Jenna Bass’ latest film, Flatland, is a Western that follows three women on journeys of self-discovery across harsh South African landscapes.
Izel Bezuidenhout, one of Flatland’s lead actresses, joins us on Close-up Culture to give us fascinating insight into her role in the film.
Q: You said on Instagram that Poppie van Niekerk, your character in ‘Flatland’, is the total opposite to yourself. Can you tell us more about Poppy and how you differ?
A: Poppie is a 15-year-old, pregnant girl. She is very naïve and irresponsible. If she wants something, she goes for it, without thinking about the consequences.
Behind her quirky attitude and foul mouth, she is actually very insecure. She was abandoned by her mother at a very young age. The lack of attention and love drives her to do anything to fit in. She tries to ignore the fact that she is pregnant. Then she doesn’t have to deal with responsibility.
Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) is her best friend and sister. They grew up together. Poppie doesn’t like to be vulnerable, but with Natalie, she sometimes has the courage to say what she really means. One of her biggest fears is that Natalie is going to leave her and then she will be all alone. Natalie is the only person she’s got left.
The ways we are different…well…I am not pregnant (laughs). I am a very responsible person and always think something through before doing it. I grew up in a very loving home and never really had the urge to fit in. I am not as naïve as Poppie and definitely don’t have her foul vocabulary.
Q: How did you find the journey of playing Poppie and getting to know her?
A: Playing Poppie was quite a challenging but one of the most amazing journeys!
In the two years between the audition and shooting, I really got to know her. To be honest, I almost didn’t want to take on this character because it felt like we didn’t have anything in common. I soon realised that there is more to Poppie than just what I saw on the surface. Getting to know her on a deeper level really made me fall in love with her courage and good intentions, especially her loyalty towards people she cares about.
Q: Did you learn anything from her?
A: I definitely learned a lot from her. One of the things that stood out was to never judge the character that I am portraying. Poppie taught me how to be brave, to stand up for what I believe and to follow my dreams.
Q: What challenges did Poppy and this film present to you as an actor? I imagine her being pregnant, handling guns and horse riding kept things interesting for you.
A: Where do I begin? This whole film and character were challenging and definitely interesting!
I will never forget our first day of shooting. Our first scene was galloping on the horse. Our horse got spooked by the dogs and suddenly I realised that on our 2nd take…I was on the ground with a bleeding knee. It was one scary but a very memorable moment!
But, on a more serious note, I have always loved horse riding. Being given the opportunity to improve my skill in horse riding while living my dream (telling stories) was an incredible experience!
I also did a huge amount of research on teenage pregnancy. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges. I was lucky enough to get incredible advice from one of our makeup artists as well as one of the co-producers, who are both moms. I called them my pregnancy advisers (laughs). They guided me through every part of playing a pregnant character realistically.
One of my other big challenges as an actor was definitely not being afraid to fail, but rather being open to playing around and stepping outside of my comfort zone.
Q: ‘Flatland’ has been described as a contemporary Western. Are you a fan of the Western genre?
A: Honestly, I never really watched Westerners before shooting Flatland. After the shooting, I am definitely more interested in them although my favourite genres are still drama and true story.
Q: With three strong female lead characters driving the plot, I hear ‘Flatland’ has a lot to say about life as a woman in South Africa. Can you tell us about your experiences and what you feel ‘Flatland’ offers to this?
A: Well, I can only speak from my experiences as a young South African woman. Growing up in a home where my mom and dad were each other’s equals, I see the love and respect they have for each other. I have also experienced the other side of relationships, where there is belief that women should stand back and be submissive to men. A lot of women in South Africa, and all other the world, are being trapped in the misconceptions of who and what they are supposed to be in the eye of society.
I think Flatland speaks volumes about what it means to be a woman in 2019. This film is centered around three different but equally desperate woman who are all trapped by circumstances, their environment and by their own misconceptions of what they must be.
All three of these women need to take charge of their own lives to find themselves and find where they belong so that they can live the life they deserve. A life they have control over and one that is free from any preconceived ideas.
