Cantona James on method acting and his breakout role in Spinners

10 October 2023

Cantona James on method acting and his breakout role in Spinners

Spinners is now streaming on Showmax, with new episodes coming on Wednesdays until 27 December.

Spinners became the first African series selected in competition at Canneseries; won three awards at Dakar Series, including Best TV Series; received a standing ovation from its sold-out South African premiere at Silwerskerm; and was the opening night screening at MIP Africa, generating rave reviews, with TWFLD hailing it as “the gold standard for local productions.” 

Spinners follows Ethan, a 17-year-old driver working for a local gang. Needing to support his younger brother but increasingly disgusted with gang life, Ethan discovers a possible way out via spinning, an extreme motorsport where he can put his driving skills to better use. With a gang war looming, can he turn his life around fast enough? 

Watch the trailer for Spinners

Ahead of Spinners’ premiere on Showmax on 8 November 2023, we caught up with lead actor Cantona James (Arendsvlei, Blood & Water), who won Best Performance at Dakar for his breakthrough performance as Ethan. 

What’s the appeal of spinning?

I grew up in a community where spinning was huge but my father didn’t want me to go to the spinning events. So I never really got the appeal until I went for my own spinning test drive. Then I understood, finally.

Cantona James as Ethan in Spinners on Showmax.

It’s like all your problems fade away. You focus; it’s between you and the car, and just hearing people enjoy this. 

Tell me about working with your stunt double?

So unfortunately my stunt double rarely worked because I’m a method actor. So I totally refused. Luckily, I got some incredible coaching from David Davidoss. There was one day though that he did work. There were bees somewhere and I’m allergic to bees, so I couldn’t jump over the wall. But most of my stunts I did on my own – it’s more believable – and I loved it. 

And the stunt driving? 

The precision drivers… unfortunately I can’t come close to them, so I couldn’t insist on doing my own stunts. It’s totally an art: you think they just spin the car recklessly, but the precision, take after take, to do the same thing was just mind-blowing. Our spinning co-ordinator Yaseen Damon ranked high at Red Bull Shay’ iMoto, so he’s really great, and he ran a beautiful team. They were amazing every take. 

Do you relate to your character, Ethan, and his story?

Ethan is miles apart from how I grew up. I grew up not very fortunate, but well off enough. So I never had to stress about a single thing that Ethan thought about; I never thought about feeding my siblings, or a parent that is dealing with drugs, or gangsterism. 

Jihaad Otto and Cantona James in Spinners on Showmax
Jihaad Otto and Cantona James

But I do relate to his guilt and feeling responsible for the choices that people are making around you. I felt that similarity because I walked a lot of years with guilt at not protecting my family. I lost my entire family: my mother, brother and sister. And being the eldest child, I felt like I didn’t do enough to protect them. And Ethan also deals with feeling like he’s not doing enough – even though it’s all he can do. And I did all I could do as well. Ethan helped me to heal wounds I never even knew weren’t healed before. 

What was it like filming in the Cape Flats? 

As someone coming from Johannesburg, I’ve heard a lot of stories about Lavender Hill. Lavender Hill was actually one of the places I was warned against and told not to go into. 

The word cathartic was used a lot on set, because we were surrounded by the story we’re telling. I’m talking about kids from 10 years old and younger, not being at school, working, selling drugs. I’m telling a fictional story, but these kids are living the life. So for me, it helped with sourcing the story and the character, and also bringing a sense of responsibility to everyone and everything that we’re doing, because we can see who we’re doing it for. 

We were allowed to see the human within all these people. So it was really a beautiful experience for me being in all these communities.

As a method actor, can you tell us some of the crazy things you did to prepare for the role of Ethan? 

I was smoking for like three years at the time, a pack and a half a day. Literally, the weekend before I started shooting, I was still smoking because my aunt had passed away and so I had to go to her funeral. It was a lot of stress, so I smoked. 

But as soon as I stepped on set as Ethan, I stopped smoking. It helped me a lot because the anxiety started resurfacing in my body, so I could show everything he is going through. 

Cantona James as Ethan in Spinners on Showmax.

Then, for preparation for the role, I started eating once a day as well, because Ethan doesn’t have the luxury of eating more than once a day. I realised that when your stomach speaks louder than your thoughts, your moral meter starts fading, because now you will do anything to survive. Your fight or flight starts being louder than anything; louder than your conscience. And so you will do what you need to do to survive. Having that going on in my body but reminding myself that someone else is feeling worse, my baby brother, that just enhanced the responsibility that I felt I needed to take care of him. 

