novel of memory’ inside me, memory being a part of the psychology that is generally deeply questionable. In retrospect these were more innocent times I suppose (1971 to 1980), certainly for white people in our country and especially for white Afrikaans people of the middle class of which my family were members… and for people living in Cape Town. But I was blissfully unaware of the dark underbelly of the country just like a lot of white kids were I suppose.

I have always been a dreamer and I live inside my head whenever the world allows me to. I was that child; oddball, trying to fit in (although not too hard), preferring to create my own worlds in my room or around the open lots in my neighbourhood. These worlds were vastly influenced by movies which I adored from an early age: Westerns and later sci-fi movies. Movies influenced me greatly, and storybooks, comics.

I was also greatly influenced by my older brother who was 9 years my senior and way more versed in the ways of the world and in art, music and culture. He died at the age of 36 about 28 years ago. He made me listen to bands like Led Zep, Deep Purple, Bowie, The Stones, Black Sabbath, etc. and showed me paintings in books and took me to the Mini Cine in Bellville on Friday nights to watch Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet movies, or Tora! Tora! Tora! (When I was about 10 he sneaked me into a Metro cinema in town to see Apocalypse Now, which scarred me for life. He thought it was hilarious.) He also taught me swear words which I use copiously to this day. When I was a young student in Pretoria, around 1988, he often invited me to watch art films at UNISA, movies like Un Chien Andalou by Bunel. We both giggled our way through that one in a completely silent and reverential cinema filled with academics and film snobs.

When we moved to Joburg in 1980 though my life became punk, angrier, more secretive in the sense that my parents never knew what I was up to with high school mates. I smoked, took very little interest in school in general and as a result I became a card-carrying underachiever. We snuck out on school nights to see bands like The Cherryfaced Lurchers, Asylum Kids, etc. The Christian-National-Education shit did not work for me.

These things formed me. And watching Space 1999 on early TV when I was about 10 or 11.

Your father was keen on you being involved in rugby, but at 15 you faked a neck injury to avoid playing, was this the first time you flirted with performance, or did you have artistic ambitions before this?

Ja, I wryly mentioned this incident in another interview somewhere. It is true. My dad was a nice guy, I loved him. He was an overachiever all his life and excelled in sport. Naturally I wanted to impress him, make him happy by playing rugby. It was a big mistake. I loathed it and I still loathe group activities. As a 15 year old I stupidly did not want to disappoint him by telling him the truth and that I do not really want to play rugby. So I faked a neck injury. I played that part so well I spent a week in traction in hospital and wore a neck brace for a month or more. I was so good I fooled the doctors! Look, I might laugh about it now but I felt pretty shit about it at the time. I felt like a lying con artist (which I basically was!), but I never played rugby again.

At that time I had no artistic or acting aspirations. But the clues were there I guess. If anything I had a vague interest in advertising, copy writing or something. But that was it.

As someone who both taught and studied the subject, how valuable did you find formal education in drama?

I found it incredibly useful and valuable. It opened my mind to the world at large and set me on a long path of self-discovery which continues to this day. It made me come out of my shell in more ways than one – mainly because I was surrounded by beautiful girls. It was heaven. It was also hellish because it was dark Apartheid and Pretoria. A hateful time in general.

Since starting your theatrical production company Makeshift Moon, you’ve pivoted more towards film work and directing plays rather than starring in them on stage, what do you make of the dwindling possibilities for stage productions especially in the wake of the pandemic with theatres like The Fugard closing down? Are you now more eager to return to performing on stage since ‘Die Kuns van Verdwyn’, your first in 16 years up to then?

Gérard Rudolf Photo Credit: Marguerite Oelofse

Allow me to set the record straight here:

Firstly, I did start my career in the theatre as an actor as most actors of my generation did, and I initially drifted into film and TV for financial reasons – theatre is not and never has been (save for a few individuals) a viable long-term option in this country. And I fell in love with the camera.

Secondly, Makeshift Moon was a bright flash in the pan, a loose collective of actors and directors and writers trying to do good work outside the system and only existed for about 2 or 3 years at the most. Economics again.

Thirdly, I am not a theatre director per se although I have directed a few plays over the past 30 years. But I would never call myself a theatre director.