Q: As with most Westerns, it looks like the film has many striking settings. How was the shoot?
A: The settings and locations in this film are breath-taking! I saw some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I have ever seen. Every scene’s setting gives you an idea about where the characters are in their journey.
Some of my favourite locations were the farmhouse where Poppie lived, Drie Suster’s petrol garage and on top of a hill, looking over the whole Beaufort West.
This shoot was incredible. We had so many different locations that I got the chance to explore the small Karoo town while doing what I love most. Day shoots were hot and sunny, and night shoots were extremely cold. Some locations we shot in the middle of nowhere and this really gave me an understanding of what Poppie was going through and the freedom she was experiencing in specific scenes.
I must say, shooting with an eight months pregnant belly and body suit to keep the belly in place wasn’t the most comfortable on hot winter days. Lucky for me, all the layers really helped when the nights started to get cold.
I also got to experience working with prosthetics like a realistic pregnant belly. This was quite a lengthy task. It took about 4.5 hours to put on the belly and again about 1.5 hours to take it off. This only had to happen once, but I definitely enjoyed seeing our makeup department doing their thing.
Q: Can you tell us about working with Jenna Bass, Nicole Fortuin, Faith Baloyi and the rest of the crew?
A: It was wonderful working with Nicole and Faith! They are both strong women and I really did learn a lot from them. Nicole and I spend a lot of time together before we started shooting to form that strong connection Poppie and Natalie has. We truly have a special bond and through this journey, we became really great friends.
The rest of the grew really supported me through everything on set and it felt like we became one big family!
And then Jenna…wow. She believed in me when I didn’t believe that I could play this character. From the beginning, she was super accommodating about anything that I was worried about. I still remember all the Skype sessions and phone calls. At the rehearsal proses (especially one-on-one rehearsals), she helped me to understand where Poppie came from – her background- and why she does what she does. The fact that she believed in me the way she did, gave me the confidence I needed to portray Poppie.
On set, she gave me the creative freedom to improvise and take chances. It was an honor working with her!
Q: As we speak, you are heading to Berlinale for the film’s premiere. How excited are you for audiences to see the film?
A: Just being able to attend the Berlinale is already unbelievably exciting! This is my first time attending such a big film festival and I can’t wait to be surrounded by people all over the world who share the same passion as me!
I am overexcited for audiences to see Flatland! I am really looking forward to sharing this incredible story with people and also to hear their thoughts!
Q: For international audiences, ‘Flatlands’ might be their first introduction to you. Can you tell us about your background and what drew you to acting?
A: I am a big introvert and this is actually the main reason my mom send me to drama class when I was four years old. My first drama teacher planted the seeds of storytelling and this grew into being my passion and career. I started with stage acting and did two theatre productions when I was about 11 years old. I got my first professional film role at the age of 14 and that experience just motivated me even more to work hard and improve my skill.
When I was 16, I did a film called Dis Ek Anna, based on a true story about a young girl being sexually abused by her step father. This really opened my eyes and showed me what a film can really mean to people and how you can help and inspire them. This is definitely why I love being an actress and what drew me to acting as a career. I love stories or characters that challenge me.
Not only in my career, but also in a personal way. The number of things I learned about myself through the films I did, makes me a stronger person! I love portraying a character in a true-life film. This gives me the opportunity to do an intense amount of research on the person I am portraying.
I love learning new skills and playing a variety of different characters. I worked on a radio drama for a year. This is a genre of storytelling that I never knew could be so much fun! My motto in life is quite cliché but it has inspired me a lot in the past year. It is: “don’t be afraid to fail, rather be afraid not to try”.
Q: What is next for you and what are your ambitions for the future?
A: My ambitions and dreams for the future are being able to keep on telling stories that can have an influence on people’s lives and change them for the better!
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to study acting in New York. So directly after Berlinale, I am flying to NY to do a few acting courses. I am so excited and grateful for this opportunity and that some of my dreams are coming true! I feel so blessed!