I took my character home, which never really is a good thing. The people I lived with didn’t really like the fact that I didn’t show any emotion for four months of shooting. But there’s only one scene where my character cries. Only one, and he goes through so much. So to do my character justice, I can’t go home and feel these things when he doesn’t. It’s the least I could do for him. 

What has it been like working with your Arendsvlei co-star Chelsea Thomas again?

Working with Chelsea has been a beautiful journey. I met Chelsea a few years ago when she was still in college at Northlink and I knew instantly there was something special about this girl. She carried this intense passion but she was so focused. I remember when we got briefs for the new characters, and I saw there’s a love interest for my character, I did some research and I went to every person that I knew auditioned for the role. And it just didn’t sit for me, there wasn’t that connection, and I DMed her, and I told her to audition for the role of Amber.

She’d already got an email so she was auditioning. And since our first day, we were like a TV match made in heaven, because we worked beautifully, on and off of screen. I love her to bits. There was one point where I was too deep in character, and I thought I was in love with her, but then I was reminded we’re best friends and that’s why I didn’t know what was going on. Method acting! 

Cantona James and Chelsea Thomas in Spinners on Showmax
Cantona James and Chelsea Thomas

Did you have a highlight on set? 

Every day was a highlight, honestly. For me as a young upcoming artist, it was my dream come true. I got to act with people that inspired me to actually do acting, like Brendon Daniels, where I can show them what I have, how much I want this. Not to speak about my abilities, but show them. That was a huge moment for me. 

Any funny stories? 

I had to carry someone, and run with this person in my hands, and I fell. And remember this is in front of a coloured community: they don’t let you go easily, so I had to sit and just be laughed at a little bit. 

Why should people watch Spinners?

It’s a show that makes you feel like you are eating a bowl of ice cream but on a very hot day, so it’s melting very fast. It’s that intense. 

For a lot of people who watch Spinners, I’m sure they will feel a sense of homecoming to their hearts, even though there’s a lot of heartbreak in the story. A lot of people will relate to Spinners. Every character is so developed, that somehow, someway, someone will relate deeply to one of those characters and the story told.

People should watch Spinners because it’s going to be one of the best things. 

Watch the interview with Cantona James from Spinners

Add Spinners to your Showmax watchlist: 

Quickies with Cantona: 

What car do you drive?

A Chevrolet bakkie. I never was a petrol head. I know you start a car. I know a car has a battery. And that’s it. 

If you weren’t an actor, what would you do? 

Well, my father really wanted me to be a lawyer or an accountant. So I most probably would have been a lawyer or accountant that would have been fired for being out of order. Because acting is life. I can’t go five minutes without doing a skit.

What’s your dream role?

To play Ashley Kriel, a coloured activist. That story hasn’t ever been told the way I feel it needs to be told in South Africa.

What are your favourite shows to watch on Showmax?

Currently, I love Showmax’s documentaries. Love it. I love Devilsdorp, because I grew up 15 minutes away from Krugersdorp. So it’s really scary for me to know that that happened.

What is your greatest extravagance? How do you treat yourself?

I don’t really like treating myself, to be honest. My biggest treat is going to the beach and watching the waters. And going to the arcade, because I feel like I feed my inner child. It’s the best thing for me. 

What’s the one thing you have to have on set?

An energy drink. I think I’m probably in love with people telling me that it’s bad for me. So many people have been telling me but I just can’t stop. 

What did you listen to when you were getting in the zone?

Well for Spinners, I listened to a lot of YoungstaCPT. His music really got me into the role. 

About Spinners 

Spinners is co-created by producer Joachim Landau and showrunner Benjamin Hoffman of Empreinte Digitale, currently up for the International Emmy for TV Movie/Mini-Series for Infiniti. Spinners is helmed by Jaco Bouwer, director of the 2022 SAFTA Best TV Drama winner 4 Mure and the 2021 SXSW Cinematography winner Gaia, which just won four 2023 SAFTAs, including Best Film and Director. Spinners’ story was developed by and head written by SAFTA and Silwerskerm winners Sean Steinberg and Matthew Jankes. The 16LVPD-rated English/Kaaps/Afrikaans series is co-produced by Locarno, Amiens and FESPACO winner Ramadan Suleman (Zulu Love Letter, Fools) from Natives at Large, Spinners’ local co-production company. 

STUDIOCANAL is handling international sales. 

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