Hot off of his latest turns in hit shows Ludik and Die Byl, one of South Africa’s busiest stars, locally and abroad, across stage, screen and film, Sean Cameron Michael put aside some time to discuss his storied career and give insights few who enter the industry have the privilege to dispense.
You recently crossed a milestone: Over 100 acting credits, though on Collision you’re credited as a writer and producer. Have you had ambitions as a writer before Collision came into the picture?
Director Fabien Martorell reached out to me a couple of years ago regarding a project he was hoping to shoot in South Africa and wanted to attach me as an actor. That particular project didn’t materialize, but years later we met in LA and discussed another project, Collision. I came on board in the early stages as a co-writer/executive producer, but then the pandemic struck and when the Netflix feature finally went into pre-production and was ready to start shooting in Joburg, I was filming on a Kyknet series in Cape Town and unavailable. It’s ironic or Murphy’s law how things work out, having written a cool role for myself that I ultimately wouldn’t get to play.
In the mid 90s I was a TV presenter and scriptwriter for SABC’s daily edutainment show Teleschool and I also wrote and presented a TV special called “TeleS in Space” which was a live linkup with NASA in Washington DC and astronauts orbiting the Earth on the US space shuttle Endeavor. It was the first time the new South African flag had flown into space and the experience was mind-blowing and a career highlight for sure.
Since then I’ve collaborated with a number of writers, directors and producers around the world on numerous screenplays and TV series and am currently working on some personal projects I plan to produce in the near future.
You once mentioned a reaffirming encounter with a tennis ball on the set of MacGyver. I wonder if you could relay what that experience meant to you?
I was booked on the new CBS MacGyver series and guest starred as the lead character’s nemesis “The Ghost”, which we filmed in Atlanta. The cast and crew were incredible to work with and it was a welcome opportunity to play my first Irish character on a hit US TV show. For one particular, very emotional close-up scene, due to the confines on the small set and camera angles, the actress playing my daughter, Holland Roden, couldn’t be in shot for my eye-line, so I had to perform and deliver tears on cue to marks (or an imaginary tennis ball) on the side of the camera lens/lighting stand. It was demanding and rather stressful, but I rose to the challenge and it was an amazing experience.
As a young man, you were conscripted. You’ve drawn from this time, recalling corporals and sergeants to blend into some performances, but, having done your own stunts on Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, do you think training had any influence over your abilities on that front, or was that all you?
Involuntary conscription in the South African army in the days of Apartheid went against everything in my fibre as a young artist and how I was morally brought up in a free-thinking, loving and creative theatrical home. That said, I have indeed used those warped and weird forced experiences in the army to my advantage in portraying and bringing to life military characters and indeed some baddies on-screen. The infantry training I received also enabled me to be comfortable handling weapons on-set over the years. Fortunately I’m a quick study, so training with professional armourers and stunties on action sequences has been invaluable.
You’ve played swashbuckling adventurers in the vein of Indiana Jones more than once, the aforementioned Alan Quatermain, and the man himself in a commercial for Camelot Lottery, do you have a fondness for the character?
Hahaha. Your research is incredible and has brought back many fun memories. Thank you. I’m a major Indiana Jones fan and my resemblance to Harrison Ford (and the iconic roles he has played) has indeed landed me certain jobs over the years, including the lottery commercial and Tears in the Rain, an award-winning Blade Runner tribute short film.
Are there any performances by other actors that you can recall drawing from for your own portrayal of a character?
I’m certainly inspired by the work of many astounding actors such as Gary Oldman, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Edward Norton, but I always put my own authentic spin on a new role.
When I specifically play historical and factual characters, I do extensive research and training (prep time permitting). Whatever literature, video footage and audio clips I can access in the archives, become vital to my portrayal. I will merely give an essence or taste of whom I believe they were/are and leave the rest up to make-up, hair, costume. Other times it’s required by production that I mimic them as closely as possible, such as when I played Clifford Draper in Get Out Alive: Utah Library Shootout. Duplicating the very specific documented dialogue and Southern drawl was imperative to them.
It must be said that you are one of our more in-demand exports with over 80 international roles. You’ve refocused in recent years to perform not only in local productions, but also films with a heavy focus on South Africa and South African society. Did you reconnect with Cape Town while shooting Black Sails? Have roles and opportunities in SA improved over time, or ramped up recently?
Since getting my residency in the US almost eight years ago, I have continued to split my time between the two countries. Not only because I still have family in South Africa but essentially I go where the work is. It has certainly been important for me in later years to tell those original local stories, such as my work on The Last Victims, Collision and recently Ludik. Collaborating with likeminded local filmmakers has always been my passion and putting South Africa once-and-for-all on the map globally remains part of my mission.
Local production companies have been servicing and facilitating international commercials, doccies, TV series and features for decades and the majority of my work on foreign productions has actually been shot on our shores. As a young actor starting out, SA is the perfect place for opportunity to work at your craft and get on-camera experience.
