Interview: Carel Nel on Raised by Wolves, Slaaf, 4 Mure and more
If you bumped into Carel Nel at Tops, you would be forgiven for thinking that you just saw Abraham Lincoln, not because you’re already drunk at 10am, but because this multi-award-winning actor did in fact play the role of Abe in Grant on The History Channel.
He also had a role in the Emmy-nominated Roots alongside Forest Whitaker and Laurence Fishburne and most recently starred as Karl the android in Ridley Scott’s Raised by Wolves. Locally he recently starred in productions such as 4 Mure, Ekstra Medium and Fynskrif. The list is actually so impressive that we’ve included it at the end of this interview.
We were lucky to catch Carel on his way to yet another rehearsal and he chatted to us about starring as two androids, mister Ridley Scott casually informing him that he was about to blow something up behind him, how to land international roles wiff de right accent and their latest film debuting at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
You won the award for Best Actor back to back at the kykNet Silwerskerm Festival in 2016 and 2017 for Hum and Slaaf. You also co-wrote Slaaf – did that enhance your performance of the role?
Back in 2013 or 2014, Wessel Pretorius wrote the play and we conceptualised it together. It was based on a story of someone I knew from my hometown. I was involved in the creation of the play so I wouldn’t say I completely co-wrote it. Being so involved in that process did really help me understand the character much better. I really knew who he was so I was able to really tap into him and it was much easier. It felt like I had a complete rehearsal before we started filming the short film and it did help me a tremendous amount.
It seems that you are equally successful in theatre productions, having won the Fleur du Cap award for Best Actor for Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey. I know this gets asked a lot, but If you had to choose a first love between film, television and theatre, which one would it be?
We do get asked that question a lot and I think that’s a very unfair question, because I love all three. I’ve had amazing experiences in all three but also really bad experiences with all three. For me, it doesn’t matter which medium it is – the story will always be the most important thing. I don’t care if it’s film, television or theatre, as all of them have their pros and their cons.There’s nothing like walking out onto a theatre stage in a sold-out venue – it’s an incredible experience – but then there’s also the thrill of making film and the pace of making TV.
The plays Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey and Slaaf were adapted for TV and film. Do you think that there is scope for stage productions in its rawest form to be filmed for streaming platforms such as Showmax?
I think it can definitely work. It depends on the story and how you’re going to film it. If you film filmatically and the story leans that way, then yes, definitely. But if the story is very theatrical and very heightened I don’t think it’ll work. Closer, for instance, is a play by Patrick Marber and it was turned into a film with Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman and it was phenomenal. It’s been done quite a lot where they’ve really successfully filmed theatre plays, so I would definitely do it.
In 4 Mure, the hotel room features as an omnipotent character of sorts. To what extent do you think our homes became characters in our lives during lockdown in 2020?
Yes, I do feel that our homes became characters in our lives. I live in a two-and-a-half-bedroom flat in Cape Town, so I can only speak of my own experience. My wife and I were stuck in here, especially those first five weeks. If it wasn’t for my PlayStation 4 I don’t know what I would have done!
We were busy fixing up everything and trying to get everything ready – washing the windows, defrosting the fridge, and then after two weeks you’ve done everything and there is nothing left to do anything anymore. So yeah, I think our houses did become characters in our lives.
You’ve been in quite a few international productions such as the Emmy-nominated Roots, Grant (as an uncanny Abraham Lincoln) and most recently as Karl in Ridley Scott’s dramatic sci-fi fantasy, Raised by Wolves. What does it take to land international roles?
The first thing is you need to be able to do accents. I did an audition once for my agent, Moonyeenn Lee, who unfortunately passed away last year from the coronavirus. She was an incredible woman. I did an audition for her for Roots and she looked at me after the audition and she said: “Karel, I think you’re perfect for the role, but your accent is horrendous!” so she gave me a phone number and said: “Go and spend money on your accent, you won’t regret it!”
I did and I think it cost me something like R5 000. I got proper coaching to do a British accent, which kind of taught me that I needed to do that with an American accent as well. I didn’t get that exact part but I got a bigger role because my accent was so good! So the first thing that you need is to have believable American and British accents.
International roles were not necessarily the ultimate goal for me. I looked at actors who were working a lot and thought “How can I work more?”. I wasn’t getting a lot of local work, I think because I’m skinny and I have a weird look that makes it harder to place me in roles.
So I thought I needed to diversify myself and that’s when I started doing accents. I started landing a lot of international jobs, which obviously pays more because they have dollars. But I really wanted to be able to do both local and international work and am finally reaping the benefits. I’m slowly getting more local work as well and not just doing international work, so it’s really helped me a tremendous amount.
In Raised by Wolves, you play the roles of both Karl and Android Surgeon, right? Was Karl really the character’s name or did they name it after you? Also your character’s makeup looks fantastic!
I’m actually the character, Android Surgeon in episode 2, who is half burnt on the spaceship and does the face transplants on the other androids. I was told that I would definitely be in another episode as a different android or as a couple of other androids, so I suspect Karl was named after me.
I don’t know that for sure, but I suspect it. I mean, it’s just too weirdly similar? As for the makeup, it is all prosthetics. In episode 8, where I’m Karl, that’s a prosthetics mask that goes over my head and nose and then from the nose down, it’s all makeup.
It was quite an intense experience. It took us about four hours each day. If we started shooting at seven o’clock, I would be there at ten to three already. We’d sit in the makeup chair from three until seven and then I’d go to set and then we’d shoot. And then the next morning I had to be there at three again, so it was quite rough.
Apparently Raised by Wolves is the largest production to date to be filmed in South Africa. That must have been an amazing experience?
Yes, working on Raised by Wolves was by far the most insane experience I’ve had. I mean, on the first day of shooting, Ridley Scott would come up to me and say, “Listen, there’s going to be an explosion behind you…” and I was like “I don’t understand?” and he said: “The spaceship behind you is going to explode. There’ll be flames. Don’t worry, you’re safe!”
They talked us through the whole thing and I was still kind of gobsmacked by the idea that the spaceship would explode behind me and in the take we were running away and all of a sudden there’s just this explosion where they exploded the entire thing behind us! It was phenomenal to see!
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from this massive production?
We should reach for the stars. I mean, we’re capable in South Africa – the crews here are world-class so we can do these kinds of things. If we get the right budget to be able to compete with any film industry in the world, in terms of production value, I think we can do insane work in this country because of the talent that we have in our crews and our actors. We have phenomenal actors in this country!