Spotlight: Ira Blanckenberg as Meliena in ‘Toorbos’

Ira Blanckenberg has been acting since she can remember and has amassed a wealth of experience across stage, TV and film over the course of her career. Best known for her recent work in Griekwastad, Twee Grade van Moord and Toorbos, it seems Blanckenberg’s best work is yet to come. Playing a stoic mother in an impoverished 1930s Knysna forest-dwelling community, her iconic supporting role in the coming-of-age romance drama, Toorbos is so immersive it doesn’t seem like acting. Spling decided to find out more about Blanckenberg’s career, acting philosophy and what went into crafting such a fine and haunting performance as Meliena…

When did you realise you wanted to be an actor?

I am one of those clichéd cases where I always knew this was something I wanted to do. When television started in South Africa we did a great deal of dubbing. I started dubbing before I could read. I fell in love with acting in the dubbing studios at 6. Finding meaning, delving deeper into self through the tool of acting, has always inspired me.

I understand you own and run Stage Right Drama, can you tell us more…

I know many artists have to teach as a second choice, to add to their income. For me, however, things worked differently. When our two kids were small I did not want to do theatre or long stretches of television, as I adored being with them, so I started teaching Drama at a school they attended. For me it felt like a homecoming. I adore teaching, the youth inspires me daily and I feel on top of the world when I can assist them to open their own creative doors. I run my own drama school twice a week in Somerset West. I have about 70 kids aged 7-18. We do improv, theatre and TV technique, productions and competitions.

You’ve worked extensively across television, which TV role are you best known for and which one would you say best showcases your acting talents?

Unfortunately, in our country “extensively” is a relative term. There is not a great deal of work in this country. However, I feel blessed to have had some wonderful chances to hone my craft and grow as an actor.

Who am I known for? Maybe my character, Erika Landsberg, on the local soap, 7e Laan? South Africans do love their soaps. I played opposite my real life husband, Waldi Schultz’s character, as Jan-Hendrik’s ‘skelmpie’. Only in this industry can you have an affair with your own husband!

You’ve recently had film roles in Griekwastad, A Boere-krismas and Toorbos… what kind of conditions do you feel make you thrive as an actor?

As an actor, it’s wonderful when you can completely trust your director’s vision. You have only a tiny glimpse of the big picture, as you are immersed in your character, and see and do everything from your character’s perspective. It is truly magic when you can trust your director fully to guide your performance to fit in with the big picture of the film. But you also need your director’s trust.

It’s wonderful when the director trusts you enough to give you the freedom to explore options in performance. So, I guess, a truly symbiotic relationship of trust in each other’s ability and creativity, is an ideal working environment. In both Griekwastad and Toorbos this was my experience. When the whole crew and cast are passionate about ‘getting it right’, and giving it their all, that is when the magic happens. Oh, and time! There is this absurd new thing where we shoot tv movies in 4 days.

It’s absurd as true quality flies out the window. And because we are so grateful for work, we all do it, but as a creative, it’s very unsatisfying to have no time for rehearsal, exploring, second takes or breathing a character. You need time to make a quality production. A Boere-krismas had a wonderful director, cast and crew, but shooting in 5 days is not ideal, the pressure on everybody is ridiculous.

How did you become attached to Toorbos?

It is actually a weird story. One night I had a dream that I played a character in a Dalene Matthee movie. I woke up the next morning and it felt so real I couldn’t believe it was only a dream as I’m a huge Dalene Matthee fan. Two days later my agent phoned and told me I had an audition for Toorbos. I wasn’t even aware they were making the movie! So somehow I knew the role was mine, as it was quite literally a dream come true.

Toorbos is a layered South African drama with a marked maturity that gives it the edge on other local films… what do you think is so magical about this film?

The director Rene van Rooyen had been working on this film for 8 years. I think the amount of research, work, detail in every single aspect of the film, shows, and gives it an edge. Rene is one of those directors who had a very clear vision of where the film was going and what it was saying. She encouraged me to explore my character deeply, guided me in her vision but trusted me and gave me the freedom to explore different avenues. She’s a dream director. Shooting in the Knysna forests where these people lived and breathed, having a cast and crew that were committed beyond belief, working with a magical story of the incredible Dalene Matthee, the producers on set everyday encouraging everyone… mmm, magic!