Yes, thankfully these days local thespians are finally being offered bigger roles in overseas productions, instead of those one-liner featured extra or minor co-star roles. Actors here are not necessarily going to become wealthy or famous working locally, but the opportunity and experience is there for the taking. The majority of the time though, foreign producers will still understandably hire their bankable and proven stars for the leading and substantial roles being cast. Local actors have a better chance working here than, for example, in Hollywood where the fierce competition is usually a minimum of 1,500 actors being considered for one role. So the odds of securing varied work in South Africa is better for sure.
You made reference to a film role you ‘cringe’ at these days, made 15 years before the time of that interview. Why exactly is this a film you’re glad to have moved on from?
I’m super critical of everything I do. I’m an obsessed professional and take great pride in my reputation and achievements over the past four decades. It’s important for me to look back and analyze work I’ve done, the acting choices I’ve made and how I can still improve at my craft. I’m still learning and growing every single day and sincerely appreciative for every opportunity I get. Of course I will look back at a terrible movie I did when I was maybe in my twenties and groan “what was I thinking?” or “oh dear, that really turned out horrible”.
Fortunately I’ve realized in my later years that all those experiences have lead me to where I am today. You need to make mistakes, learn from them and grow as an individual. I also understand that I am merely a vulnerable, fallible actor and human being and can only do the best I can under whatever circumstances I am presented with. If a script is terrible, the director doesn’t know what he is doing and they have no time, money or expertise to deliver a professional quality production, that has got absolutely nothing to do with me. It is out of my control and simply not my job.
I suppose with age comes wisdom and today I have no regrets regarding “suspect” or “kak” work I’ve maybe done in the past. In actual fact, I usually have a good laugh at myself. No filmmaker goes out of their way to make a bad movie. Why would they? Factors beyond their control often come into play, yielding an unwanted or unappreciated result. I’ve worked on a couple of movies and TV series I was convinced was going to be a huge hit, but unfortunately didn’t resonate with critics or audiences or merely was released at a time where society wasn’t ready for it. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. Or maybe it really was terrible(!) These days I am fortunate to be in a position where I can be a little more selective about what I do and whom I work with.
Out of the major stars and celebrated actors you’ve worked alongside, who are you proudest of having traded lines with?
There’s many. The late William Hurt on The Challenger Disaster; Mads Mikkelsen on The Salvation; Charles Dance on Strike Back; Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon on Invictus (under the direction of the legendary Clint Eastwood); Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington on Safe House. And the list goes on.
People often mistake you for a native Californian given your excellent accent work (running the gamut from Afrikaans, Standard American, Southern American, Australian, British RP, Cockney, German, French, Russian, various South African English variants and, most recently, Irish), but what’s the most difficult accent or dialect you’ve ever taken on?
Playing a Dutch intellectual on Kyknet’s Die Byl, delivering pages of fluent Afrikaans (not my first language) was very demanding; while learning and performing fluent Russian in Shooter was the most difficult.
You’ve received awards from voting bodies in Ireland, Germany, Chile, Russia and the US, and most recently your work on Fried Barry has received a SAFTA nomination. What does this local recognition mean to you?
It truly has never been about the accolades for me. If a production I worked on is nominated or wins awards, I’m obviously very happy for the entire army of people involved who painfully worked 14 hours a day for months on end. Personally being ‘considered’ for a couple of Emmy’s and SAG awards over the years (though not making the final nomination list) has been rewarding and has kept me going strong, continuing to diligently work at my craft.
The SAFTA Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film nomination this year for only ten minutes of screen time on Fried Barry is fantastic. I have always been proudly South African and this recognition warms my heart. I’m really chuffed too for our director/writer/producer Ryan Kruger who constantly pushes the boundaries of what local filmmaking is and how our country is perceived internationally. We’ve worked together for over 15 years and have a number of exciting projects in the pipeline.
You’ve had recurring roles on Black Sails and Die Byl, does the expanded runtime of a TV series allow more room to explore a character, or do you make no distinction between film and television work?
Landing a series regular role (one of only two South African actors) in two seasons of Michael Bay’s Black Sails changed the trajectory of my career internationally and absolutely, a series does afford one the opportunity to explore and delve deeper into a character. That said, playing supporting or guest starring roles are often more challenging, as you often only have a couple of scenes to reveal the whole life and backstory to a character in a few minutes on screen. One needs to create a well rounded, succinct character that is immediately relatable and supportive to the leads, whilst pushing the story and plot forward.
I know that you’re a lyrical tenor, and your father was an Opera singer, though it’s not a skill that’s often called on for film. How interested would you be in joining an out and out musical?
My start as an actor was at the age of twelve in musical theatre playing one of the leads in Magical Mystery Man (which we also recorded a cast album of) and then as Louis in Artscape’s The King & I. Over the years I continued doing musical theatre, including two seasons of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for PACT and Theatre on the Track, Fiddler on the Roof, Sound of Music and about 25 other theatre productions including Baby, the award-winning Mandela Trilogy (CT Opera) and more recently Vers & Kabaret directed by my dear friend Alfred Rietmann for Artscape.
Unfortunately, theatre work hardly pays the rent and the time commitment (usually a few months) can exclude one from the more lucrative TV and film work, however, theatre has always been my first love and should the right production come along, I would jump at the opportunity to ‘tread the boards’ again.
