Based on the memoirs of Nelson Mandela’s prison guard, GOODBYE BAFANA is the true story of a white South African racist whose life was profoundly altered by the important prisoner he guarded for twenty years. We talk to actor Dennis Haysbert who plays the iconic Mandela on screen.
Q: What made you want to play the part of Nelson Mandela?
A: That’s a really easy answer because of who the man is. I believe he’s one of the top five human beings in human history, because of what he did in South Africa, for South Africa, for the twenty-seven years plus that he spent in prison for his ideas.
Q: Wasn’t it a little intimidating to play a man of that calibre?
A: It was daunting. I struggled a little early on with feelings of worthiness, but I trust Bille, and Bille trusts me, so I quickly got over that and just decided I was going to do my best.
Q: What can tell us about the story of Goodbye Bafana?
A: For me, it chronicles the relationship between James Gregory, who was Nelson Mandela’s warder for over twenty years, both on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor. I play Nelson of course, and it starts off with James Gregory being a devout racist. But, you could tell his heart really wasn’t into it, and with further interaction with Mandela, he completely turns around, as do most of the guards.
Q: How do you see Mandela’s relationship with his warder James Gregory, and how it develops?
A: I think at first it was a relationship Mandela wanted to exploit, because he knew there was a human being under the uniform. Because he knew Xhosa, Mandela also thought, “This man can’t be that far gone.” He only discovers he knows Xhosa when he is speaking to his wife on visiting day. To him that was a tell-tale sign.
Q: How much did you know beforehand about South Africa, Mandela, Apartheid.…?
A: I did some lengthy research on Mandela and South Africa, but you can never really know about it until you get to the country. I’ve made some interesting observations, that I think I’ll keep to myself for the time being, but it’s a very interesting country. A country that’s come a long way in twelve years, and in some ways has come further along than some states in the United States, sadly to say. But they still have a long way to go.
Q: Did you shoot the film using the exact locations in South Africa?
A: It couldn’t work anywhere else. You have to shoot it where he grew up. You have to have the landscape, the locations, etc…We’re sitting in the middle of Pollsmoor maximum security prison, and this is where he stayed for a good many years. They think he stayed eighteen years in Robben Island, and around two or three years here before moving to Victor Verster. This was the real deal.
Q: How did you prepare for the part?
A: I did about as much research as I could about Nelson himself. I listened to all his speeches, and I have some favourites. I listened to everything, and closely. I don’t think he was a man who was perfect in his speech. He would make mistakes. I thought that was very human. He didn’t make any bones about it, and had
no teleprompters or anything else like that, just gave his speeches straight from memory, or what he had written down.
Q: Technically, how did you cope with doing not only the South African accent, but also Mandela’s very unique voice?
A: I just listened to a lot of tapes, and had a very good dialogue coach. We just practised, practised, practised.
Q: Were there any other specific skills you had to learn to play the part of Mandela?
A: Yes, one in particular: stick fighting, which is a lot of fun. It can be a little rough on the hands and the limbs! It’s a brutal game, but it more of a dance than anything else. It’s really quite fun and a great workout!