Oscar role for Moonyeenn Lee
Lin Sampson talks to Moonyeenn Lee, casting agent, high priestess of SA film and actors’ friendSuper-agent Moonyeenn Lee (pictured above), who counts some of South Africa's best actors as clients, has been invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, making her eligible to vote for next year's Oscar nominations."I was overwhelmed. It came out of the blue. I got an e-mail, which I took through to the main office and said, 'Do you think this is a joke?'"With her navy-blue nails, a ring the size of a small dog and a furry bag that looks like a dead cat, she might be channelling Madame Blavatsky. She talks in a smoky, monosyllabic whisper.Her mother was an actress, and her name comes from an MGM movie called Smilin' Through which was awarded the Academy Award for best picture in 1932.story_article_left1"A friend gave the movie to me and I sat down and watched with my children, and the opening scene was a tombstone with the name Moonyeenn written on it. The kids burst into tears."Moonyeenn was newly divorced 40 years ago and looking for a job."An English producer said to me, 'Why don't you cast a commercial?' I said, 'What is casting?'"She has spent nearly half a century finding out."One learns to recognise talent and, more importantly, untalent. There are a lot of untalented people around who think they can act," she intones gloomily."Usually people with those amazing personalities can't act. They can't get rid of themselves. A friend brought her son to me. He wanted to be an actor. As soon as I laid eyes on him I knew he couldn't act. I told him straight."Moonyeenn is the high priestess of South African film and few films are made in this country without her touch - films like Tsotsi made by Gavin Hood which won an Academy Award in 2006."I have been lucky to work with some of the best directors from abroad and locally, people like Oliver Schmitz and Gavin Hood," she said.Her involvement in Long Walk to Freedom set her in the hall of fame of South African casting agents. "Ask Moon-yeenn," is a phrase familiar to any journalist writing about the arts.Moonyeenn doesn't just rifle her golden Rolodex for contacts, she goes out and finds them. A decade ago her canary-yellow convertible swept through Soweto."People would say 'I love your car', and it was like a happy thing. Today I wouldn't do that, there is too much anger. We must learn, like the French, to make movies that take place in one room and exist within dialogue and relationships that expose the inner self "When I started I used to have one of those large tapes that people used then and I went to London, New York and Los Angeles with pictures of South African actors and I'd say, 'If you are coming to South Africa to make a South African movie, please use South African actors'."And it worked. Today when they come they like to use South African actors. Many of them are very well trained."She is the actor's friend and remains fiercely loyal to South African actors who she feels sometimes get a raw deal."The problem is producers are always looking for a star, but we have wonderful character actors who act as backups for all the leads. Without them the film would be a damp squib. Sometimes the lead actor has a veto on the casting. So if there is an actor that is better looking they can say, 'I don't want him', so the great-looking guys don't get the role. That is one reason so many actors leave South Africa."A girl I sent overseas - Embeth Davidtz - has done really well. She did Spielberg's Schindler's List."The problem is many people are unemployable. "A friend sent her son to me. He said he had a matric, but I didn't even recognise the subjects, stuff like life skills. None of it had any connection to reality and of course these kids don't read but watch really bad television. They need to build up a database of skills and references. Many have the concentration span of a bee's wing."Having a South African accent can also be limiting."I have tried to get actors to learn accents. They spend hours in a gym, but they don't work their tongues, do voice exercises."She feels she has been lucky to work with top directors and scriptwriters."A standout movie for me was Oliver Schmitz's Life, Above All. I said to Oliver, you go and find the location and I will find the children. In some of the places I went to they had never seen a white woman before."Although most of the actors she now works with are black, this was not always the case."I remember when I started I had to go to the police station to get a permit to work with black actors."Another problem is that so much is taboo.story_article_right2"Everyone is caught up in politics and we have to get beyond that. And race. We must learn, like the French, to make movies that take place in one room and exist within dialogue and relationships that expose the inner self. Harold and Maude, for example, could have been made in any country in the world, and that is just what we need here."But the world of film has changed and television - once considered a low-rent alternative which no actor would be seen dead on - is now a major part of an actor's life."The level of TV globally is excellent, but I doubt ours will get better with the people who are running it," says Moonyeenn. "Very few of my actors work on television here because the budgets are smaller than they were 10 years ago."This is not her first invitation to judge the best in the world. Some years back she was made a member of the Television Academy, which presents the Emmy awards."For about four years I was a final judge. There are only about two or three who judge the best international actors. I got to see television from all over the world."Recognition as an academy member bestows on her the privilege of voting in the Best Casting category of the Oscars.Now in her seventies, she says, "I learn something new every day."