Erica Wessels on Donkerbos, “the darkest thing I’ve ever done”
The lead in Donkerbos, now ready to binge on Showmax, Erica Wessels opens up about filming was critics have called a “masterpiece”. She plays Fanie, a flawed but brilliant detective on the trail of a child murderer.
About the role
These days there are numerous stories with women in the lead role as a flawed protagonist; it’s fantastic. Funnily enough, a lot of the roles I’ve always gotten are pretty much that type.
I feel very lucky. I really wanted to have the role. Really, really, really. It rarely happens that you audition for something and want the role so badly.
And the reason for that was the screenplay. I always wanted to work with Nico [Scheepers, writer and director]. But when I read those texts I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, I want this!’ It’s really the best thing I’ve ever read in Afrikaans.
About the Donkerbos story
The text is so well written but it’s awfully dark. It’s the darkest thing I’ve ever done. That is an interesting combination. Dark isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea, but good content is. Still, the dark part of it doesn’t scare me at all. This part of the world and life is dark. This part of the world – whether you want to believe it or not – it exists. It is real and it is very dark.
What I liked most about the scripts is not only that it is dark or the incredible characters and beautiful storyline; what was very interesting for me is that it is a thriller, but still I got so emotional.
I cried terribly while reading the texts. I asked myself why I was crying like that. What is it about Nico’s writing style or text that makes me cry so much? And then I just realised: sometimes you can’t pinpoint it. I do think it’s partly because it’s about children, children who get hurt, and I’m a mother. Children are the most vulnerable in our communities
About her character’s pull
What I really like about Fanie is that she is very different from me. Yes, very, very different from me. I am very feminine. For some reason I’m always cast as a Hawk, or a policewoman (laughs) but I’m actually the opposite of the characters I play.
My pals who know me well laugh their asses off, because I’m actually very feminine and I would never buy a firearm, for example. I’m an empath. I’m soft-soft-soft-soft, but strong.
So I think Fanie is just as different from me. She comes from another world, and I am delighted to take on such characters – who are completely different from me. It allows me to discover a whole new world inside someone else, which is what I love and why I act! (laugh).
But again, what I like most about Fanie is how she is written. Nico gave me an enormous amount of space to colour her in.
She is a great character. She is extremely good at what she does. She is strong and abrupt and difficult, but she commands respect. She is actually an incredibly good person, but under this brash, hard exterior of getting shit done. I love her.
About Fanie’s drive
I think she hates injustice. Her great, indeed greatest, desire is to destroy injustice. She’s moved by that.
About how Fanie is portrayed as the series’ protagonist
Usually, even if you are a strong female character, or a protagonist that happens to be female, there is often a reasonable focus on glamour, on beauty, the exterior. This is probably just one of the languages through which we are validated.
What’s really cool about Fanie for me is that I basically don’t wear any makeup. Look, how my hair looks with the gray coming out! (lowers her head and points to the few gray hairs in her hairdo). I basically look like a bum every day. She has a type of uniform (she points to the simple t-shirt, shapeless trousers, boots and loose jacket she wears as Fanie on set). There is not that focus, which I dig. Wrinkles and pimples and no nails and all that. There is something very nauseating to me about this obsession with being ageless and what it means to be a woman.
About the series’ challenges
The darkness of the story didn’t scare me, but there are always challenges, especially deciding where to place a character. You have to figure out where to put a character in a scene in terms of the context of these terribly dark things. How strong do you make the character? How vulnerable should I make her? When does it change? It’s hard to explain; it’s bigger picture stuff.
About what viewers will think
I think the story is incredibly clear. The plot is incredibly clear. I think if anything is complicated or nuanced, it’s the characters, simply because people are so diverse. People are not only good or only bad. It’s very messy. But I think it will resonate with viewers. Still, if you are part of a project – you know what your vision is for it, you know what you are trying to achieve as a team, but you don’t always know how it will play out. As an actor, you also have no control over how it will be received afterwards. On the day that you wrap, you leave and then… (shrugs her shoulders)
On the popularity of the thriller drama genre among viewers
I think people are drawn to good writing and good storytelling. If you are going to create a dark story, but it is not well written, no one is going to watch it. It must be well written. The reason Ozark does so well, or Stranger Things, is because it’s so well written. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily something of the genre as such. People follow good writing, whether it’s comedy or romance. The genre doesn’t matter that much. People want to be challenged.
About the rest of the cast
Fanie is definitely the through line, but it feels quite ensemble-oriented. It feels good. It feels like a whole team is carrying it.