TV star Julia has more tools than just Suzelle
Julia Anastasopoulos, better known as Suzelle DIY, has created a TV personality paradox, a character that people love to hate, the loquacious Jewish princess Tali Shapiro of 'Tali's Wedding Diary'
Whenever Tali Shapiro binges on challah bread, she has to wear a belt of ridiculous jangling weights at her fitness class, symbolising her sins. "I mean it's humiliating, but it's brilliant," says Tali.
That line is also a decent summary of Tali's Wedding Diary. The Showmax mockumentary mines a glittering reef of embarrassment. Over eight episodes we shadow Tali, a status-obsessed Jewish princess from Joburg now grumpily resident in Bantry Bay.
As she plots her journey towards her Big Day with Darren Nudelman, a hapless estate agent trying to break into the gentrification racket, things go consistently and mortifyingly wrong for her.'Like the protagonists of The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Tali is so humanly awful that she defeats our template for sorting heroes from villains. She is so silly, so entitled, so thick, so inept, so mean and so vulnerable that it feels mean to hate her. It's a weird sensation.
'YOU HAVE TO PUSH IT A BIT'
Even the show's co-creator, Julia Anastasopoulos, who plays Tali and began inventing her during her high school days at St Mary's School in Johannesburg, is baffled by her squawking, drawling antiheroine. "I hope what we've achieved is that although Tali is kind of despicable, you can watch her. There is something about her that's quite delicious.
"I was worried that maybe it was too mean, but you have to go there. You have to push it a bit. Hopefully I've shown a bit of the human side to her as well, that she is actually quite insecure, and that's why she's so terrible. It was a challenge to get that balance right."
On the evidence of one interview, I can assure you that Anastasopoulos is nothing like Tali. Nor is she anything like Suzelle DIY, her other comic persona.
Anastasopoulos is scrupulously polite, thoughtful and introverted. She is also a successful illustrator - her work includes a wonderful architectural mural at the Cape Town Civic Centre MyCiTi bus station - who puts in long hours of solitary drawing. Since childhood, she has managed a tactile sensitivity disorder ("certain fabrics really freak me out").
"If there's any similarity between me and Tali," she says, "I would say it's that we both wear a lot of black, stretchy exercise clothes, just because I favour comfort over everything else."I asked her husband and creative partner, the filmmaker Ari Kruger, who directed and co-wrote both TWD and Suzelle DIY, whether he believes that playing these two bolshy women was therapeutic for her. "Yes, absolutely," says Kruger. "I think it unleashes her inner desire to control situations - and people."
THE TIME WAS RIPE
It took a controlling mutual friend to set her up with Kruger. "We'd known each other as friends for a while," says Kruger. "I was always attracted to her because of the work that she used to make. From a distance it was evident that she was extremely creative - making things from plush toys to murals and cartoons. And I was also always making stuff - short films, paintings.
"A friend of ours, Josh Ginsberg, was always pushing me to get together with Julia, and also pushing her to get together with me, as I later discovered. His rationale was that we both make things without knowing why. So we were both eyeing each other but the timing was never right."
Eventually, they found their moment - and two years into their relationship created Suzelle DIY, a web video series whose massive popularity lured a queue of sponsors. The success of Suzelle helped to secure a fat budget from Showmax to produce Tali's Wedding Diary.
Hence the show's superb cast and pricy establishing shots of the Atlantic Seaboard, often using aerial footage tracking in from the sea, which deliver a sheen of glossy spectacle that is rare in South African TV.These shots are also part of the show's comic payload: the fantasy world of privileged, white Cape Town is as much a satirical target as Tali's deeply Joburg delusions. (In one of the funniest plot lines, Tali attempts to con an insufferably floaty Wasp fiancèe into cancelling her reservation at a fancy wedding venue. She doesn't succeed, but you half want her to.)
Anastasopoulos moved down from Joburg about 15 years ago to study drama at the University of Cape Town, and now feels more or less Capetonian. So Tali's semigration problems are not hers.
"I grew up in such a little private school bubble, and then you go to Cape Town for drama school and you're meeting amazing people from all walks of life. But we wanted to put a Joburg character in Cape Town who hates Cape Town. And to make Cape Town a character in the show. I used my own experience with my parents. My dad complains nonstop when he's here. 'What's this? Craft beer? Typical Capetonian!'"
As a Greek South African, it took some chutzpah for Anastasopoulos to create an Afrikaans comedy character, then a Jewish one. But Kruger is Jewish, as is the show's third writer, Daniel Zimbler, and both infused the script with sociolinguistic nuances from their own networks. Nonfictional kugels, from Sandton to Sea Point, love the results.
"A real-life Tali-babes doesn't always know that she's a real-life Tali-babes," says Kruger. "But she thinks her best friend is a real-life Tali-babes. So she'll watch it and go, oh my God, this girl reminds me of you. Others are unashamedly Tali-babes - they love it and they don't see the problem. Obviously the decisions that Tali makes are exaggerated - she is an amplified version of them. And the fact that bad things happen to Tali, that she doesn't get her way, has created the ease for people who might potentially have been offended. Tali doesn't win.
