20 December 2022
Stian Bam on playing detective Wolf in Donkerbos
Wolf Beukes was born and raised in Donkerbos. He comes from a long line of policemen in the town and though he isn’t the best detective, he’s thorough and diligent. But he’s also a man ruled by his impulses, which can cause problems.
About the show’s depiction of reality
I don’t agree with people who say the story is dark. It’s not that dark. This happens every single day in this country. Why is it dark? It’s reality. It’s not dark. I don’t know what one would describe as dark. But that’s South Africans for you. South Africans can’t cope with reality. They cannot cope with the reality that there are people living in squatter camps. They would rather take a detour than see [the informal settlements] and acknowledge that these people live in deep poverty.
So, maybe the story is dark to them because they’re blind to what is right in front of them. You would rather escape. I also spent a long time in a family with that denial of life outside of oneself. Because if you lock yourself up in a security complex, you don’t have to deal with the fact that there is actually a world outside of it.
You hear there is a war in Ukraine, but how would you know what war looks like? You’re not going to put yourself there. It’s like Christians – everything’s fine. There is heaven and hell, but I just have to believe that everything is fine and then everything is fine. For them, the story is probably dark. For me, it is not. It’s a depiction of everyday reality.
The story that’s being told here is something that people in a squatter camp actually deal with all the time. [Many of us] live in a very cushy society where these things are kept away from us; where we can protect ourselves from this stuff, from the reality of it. But I think in situations like we are in now, for certain people in this country, this is a reality that they experience on a daily basis. It’s bad, but it is what it is. Children are often shot as a result of gang violence. You hear it all the time.
I auditioned for the role of Sybrand and then Nico [Scheepers, the series’ writer and director] decided I would work better as Wolf.
Wolf is Wolf [laughs]. Wolf is a marginal figure. He’s part of the police force, part of the system and he has aspirations. According to Nico, he doesn’t [have aspirations], but he does [taps his index finger on the table]. And he tries very hard. He is a bit like me. Falling over stuff. Breaking stuff. Wrong place, wrong time. Tries hard, but doesn’t always get things right.
He really wants to be a good detective, but he’s just not there skill-wise. He represents the context in which the story takes place. He is a policeman in Limpopo and he deals with things… but he can’t actually deal with them. A lot of things happen, but some of it breaks him… That kind of world just isn’t for him. It breaks him a bit. It’s very hard for him to cope with what is going on in the town [when the children’s heads are found].
I think Wolf is someone who still has blinkers on and can’t deal with the fact that this is a reality. The autumn leaves are very beautiful and sitting here now, we don’t have to worry about those figures, the darkness, or the approaching night. Wolf doesn’t have to worry about it. But then suddenly, it’s on his doorstep and then he doesn’t know what to do. He’s a bit lost in the dark, but also running around blindly in the dark. But I think everyone in the story is running around blind in the dark. The whole time, they’re searching with their flashlights, but they find eff-all. And then they find something here, something there, something there… and then finally, someone throws them a torch and then they see [what was in front of them all along]. And then it’s all over.
About Nico Scheepers, writer and director of the series
Nico is a very good writer. As a director, he’s also very good. But I enjoy him as a person. As a director, I expect him to guide me in the story, and I put all my trust in him because I have complete faith in the directors I work with. If they decide on something, I do it. I’m not going to argue. He wrote it. He knows what it should look like visually. I’m just a small part of a bigger picture. He leads. He knows exactly what he wants and it’s our goal as actors to deliver what he wants.
He’s written strong characters, and that’s the most important thing. As an actor, you don’t have to worry about that, because the character is already on paper and your goal is to bring the character to life. His casting process also plays a big role – he knows what he’s going to get when he casts someone and that’s exactly why he gives them the part. Everyone serves a purpose.
About the challenges of this show
The biggest challenge? Not laughing! Wolf is just weird [laughs]. He’s funny sometimes. But I also had to try not to laugh at Nico, because he is also weird! No, there isn’t really anything especially challenging. Any role is already a challenge. To play it as honestly as possible and make it natural is a challenge. I just go through the steps. You go through the scenes and see how the story builds. You do what you have to do.
About his method as an actor
You cannot separate yourself from who you are. You can’t play a character if you try to remove yourself. The character has to live through you, unfortunately. I’m not a policeman, and I’ve never seen traumatic things like these people see in Donkerbos, but you have to imagine yourself in these kinds of situations. There is always a parallel to something that you can relate to. So it’s about finding that element.
So playing a serial killer doesn’t mean you have to… Actors who say, “you leave the character behind”… You’re not that fucking character! You’re not a serial killer. Unless you’re secretive, and then it’s problematic [laughs]. So I don’t have to take something from myself or take something away to play the guy – it’s already in the text, that’s what the guy has to do. Everything you need to do is said there. You just reimagine yourself in a different way and you use your intuition.
I think we use our subconscious more than we realise. In the South African film industry, there isn’t time to spend a whole day shooting one scene of three pages, so you need to react intuitively with what’s already in your subconscious. You load yourself up with as much stuff as possible so that when that moment comes… it’s like a fight-or-flight response. It’s not that it’s a natural reaction, it’s more like a memory.
In the subconscious we don’t understand, but it becomes our lot with certain things, so if something happened to you in your childhood, certain events will trigger those memories – I believe the same happens if you immediately have to do something in a certain way. Even if you haven’t been through that or seen something similar, there is something in your subconscious that you can fall back on. Because we don’t have time to go mining and searching for it. It’s reactive. It has to be. There is no time and there is no money. But, in South Africa, we do get the opportunity to play many different characters. So that’s nice.
On why people should watch Donkerbos
Because people’s psyches are screwed! It’s like watching a car accident. You can’t drive past it. No, you slow down, because you want to see how bad it is. We want to escape, yes, but we also want to see just how bad it is. So, there’s going to be a lot of people who say the show is too bad, and they can’t watch it because “there’s enough bad stuff on the news!” But then they watch the repeats, and then they’ll watch it. Because they do want to see what happens.
On why we love thriller dramas
People are very drawn to characters. If they find something in a character that they can identify with… people invest very easily and quickly. Viewers become incredibly invested and then they’re hooked. Audiences the world over love crime mysteries, and it’s a psychological thing of “Guys, look how bad it is!” or, ‘It could have been me!’ And yes, it could have been you, but as a TV series, as a story, it is far enough removed. We’ve trained ourselves to like this stuff. It’s been part of the South African psyche for a very long time. Wolwedans van die Skemer, the radio drama, for example, did very well. People loved it. But where did it start? The preoccupation with darker stories? It’s psychologically based.
Donkerbos is now streaming on Showmax, and ready to binge.