To answer the rest of your question: It is a bitter sad state of affairs in any society when theatres start closing down. Here we have the double scourge of a failed regime with NO respect for the arts or artists AND this bloody plague laying waste to almost everything. I think it is a sad state of affairs and I know many theatre artists/makers across the country going through incredibly dark times with absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel, and with a regime not interested nor fucking capable to help these people. The closure of The Fugard and other theatres is more an indictment against the buffoonery of the ANC’s Arts Policies than it is an indication of the general state of theatre in South Africa.

I have no real interest to return to the theatre full-time. I love it though. It is where my roots are. But it is a hard life, hard work and frightening. I have only returned to the theatre now and then when a project was well-funded, interested me, challenged me as an actor and/or the director is someone I really want to work with such as Mari Bortslap, as was the case with my solo show Die Kuns Van Verdwyn and a play called Sky & Czech at Woordfees.

You’re well-known for having publicly objected to the Apartheid government’s rule, and campaigning against mandatory conscription (having involuntarily served two years in Angola yourself). As someone who believes it’s impossible to be an apolitical South African artist, what are your thoughts about the recent public unrest, and the government’s lack of support for artists?

As far as the regime’s lack of support goes, I think I said enough already. I don’t think one can be South African and not be at least a little bit political, never mind a South African artist!

The recent unrest (coup attempt?) as it did millions of other South Africans, upset me… depressed me… shocked me deeply. It shocked and reminded me of how easily and fast a country can go from barely functioning to total anarchy. It illustrated quite starkly just how wide the gap is between the haves and the have nots. It also made me angry that we now, as a matter of urgency, need to get rid of regime barely three decades after we had gotten rid of that other bunch of arses. Depressing as fuck that after so many years under this dreadful regime we are on a knife’s edge, one petrol bomb away from total anarchy.

Your writing is very personal, as opposed to performing on camera where you embody someone else entirely, have any life experiences guided a performance of yours, i.e., Kanarie channeling your conscription?

This is such a complex question.

All writing is personal.

I know now that life experience informs a performance more and more deeply as one gets older, as it does one’s writing. In the end we actors all simply play aspects of ourselves and hold back on those aspects we do not need for a role. Each performance or role calls for a great degree of introspection and honesty in order to get to the Truth of a role. It is tiring, hard work and one (I) do not always fully succeed. On the other hand not all ‘experience’ is immediately available to the actor and that is where imagination comes into play: You do not need to kill a person in order to play the role of a killer, right? BUT most of us can easily imagine, given the right set of circumstances, that we might be capable of killing another person. Anyway, this is not an acting class…

I guess it all comes down to empathy, understanding fully why somebody might do something dark or murderous or whatever. I look for empathy first and foremost; can I comprehend the ‘why’, the motivation(s) of the role I am playing and can I find those motivations inside of me?

So yes, the character I played in Kanarie was vaguely based on people I encountered in the military but also aspects of myself I needed to acknowledge and empathise with.

Acting is empathy. Easy.

You’ve previously remarked that part of your love of acting comes from the bohemian nature thereof, being surrounded by eccentric talent, each day being unpredictable. Being constrained indoors must have been tiresome. At the outset of the first lockdowns many creatives cushioned their predicament by saying things along the line of “At least we’ll have time and inspiration to get to work”. Art from adversity and all that. Have you found this to be at all true, for your photography as an example?

I think I have a bigger love for film sets and the people who work within that industry than I have for acting. I never really liked acting all that much I don’t think. But yes, I love the variety of the days on film sets and the amazing chaos of it, the locations away from home, the incredible people who all collaborate to make a film. It is a kind of traveling circus with its own rules, a family almost, a family made up of the most generous and talented people imaginable. I even love the arseholes. There’s always one.

Gérard Rudolf Photo Credit: Danie van Rensburg

I am not so sure about the art/adversity thing. Why should one suffer at all to create art? The lockdowns and the ongoing cluster fuck that is COVID obviously affected everybody, not just artists. And it forced a lot of us to be more inventive, creative in order to survive: People selling artworks, doing poetry readings, plays, shooting Zoom movies etc. all online.

As far as my photography is concerned I never did it to generate an income. I have made no money off my photography at all. So the events over the past year or more have had no impact on my photography. Taking photos is simply part of my DNA. I do it daily and have done so ever since I picked up a camera for the first time about 30 years ago. I do it prolifically. I do it because it helps me see the beauty, tragedy and the abundance of all the world around me. It gets me through the days sometimes. It is a meditation for me, a form of prayer. As long as I have some device that can capture an image it won’t matter to me where I am in the world or what is happening. It will go on as long as I have hands and can see.

