In conversation with renowned casting director and agent Moonyeenn Lee

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Moonyeenn Lee (middle) with her children David and Cindy, and her dog Hitchcock (Photo by Leigh Page).

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Moonyeenn Lee is a legendary South African casting director and agent, who’s been nominated for two Emmy Awards in the last three years (for The Looming Tower and Roots).

She’s received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the South African Film and Television Awards and Rapid Lion, among others; judges the International Emmy Awards; and is a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes for the Oscars, and the Television Academy, which votes for the Emmys.

She’s cast or helped cast the Oscar-winning Tsotsi; the Oscar-nominated Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond; the Oscar-shortlisted Black Panther and Life, Above All; the Golden Globe nominees Machine Gun Preacher and Mandela and De Klerk; and Emmy-winning series like Homeland, as well as nominees like The Prisoner and No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, among others.

We caught up with her to chat about why she thinks South African TV is “worse than when we started 40 years ago”; why she hates actors who talk about “building their brand”; and why she agreed to cast Showmax’s first original drama, The Girl From St Agnes – her first TV series in a decade…

WHY HAVEN’T YOU DONE MORE LOCAL TV WORK RECENTLY?

Most of the work I do is international and the local work is mostly film work. Before The Girl From St Agnes, the last local series I cast was The Lab. I loved doing series like that and Hopeville and Yizo Yizo. We did some good things.

But most local TV is terrible today. When I received an Mbokodo Award for my contribution to film in South Africa, I said that, in my opinion, TV today is worse than when we started 40 years ago. At least then we had great stories, told by really interesting filmmakers like Manie van Rensburg.

I always tell my actors to watch a film called Phantom Thread. The story is not told with the words; it’s told in the silences, and no one is frightened to be quiet with each other. But in South African television, they tell you what you’re about to see, then you see it, then they tell you what you’ve just seen. They believe that the majority of their audiences are idiots.

All the countries in the world that make television are doubling or tripling their budgets to compete for a world audience, except us. Most of our budgets are lower than they were 10 years ago.

And there’s no room for me. They cast people dependent on how many Instagram followers they’ve got…

SO HOW DID THE GIRL FROM ST AGNES LURE YOU BACK?

Harriet [Gavshon, the producer] phoned me and said she really needs my help, because this is a project that’s very close to her. I love her and have enormous respect for her so we started on this journey. She said all we have to do is cast three or four of the main parts. But when I read this, I said, “No, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it all.”

I thought the premise was really interesting. It’s very different to anything else that we’ve done here and I thought a lot of the characters were really well drawn.

I also knew so many of the people who were involved in it. My daughter, Cindy, is one of the two directors. So this was close to my heart.

ARE THERE LOTS OF OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THIS FOR ENGLISH ACTORS IN SOUTH AFRICA?

No, English-speaking actors generally work internationally and they have to do American or British accents to make decent money. That was why it was nice when this came up, to do English – but South African English.

WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN CASTING THE GIRL FROM ST AGNES?

The Girl From St Agnes was difficult because we had to find actresses who were not 17 or 18 in real life, because then they would have been writing matric when we were shooting. So we had to find actresses who look 18 but are in their 20s. But the whole thing just fell into place. Some of the younger actresses we cast could stand out anywhere.

HOW DID YOU FIND WORKING WITH YOUR DAUGHTER, CINDY LEE?

Exhilarating. Exacting. She worked for me for a year, before she started as a copywriter. I told her, “If you’re going to write and direct, you need to understand actors and how they work and what you can get out of them.” She’s been brought up with actors and used to go to the theatre with me from when she was tiny, so she gets it. You see that in her commercials – most of them are performance-driven.

This is the first time we’ve ever been able to work together and I loved it.

WHAT’S THE SECRET TO CASTING?

For me it’s about taste.

When I watch television and film, if somebody puts me off as an actor, I can’t watch the rest of it. But someone else may say they’re fantastic.

I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with some of the greatest directors in the world. We nearly always become really good friends and stay friends, but it’s because we have the same taste. If I meet a director and don’t get on with them, I won’t do the project, because it’s pointless if we don’t have the same taste.

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE WHICH ACTORS YOU REPRESENT?

When I meet actors who want us to represent them, I’ll tell you in five minutes whether we’ll work or not. They don’t have to audition; I know immediately.

If they come in and say, “I want to build my brand,” I have a big hissy fit and say, ‘”Out and goodbye. Have a good life.”

A lot of it has become about how little clothing you can wear and get away with. There is this whole thing about, “How many followers can I have? Can I be the next Kardashian?” The kids today come on set in the morning straight from a party, have no idea about the scene and haven’t learnt their lines – and they don’t care. I’m not saying they’re all like that; there are a lot of actors who are really good. But the basic values have changed and it’s just become rubbish. Sometimes we’ve taken them on by mistake but we get rid of them deliberately. I don’t have the patience.

Being an actor is incredibly hard work and I have enormous respect for real actors, not pretend actors. You have to stay well and you have to stay focused and you have to stay fit. It’s a hard life. It’s not your own. You have no privacy and everything you do, someone is going to talk about. You can’t do normal things like other people can.

WHAT DO SOUTH AFRICAN ACTORS NEED TO WORK ON?

A lot. I don’t think that young actors read enough and they don’t watch old films and they don’t watch or do theatre. When they work with great directors, the directors make references to things and the kids don’t know what they’re talking about.

When I was doing Class Act [a reality TV talent search for South Africa’s next big actor], I worked with those finalists and I used to bring my DVDs in to show them, because they didn’t know who half the actors were that we used to talk about.

I told someone they reminded me of a young Marlon Brando and he did not know who Marlon Brando was. I went out and bought him a box set of Marlon Brando films.

They don’t read enough; they don’t know about the history; they don’t have enough respect for the craft. They only know the glamour and the glitz; they need to become more knowledgeable about what they do.

IS SOUTH AFRICAN TALENT BECOMING AN EASIER SELL ON INTERNATIONAL PRODUCTIONS?

Unless they’re playing a South African, or an African, if they can’t do American or British accents, they can’t do international work. American is a totally foreign language: the pronunciation is different, the emphasis is different, everything is different.

When we first started doing international films in South Africa, they used to bring all the cast in. Now they’re starting to trust us a lot more. With a lot of our actors, their American or their English accents are so good, audiences don’t know they’re even South Africans.

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