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Sunday Times STLive By Chris Barron, 2013-02-24

What I've learnt: Atandwa Kani

Atandwa Kani says his dad has taught him to strive for excellence
Image: Lifestyle Magazine

The actor on resilience, paying his dues and what it's like working with his legendary father

Atandwa Kani, 28, is receiving rave reviews for his starring role in Athol Fugard's The Island.The play, about two prisoners on Robben Island, is directed by Kani's famous father, John.

I have been directed by my father before and it was gruelling. I promised myself I would never let it happen again, it was just too painful. This production was actor Nat Ramabulana's idea and I could just feel my heart beating slower and slower. He said, "Let's contact him," so I said, "Okay, let's make it a formal meeting, very professional and all."

I have learnt that it is helpful to formalise the relationship with my father. He can be very influential, so you have to have boundaries. When we're in the theatre, we don't speak about this or that or refer to each other as whatever. It's "Yes, Mr Kani, no, Mr Kani," and he treats me like one of the other actors. When we get into the parking lot, he throws the keys at me and says: "God, I'm glad that's over, drive me home."

I've seen so much theatre in my life it's unbelievable. I've seen all the shows that my old man has done since I can remember, all the shows he wanted to see. I used to fall asleep in the theatre and I used to hate it and never understood why I had to watch this. He forced me to. If I'd had any choice I would have been at home, with my TV games or whatnot.

Having studied the man, I have learnt so much. I'm still learning, I'm still this sponge. I've learnt how to manage the discipline it takes, not to fall off the edge so people think: "What a spoilt brat this guy has become, we can't work with him." There's a lot of stuff you have to actively do to maintain this career. That's what I've learnt from him.

There are times when I complain. He says: "You told me you wanted to be an actor. Well, this is what you have to deal with, and you have to deal with it with a smile because if you don't love what you're doing then just quit and don't waste our time. This is real acting." And I sit back and go: "Wow, I've just been given a talking to."

I've learnt from my father that being the best you think you are is not good enough. You've got to be the best that you could possibly be, ever. Don't give yourself any breaks, don't sympathise with yourself, just throw yourself in, learn how to swim.

What I've learnt about really famous actors is their incredible skill, and the humility they possess, which I think comes with time.

When you talk to them, you learn how far you have to go or how little you've accomplished. And that's quite jarring because you thought you'd accomplished so much. You realise how far off the mark you really are and how many more years you're going to have to work just to get close to them.

Of course, there are some incredibly big egos in this industry. For a young artist, there's a kind of obligation to stroke them, in a way. I have had to do a lot of stroking, I'm not going to lie, but only to show that I'm not an obtuse actor just off the streets; I know what I'm doing and I know how much you've done; I know all your accolades and productions. So they feel comfortable that, okay, this guy is actually learned and well read, he knows about art and he's not disrespecting the arts. And you make them feel like the most important actor, that they've done the most revolutionary work.

Every actor deserves to feel like that at some point. It doesn't matter if it is deserved, the truth is I respect you because you've been doing it for such a long time, and I've just started. So there's a hell of a lot of respect I owe that actor.

When you give other actors respect, it is no longer demanded. That's the key. If you don't know who they are and you don't even give a damn about them, that's when they start demanding it and then your life is all hell.

The Island has taught me about the resilience of the human spirit. About the importance of camaraderie, of friendship, that the spirit will never be conquered as long as there is someone else there to hold your hand and pick you up. It's also taught me to never blame anything for your situation but to always make the best of where you are right now. We don't spend the play complaining about apartheid and why it's such an unjust system. It's about what we want to achieve, as opposed to what we've been prevented from achieving. The lessons are so pertinent today.

  • The Island is on at the Market Theatre in Joburg until March 24.