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You play Karoliena’s mother Meliena… it’s a haunting and iconic performance that borders on documentary realism and is so seemingly effortless it doesn’t seem like acting… is this one of your ambitions?

I love this question, because it means you truly see what I aim for as an actor. I always tell my students that ultimate acting is ‘not to act’ but to simply ‘be the character’. You act, explore, dig deep, and then somewhere, eventually the acting stops, and you are able to simply be the character. It also makes for an interesting debate. There are very good and extremely popular actors out there who have the so-called x factor. For me, their x factor is often so prominent that they cannot truly become a different character, and always stay themselves in some way, where we can always see they are ‘acting’. In this way I feel that the very best of actors, sometimes go unnoticed, as they are constantly changing into different characters, where performances are so effortless, that one forgets it’s even a performance. My dream is to be one of these actors where Ira can disappear, and only the character is seen.

How did you encounter Meliena as a character and was it easy to empathise with her?

Meliena is a very hard, tough person and she is not easy to like. Only once I started exploring her history, her will to survive and the harsh environment of their lives, I truly began to understand, respect and love her. She will do anything to spare her daughter having to live the life she had to. This makes her hard and seemingly without a heart at times, but life has been very cruel to her. My heart also broke for her once she was forcibly removed from the forest. The devastation these people went through when their ‘heart’ was removed is truly heartbreaking.

You seem to immerse yourself in the role to the point of being unrecognisable… this transformation makes your character seem to have been lifted from photos of the 1930s Bosmens? How much of this would you attribute to performance versus styling.

Our make-up artist, Theola Booyens is a master. I had created this character in my head, embodied her in my physicality and spirit, but it’s Theola’s talent that helped with the final transformation. It was an incredible experience to sit in the make-up chair every morning and witness the change from Ira to Meliena in the mirror. The sunspots, skin changes, dirty teeth, every detail helped me to truly become Meliena.

Your performance as Meliena deserved so much more award recognition and media attention… it’s almost as if she exists so completely in the audience’s minds that it’d be impossible to interview or award Meliena herself.

What a truly amazing compliment, thank you.

Did Rene van Rooyen give you freedom to interpret the role? What was it like working with her?

I can’t sing Rene’s praises enough. She had done so much research and trusted me completely when it came to Meliena, to bring subtext, feelings, ideas to the table. As I said before, she would also guide you back to her big picture, reminding you what the scene is doing in the movie, what the outcome must be, ultimately serve the story. I have so much respect for this woman, and I hope that she will get the opportunity to make many more films.

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Which memories about working on Toorbos are most vivid to you?

My hands in the wet, cold mud, feeling how Meliena takes out patats. The forlorn feeling in Karatara shooting in those little houses after we finished in the forest. Whiskey on the stoep with fellow cast members. The incredible gratefulness for a unique experience, the privilege of being given the opportunity to hone your craft, to truly become a character.

What do you feel are some of the industry’s biggest challenges right now?

No time. No money. I mentioned this before, but it’s truly shocking how little financial support there is for the industry. We have to compete with international films and television where budgets are literally anything from 20-200 times bigger than in South Africa. The more financial support the government gives the industry, the more we can thrive internationally and thus grow our industry and bring in money for artists and the country.

Having accumulated so much experience over the years, what are some of your most valuable takeaways for budding South African actors?

In a struggling industry such as ours, learn many trades within the industry, whether it’s wardrobe, make-up, writing, etc. Any additional skill that keeps you in the industry will still allow you to grow as a creative and help pay the bills. Work hard – talent doesn’t count for much if you are not willing to work hard. Be a team player – you cannot act alone – acting is a give and take, a passing of the ball. Don’t try to shine, just stay true to the story and the character.

If you could start your acting career all over again, what would you do differently?

Learn more skills within the industry as to not struggle so much financially. And to stop being so bloody insecure. As creatives we often hold ourselves back because we don’t believe in our own abilities. To trust myself more, not to doubt so much, trust that I can and will embody a character and tell the story truthfully.

Read Spling’s review of Toorbos or watch his interview with Rene van Rooyen.