Neil Sandilands returned to South Africa last year to star in the Showmax Original ‘DAM’, his first local role since 2013.
Neil Sandilands has come a long way from his time as Bart Kruger on 7de Laan or Zatopek Van Heerden in Orion. Since moving to Hollywood about five years ago, he’s appeared in hit shows like The Flash, The 100, The Americans and Hap and Leonard, as well as films like Paul Greengrass’s News of the World, opposite Tom Hanks.
He returned to South Africa last year to star in the Showmax Original DAM, his first local role since 2013’s Die Ballade Van Robbie De Wee.
Four-time SAFTA winner Alex Yazbek (Unmarried, The Wild, Isibaya) wrote and directed the twisty and twisted eight-part psychological thriller. Silwerskerm Best Actress winner Lea Vivier (Wonderlus) stars as Yola Fischer, who returns from Chile to the Eastern Cape to bury her father. He’s left his farm to her, to the irritation of her sister, Sienna, but this may be more of a curse than a blessing, as the house seems to be trying to tell her something. But with her mother institutionalised, and her own meds running out, Yola has to wonder if the spirits are real or just in her head.
Neil plays Bernoldus, aka Nollie, the town handyman and the local bar’s resident singer-songwriter. “I’d worked with Alex before; I did a stint on Snitch for him,” says Neil. “So he wrote the part with me in mind. Nollie is a small-town misfit; he’s the artist who is hiding in plain sight. Everyone knows him. He’s a bit peculiar. He is almost the jester in Shakespeare who can tell the king that he’s not wearing clothes. There’s a deeper level of understanding, almost mythological, about us as people.”
In the script, Alex used the name Bernoldus Niemand – after cult rocker James Phillips’ alter ego. “I never met James Phillips personally but I’m a huge fan, especially if you think of works like Koos Kombuis’ Niemandsland and Beyond, which he creatively oversaw, and his own work, and what he represented,” says Neil. “So I understand what that archetype is but I’d be hard-pushed to do a carbon copy of who James was. We’re not the same person; we’re different in many ways.”
Neil took that archetype and added his Afrikaans sensibility and other elements he feels are intrinsic to who he is. This included a remarkable, very 2020 lockdown beard. “If you think about the Hollywoodification of stuff, you get so many good-looking people with square jawlines and a lovely set of teeth, but they don’t look like people anymore,” says Neil. “For a character like Bernoldus, he’s so not interested in any of that, so the beard just fit.”
DAM was filmed over two months on location in the Bedford and Adelaide towns of the Amathole District in the Eastern Cape. “It’s been an absolute gift,” says Neil. “I’ve only had an experience like this a handful of times, where I’ve got to do regional work and create this little world, removed from society, intermingling with the locals. It’s really special, also because this time it’s my own country and people I understand, and we get to dive into our African mythology as a sub narrative. So this is dear to me.”
Neil returned to South Africa in February 2020, oblivious to the coming lockdown, and is still here a year later. “My lease was expiring and my Oupa was sick, so I moved all my stuff into storage and I came to say goodbye to my grandad. It worked out splendidly. It might sound strange, but 2020 was scripted marvellously for me. I’ve been busy – it’s been creative and spectacular and so much fun. I created a music video for one of my songs and recorded a track with Karen Zoid. I was part of an Afrikaans radio drama for RSG – a first for me. And I got to see the magnificence of this country, driving through places like Mariepskop, and Gariep Dam, and then the Eastern Cape for DAM. I undoubtedly preferred 2020 to 2019.”
While shooting DAM, Neil got to explore the Eastern Cape a little. “I had the opportunity to visit Hogsback and go back through Alice. I had the privilege of visiting my friend Andries Bezuidenhout, a lecturer at Fort Hare. We spoke at length about Alice and Fort Hare and the legacy of the education that was presented there, and the great names who attended there, from Oliver Tambo to Nelson Mandela, and what it looks like now. It was a historical overview with someone who’s really in the know: I enjoyed that. I don’t think you can tell the South African story without Alice.”
Neil declines the opportunity to offer any advice to local actors. “You’re in scary terrain if you start offering advice, especially in times like this. The reality is there is no similar story when it comes to actors, who continue to do work over several decades. The stories are markedly different, so you have to just dare to live your own narrative as well as you possibly can.”
While Neil is often held up as one of South Africa’s acting success stories, he says it’s never been a straight road. “I’ve gone for long stints without booking a single thing,” he admits. “In my mind, even those moments are of great value. My approach has always been, ‘If I never shoot a frame in my life again, I have to still derive value from existence.’ Ultimately, you have to go for joy as a human being. Forget about the acting; that’s secondary in terms of categorical imperatives.”
While Neil says he isn’t back in South Africa for good, his prolonged stay has “certainly affirmed the incredible love I have for my country. I’m very much a clansman and this is my clan. I don’t know if it will ever be a thing of permanence. I haven’t lived my life that way: if they sign me up to Antarctica tomorrow, I’ll do it for the adventure. But it would be ever so nice if I could put a peg down here and still be able to do work that transcends geography.”