Close-Up: An Interview With Bella Kouds

Actress Bella Kouds joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about her acting journey, her approach to playing Hamlet, seeking out challenging roles, and much more.

Hi Bella, welcome to Close-Up Culture. Can you tell us about your background and what led you to acting?

Hello! Thank you so much for having me. 

Growing up in Zimbabwe, I constantly found myself exploring the outdoors and was deeply inspired by the beautiful nature that surrounded me. Music played constantly in our home from my mothers eternal music library.  Every Friday evening we were treated to a home film, often in a language we had never heard of and although we were not always enthusiastic about mum’s choice, nonetheless it was the beginning of my cultural and cinematic journey.

Lagaan, Jean de Florette and Cinema Paradiso, became my particular favorites. What led me to acting was how theatre and film evoked my emotions. This was the magic I identified with and my cultural consumption intensified.

I joined the drama club in grade 2 and instantly found a home away from home. My 14-year-old self made a permanent choice that acting would be my path for ever. It was a world that oozed happiness, compassion, thought and mindfulness. It provoked thought, discussion, question, wonder and sadness.

Photo by  Xanthe Elbrick

How do you reflect on your early years in the industry and the struggles you faced?

When I first started acting, it was most certainly daunting and immensely intimidating. Acting in school plays was feared and I always found myself letting nerves and the fear of rejection get the better of me. Although this was dispiriting, I was fortunate to identify that rejections are far more present in an actor’s life than rewards.

Once I was able to face this reality, and once I allowed myself to trust the process of being an actor giving nothing but my all, I was fortunate to be awarded the best actor in Zimbabwe under the age of 16 for my role as Brigitta in “The Sound of Music”. After this milestone, I was able to understand that rejections are building blocks, not failures.

You are currently starring in an off-Broadway production of Hamlet at The Flea Theatre Tribeca. What excited you about this project?

The opportunity to audition for Hamlet as a 22 year old female was definitely inviting, and most certainly a challenge that I was ready to tackle. Although I’ve read Shakespearean plays; It was my very first Shakespearean acting role. It always felt far beyond my reach. However, the concept of “bungee jumping” into certain aspects of acting which I don’t feel experienced in, has always fascinated me. I was more than excited to shoot as many countless shots as possible to widen my skill.

How did you approach this iconic role?

As ignorant as this may seem, I did my best to disregard the fact that he is an icon of literature, as that would only heighten the pressure. Whenever I told anyone about the play, “Ah are you Ophelia?” they asked, to which I replied “No, Hamlet”, many laughed it off thinking I was joking. “No really, I am Hamlet”, I emphasized! Every time I said it out loud, I felt little butterflies creep in, the world perceives him in a way, and I better do it justice, could I do it justice? Doubt creeps in. Yes there is an expectation when playing someone so iconic, but in the early stages, the only way was to absorb Hamlet, become friends and sip tea with him. Perform daily tasks together in order to speak the same language.

One finds ways of connecting to him, to his pain, his struggles.

Trying to translate the language into modern day. Once that was done, I started to play with character just like any other role.

I elected to highlight the masculine side, so I merged a chameleon with a gheko (animal work) and we became rather effortlessly close.

What do you hope to takeaway from the production?

I hope to take away the resilience and confidence that I further develop and carry this forward in all of the productions I am a part of in the future. Everything is much more mental than physical, after all shadows are more fierce than reality. I will use this experience as a guiding light whenever doubt creeps in. Creating a character that felt so far removed from me in many ways, and finding a way to exist together and speak the same language, was beyond rewarding. 

What type of roles would you love to take on in the future?

Exploring characters that function from an internal space I guess. Who doesn’t like a challenging role?  Two roles that have have moved into my heart permanently are Marry Warren in “The Crucible”, and Anna from “Anatomy of A Suicide”. 

What do you like to get up to away from acting?

Every second weekend I’m gigging with my very talented friend Spencer Arjang all around the city. He plays his musical instrument and we both sing- If we could gig every night we would. Gigging together is food for the soul. Not to mention how much fun we have! Can I send you a ticket to our next gig?

What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?

I look forward to putting up my own plays, or to find a team and constantly be putting up work together. I have come out of training with an incredible group of actors, and I believe in supporting one another whenever we can.

An African Proverb summarizes what I am trying to say much more eloquently and is one of my favorite quotes:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.

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