In his postcard on you from ‘Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story on a Postcard’, the author said you began writing poetry to help orient yourself as you felt your life was falling apart and left South Africa. The world seems a great deal more complicated today, and it has been about 10 years since the publication of ‘Orphaned Latitudes’, can we expect new material soon?

Poetry and photography is one thing for me; a poem is a photograph and vice versa. I thought I’d just say that.

For context here: Michael Kimball, an American novelist and friend did a project a few years ago where he wrote people’s life stories literally on a postcard. I included his biography of me in my debut poetry collection ‘Orphaned Latitudes’ which I wrote and published during my sojourn in the UK between 2002 and 2010.

Yes, poetry is definitely a way for me to orientate myself on the map of my life. Not only the writing of it but also the reading of it. It helps me to make sense of everything. The writing of it specifically helps me to explain myself to myself, to explain what it is I see and experience as a human being and then describing it to whomever reads it. It is wired to my soul and suits my dreamer demeanour, my constant search for beauty.

The world has always been complex. It is no less or more so now than ever before. Poets – and film makers – lay it all out for us, I think. It is distilled Truth(s).

New material? Well, I just submitted a rough collection of Afrikaans poetry and prose to a publisher. Who knows? They might just publish it.

Whilst in the U.K., you married your love of film and poetry into your collaborative Film Poems with Alastair Cook, were these shorts a precursor to your own Sweisbril, and will anything come of your and Cook’s planned feature?

Alastair, a Scotsman living in Edinburgh is an architect, photographer and poetry film maker. He read Orphaned Latitudes and I saw his work on his website back in 2009. I contacted him, went to see him in Edinburgh and he made about 3 or 4 poetry films of my poems with me reading them. He uses found footage and weaves poetry, music and images together and creates award winning poetry films.

Like a lot of people we spoke about a feature film a long time ago but I don’t think anything will ever come of it. But we had some beautiful ideas. He is an amazing artist.

Having worked in both film and TV, for the big screen and for streaming, has a preference developed?

This is a no-brainer: I love film. Period. It suits my style and approach as an actor. I love the subtleties of film acting. It is a medium I understand instinctively and implicitly. It is my artistic home. The only wish I have is to be behind the camera more.

Is there anything you wish South African film or theatre did more of? Any artists you feel are on a particularly fruitful track?

I sometimes wish Afrikaans films were more daring, more risky in the way they tell stories. Many directors are trying though and I have seen some beautiful work here and there over the past few years. Jozua Malherbe springs to mind as a director who always tries to push the limits. Also Rene van Rooyen who did Toorbos is great. There are many others…

You’ve personified a variety of characters and featured in many films, from Detectives to Prospectors, Reverends and Rough-riders, you’ve bumped heads with Dennis Hopper and Die Antwoord, in a breadth of experience afforded to few South African performers, is there a role you are most thankful for or proudest of?

I often feel or think I haven’t done enough, or that I haven’t been good enough. I have felt rather invisible in my so-called career. When I step back from these thoughts and notions I realise I have been lucky in the sense that I managed to survive, sometimes barely as an actor in our industry. Yes, I’ve had some great opportunities for which I am grateful. One of them, as you mentioned was to work for an entire day with the late great Dennis Hopper on a B-movie called The Piano Player.

In terms of South African- or Afrikaans work characters like Priester in the series Transito spring to mind. I am pretty proud of the work I did there although it largely went unnoticed. Ditto my character in Arende II and III. I liked what I did in Donkerland and loved my character in writer/director Marcel van Heerden’s award winning Silwerskerm short film Vryslag. Then there was my character in Jimmy in Pienk with director Hanneke Schutte. Another director I rate highly!

However, I’ve directed twice: The first time I directed a 52 minute film for the series Ons Stories, a film called Katjiepierings which was beautifully written by the late novelist Harry Kalmer. The second film I wrote and directed, a short for Silwerskerm, was called Sweisbril – adapted from a short story by the late Jaco Botha.

In both these projects I experienced the most artistic happiness I have ever felt in all my years in the industry. I felt free, excited and inspired every single day on those two sets. Directing to me is the most satisfying thing as it demands of me to tap into everything I am as an artist: the photographer, the dreamer, the poet and the actor. I should have dumped acting 20 years ago and focused on becoming a director. But I am not done with that dream. Not yet.

Photo credits: Profile 1 – Danie van Rensburg | Profile 2 – Marguerite Oelfose