I don’t see why you would need to, given your range of skills from vocal stylings to horse-riding, but was there ever a time when you exaggerated on your resume?
I think all actors do, to some extent. When I was younger, I indeed said that I could waterski for a commercial, which of course was a white lie and then they had the callback at a dam with a boat and skis. After 30 attempts I finally got in right. Needless to say, I haven’t exaggerated anything on a resume since.
You’ve played many a villain, and as comes with the territory you’ve died every now and then, do you have a most memorable or favorite onscreen death? Do you subscribe to the acting ethos of not judging the villainous characters you take on?
Baddies very seldom survive, so yes, I’ve been poisoned, drowned, strangled, shot, stabbed – you name it. My favourite screen death would certainly be SyFy’s Blood Drive which was the most shocking, revealing (full body nudity), covered in gallons of blood and peeling flesh prosthetics for two days. Acting is so glamorous.
Regarding not judging my characters, definitely. The character doesn’t necessarily see himself as a villain or psychopath. Whatever they think or do is true and natural to them in those moments, so I attempt to authentically show this is the most subtle and natural justifiable manner.
Has there been a role or opportunity in your career that’s had particular personal significance to you?
Filming for a few months on season 3 and 4 of Kyknet’s Die Byl, having just lost my partner of 25 years to suicide was particularly demanding, as I was understandably still in the process of grieving and our shooting schedule was intense. I had already committed to the role and had to be professional and follow through. One can’t take one’s personal problems into the work environment. It’s the work, I guess, that ultimately saved my life and kept me somewhat sane, so that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Have you ever taken on a role you struggled to crack, before reaching a ‘eureka’ moment?
Being on set can be a very stressful environment, especially when you’re trying to concentrate and need to deliver an emotional performance or a five page monologue, whilst sometimes surrounded by a noisy crew of fifty people frantically running around setting up a shot. I’ve learnt to focus, be in my own world and just breathe. Sometimes I’ll simply get out of my own insecure way and let the character I’m portraying take the reigns.
I’m actually about to embark on a new feature film playing a character I’m still in the process of figuring out. There are one or two scenes coming up that I can’t truly prepare for until I’m actually on-set and ‘in the moment’, so yes, I’m honestly hoping for that elusive “eureka” moment when the cameras start rolling.
Your character on Ludik is made up of a vacillating mixture of confident charm and mercurial temper, how much freedom did you have to find your approach to his scenes? Was the material overt in its intentions?
As is the nature of filmmaking, there is an ongoing pressure regarding budget and time constraints and Ludik was no different, with long and demanding shoot days within a very limited tight schedule. The creators and directors on the show were working off scripts that were many years in the making, so their pre-planning of what and how scenes were going to be shot each day was locked in, with often little room for experimentation or exploration.
My character was originally Afrikaans (Arend Grobler) and a week or so prior to my arrival on set, it was decided that he would now be Irish as this would add a more international feel to the series which was being broadcast globally in 190 countries to over 220 million Netflix subscribers. Within certain constraints I still found a way though to ‘play’ and breathe life into Percival Arend Brown, hopefully making him even more entertaining for viewers to enjoy.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a casting director, was not to show everything about a character in every scene. So what I now do is selectively reveal only one or two character traits in each new scene, which allows the audience to slowly get to know who this person is.
In an acting masterclass clip, you recommend that young actors do as much research as is possible for their roles. Could you give an example of a research-heavy role of yours which stands as having benefited from this process?
In The Challenger Disaster I had to play a particular NASA manager and being a true story, playing a living factual character, I read countless court testimonies, watched videos and researched as much as I could to deliver a realistic portrayal based on the information I had access to. There’s a certain responsibility that comes into play with these types of roles and it is essential that I do my due diligence in preparation. The made-for-TV movie went on to win awards and critics singled out my performance, which hopefully means I did something right.
On the 24: Redemption movie with Kiefer Sutherland and Jon Voight, I was hired to play Charles Solenz, an arrogant French UN worker. The film premiered to 12 million viewers and one critic later referred to my character as one of the most despicable roles ever written for the 24 franchise. I, of course, took that as a compliment. I had done my research and homework and it translated on screen.
Finally, what’s the secret to maintaining a 40-year career in probably the most mercurial industry in the world?
Study, work hard, be professional, remain humble and don’t take anything or anyone for granted. Over the course of your career take on as many scary challenges as you can. This will help you grow, even in the failures. Reinvent yourself as many times as necessary and stay relevant. As corny as it sounds, it really is the journey, not the destination.
If you’re fortunate to find your true passion, something that brings you endless joy and perhaps something that’s in your veins, that you can’t live without – and you’re able to pursue that as a career, doing it every day of your life, understanding that you’re in it for the long haul, that it’s going to be a tumultuous roller-coaster ride, that there are going to be painful days and months of endless rejection and personal sacrifice, yet occasional moments of immense pleasure – where you truly are living your artistic dream – then grab it with both hands, everything you’ve got and hand yourself over to the universe.