KEEPING IT REAL
"It's so easy to fall into caricature territory. But Julia is brilliant at bringing authenticity and vulnerability to the characters - that make you love those characters. Or love to hate her, in the case of Tali."Anastasopoulos has a magical ear for narrow genres of dialect. Suzelle is not a generic platteland princess, she is a particular subtype thereof. Hence she is adored by Afrikaans viewers who recognise that subtype. Similarly, there are probably only one or two thousand young women in South Africa who speak exactly like Tali - among them some old schoolmates of Anastasopoulos.
She says the processes of developing the voice and the character are intertwined. "As soon as you've figured out the nuances of a dialect, it really helps to find the character. Tali speaks in quite a lethargic way, which I've tapped into. A slow, flat sound. It's quite infuriating actually. 'DARREN-AAA!' She likes to add an extra vowel to the end of words."
Anastasopoulos accepts that she is a gifted mimic, but says a character voice can and should mutate beyond its source. "To be honest, I don't even know if I'm doing Tali's voice justice. I just have to latch onto an accent, and it kind of finds a world of its own. It often starts out as one thing and develops into something else. It's quite organic."
Perhaps being part of a small and permeable cultural minority - in her case, Greek South Africans - helps sharpen one's ear for cultural detail and difference.
It figures that two other masterful South African satirists of speech are also minority kids - Nik Rabinowitz is Jewish and Trevor Noah is biracial.
"My dad's second-generation Greek," says Anastasopoulos. "We grew up in Joburg and we've been in the same house since forever, in Parkwood. My folks still live there. My mom is a retired art teacher and my dad is an engineer, but very into design, very artistic and musical.
"I've got an older and younger sister, and we all stay in Cape Town, nearby each other. We often work together and help each other."In the show, her sister Stephanie delivers a superb performance as Michaela, Tali's sister. "We just threw her in there. She's also the stylist and in charge of the wardrobe for the whole show. She worked so hard - shame, I really felt for her. We just played ourselves - or at least our relationship."
At the end of each episode, Tali addresses her fans at alarmingly close range in an Instagram video, regaling them with her latest "important realisation". It's an exquisitely judged parody of the megalomania of the "influencer". Unsurprisingly, Anastasopoulos is not big on social media in her own capacity: she goes online in the guise of her characters.
And there is genuine pathos as well as comedy in the digital enslavement of Tali, whose problem is revealed in the opening scene of the show. Darren proposes to her on a boulder on the Sea Point shoreline. After finally hearing him and turning away from her phone, she howls: "OH MY GOOOOOOD WHAT'S HAPPENIIIING!" Next second, she's back to her phone, instructing Darren to repeat the proposal for the purposes of a video post. "Wait ... wait ... go back! Because I've got to film this. 'Kay wait ... video ... and go!"As she shares the video, standing with her back turned to Darren, she mutters unconvincingly: "I'm so emotional." Darren, played masterfully by Anton Taylor, is still kneeling awkwardly on his rock, abandoned to the void of the offline world.
Scenes like these are hilarious, but they are also fundamentally sad. "It was tough," says Anastasopoulos. "I was really quite nervous about how people would receive it. Especially because Suzelle is so loved. And successful. It was scary to put something new out there. I'm so far in that I can't actually see it. I don't know any more if it works."
Babe, it works. Mmmkay? It works.
THUS SPAKE TALI - BABES: THE GREATEST QUOTATIONS OF TALI SHAPIRO
“Gonna take some photos for Insta.”
“It just looks like you’re squinting into the sun. It’s actually quite natural.”
“She’s f***ing dreaming if she thinks she’s going to be a bridesmaid.”
“Ohmy God . . . it’s leaked.”“We are actually so random.”
“Is this irritating?”
“Sorry, excuse me, I’m quite attached to this area, so can I please put my mat here?”“I’ve seen photos of Jenny Rubenstein’s wedding. She had flies on her face — all over herface. Disgusting.”
“Oh my God, babe. I should not have said anything.”
“OK firstly, I don’t know what this is. Secondly, this is actually an invasion of my privacy. I said swipe right. So don’t look at my private photos.”
“So yes, those are my sizes. Future Tali sizes.”
“I mean it’s humiliating. But it’s brilliant.”
“What I do want to talk about is why the actual f*** you didn’t tell me about the Gulp diet. I have to hear about it from my best friend Gabby, who I hate by the way. She has lost five kilograms in a very short space of time and she’s PREGNANT!”
“This is how a butterfly moves. I did ballet for many years. And modern.”
“And you know what, if he gets a record we’re never going to get into Australia!! I think I’m going to vomit.”
“We’ve got to pay a fine. It’s R25 000. Look, there go the Tiffany chairs. They’re gone.”“Well, you look enormous. Sorry, I had to say it. Someone please get Gabby and her pregnant stomach out of my face.”
“I’m sorry! This is bull***t. The butterflies look like penises.”