Born and raised in Cape Town, Stelio Savante pursued his love for acting after a tennis scholarship led him to the United States. Savante established himself in New York, relocating to Los Angeles for a recurring role in Ugly Betty. With numerous high profile film, TV and theatre credits to his name, and lauded as one of South Africa's top exports, Savante continues his star trajectory both home and abroad. Now poised to feature in several exciting independent films, including Where The Road Runs Out and The Impossible Dream, we were lucky enough to catch up with the A Million Colours actor, who is making South Africa proud.
You've had a very busy 2012 with numerous roles... which are you most excited about?
The indie world has been very rewarding because most of my films have gotten distribution. So work is plentiful. Probably most excited about Where The Road Runs Out. The subject matter is very relevant and the role was more of an escape from the roles I usually play. There was room for levity as it’s a very unique film. I’m also excited about The Shift, a hospital drama with Danny Glover. I play a fireman. Producer Jeremy Mitchell and director Lee Cipolla’s first feature was picked up by Lionsgate so we’ll see what happens with this one.
You're probably best known for your role on Ugly Betty, but which acting role would you say is your career best?
In the US, people are more familiar with me for 110 Stories, and indie film roles. Ugly Betty was a while back and so much has happened since then. But South Africa doesn’t have a strong independent cinema circuit so people don’t see a lot of the work. I’m my own worst critic but if I had to pick one, the role of Bolivar Arellano in 110 Stories.
"The ‘Hollywood’ generalization is one I’ve never understood."
What's it like being a South African actor in Los Angeles?
It’s an exciting time to be here because casting has become so much more diverse. I’ve seen the business change a lot. Was an actor in NY for fifteen years and have been in LA since 2007. It’s truly evolved a lot in that time. But the first twenty years of my life in South Africa shaped who I am. I carry that with me into every role. I don’t think of myself in those terms though as I fit into so many different boxes when it comes to casting.
Many say Hollywood's running out of original ideas - what do you think?
The ‘Hollywood’ generalization is one I’ve never understood. Because I live in the heart of it and there are so many different factors, cultures, different types of people and stories that this business is sprinkled with. But I think the studio system is certainly void of fresh ideas. There are too many remakes. There is too much recycling of the same actors who in many cases are interchangeable. Too many trends are repeated. How many more identical heist movies, romantic comedies and horror films are we going to see?
In your opinion, which actors are the most underrated in Hollywood right now?
I think there is a forgotten generation of truly great character actors that the public deserves to see more of. Specifically Tom Noonan, and two friends Diane Venora and John Hawkes. John is finally getting the recognition but Tom and Diane have played some brilliantly memorable characters in relevant films. Yet we see more popular, more commercial but less talented actors taking their roles. They are undervalued, underrated and so much more interesting. I put both Diane and John in 110 Stories here in LA two years ago and learned so much from acting opposite them.
One of your latest films is 'Where The Road Runs Out'... tell us more, how did you get involved?
Every producer and director have a list of their top choices for their leads. That list could be three deep. It could be five deep. I’m lucky enough to be finding myself on people’s wish lists the last few years. It happened with A Million Colours when they wanted Gabriel Byrne and then made the role younger for Barry Pepper but I got the part. On WTRRO, they wanted Sharlto Copley and then one or two others and I was next in line.
"I think there is a forgotten generation of truly great character actors..."
Director Rudolf Buitendach and I were looking to work together and he really pushed for me. I’d auditioned for his film Dark Hearts and it went very well but they went with a name in Goran Visnjic. Sometimes you’re actually auditioning for your next project as opposed to your current one. Rudolf is a brilliant director and one to watch out for. We’ll be working together again very soon and Where The Road Runs Out has a lot to do with that.
You play opposite Isaach De Bankole and Juliet Landau, what was it like working with them?
Isaach is a man of few words with a huge heart. We bonded immediately. In the film our characters are lifelong friends with a rich history and of course some conflict. Could not have asked for more than what Isaach gave in our scenes. Juliet is a good sport, enjoyed working with her. Again, Rudolf’s direction and personality made it very easy and rewarding to work with both Isaach and Juliet. He trusts his actors and that goes a long way. It creates an inspiring environment on set.
What's the intent behind this film, it seems there's a special focus on human rights?
Yes, it is a human rights based project about a scientist who finally practices what he’s been preaching for years. He returns to Africa and tries to make amends for his and his fellow scientist’s shortcomings. There are secondary plots regarding biodiversity and an orphanage. The producers have partnered with SOS Children’s Villages and I am confident that this film will stimulate the minds of those who see it.
'Where The Road Runs Out' was partly filmed in South Africa, have you made a concerted effort to come back more regularly?
I do like to come back home and film. But the priority is on great roles in scripts and films that are quality regardless of where they shoot. Where The Road Runs Out originally was not meant to shoot in South Africa. So I was delighted when they added Durban as a shooting location.
You played Major Shawn Dixon in 'A Million Colours'... how did you immerse yourself in the role?
As with every character, I need to know what drives him at his core. What makes him tick. What his priorities were. I create a huge back story and character bible for every role I play so this is not atypical. Then there was the challenge of playing an impediment. Every actor who’s worth their nut loves to play characters with impediments. I spent time learning from athletes and soldiers who’d had their knee caps broken. And also with their physical therapists; to understand about the recovery process and long term effects, which are also psychological not just physical.
"...most South Africans are still not mature enough to deal with anything Apartheid-related."
What most people don’t know about limps and canes is that the way one walks is often very inconsistent. Based on: the speed of the walk, the angle and substance of the walking surface, the shoes one is wearing and how one feels physically that day. According to every above person I learned from; there is also no one correct way to limp because no two injuries are 100% identical. And no two bodies are 100% identical. And would you know it; I had one or two people come up to me on set and say ‘that looked great but you weren’t walking that way in yesterday’s scenes’. And instead of telling them off I’d have to explain that I was wearing different shoes, walking slower, the scene took place many years later and therefore using a different part of my core to support myself with my cane.
What was the greatest challenge of playing a policeman from the Apartheid era?
There were several but I embrace these kind of challenges. The first was to not make him obvious or his choices obvious. I didn’t want to play him as a racist or a loud barking villain. Too boring and not specific enough. He was also from Zim (a former Rhodesian and not South African) so that helped shape his mindset more uniquely. The second was to make him the kind of character that stayed cool, calm and collected at the most critical parts of his confrontations. He enjoyed needling others and getting into their heads. To me that’s more interesting for the character, and it keeps the other characters/actors on their toes. It was also the most truthful way to play Dixon based on the back story and character bible I created for him.
It's a true story and a sprawling epic, what other South African stories should we be telling?
Thank you. I feel that way about A Million Colours as well. I think most South Africans are still not mature enough to deal with anything Apartheid-related. They claim its tired or boring or want to forget it. I could not disagree more. I think that through pain, adversity and heartbreaking circumstances comes well-earned and appreciated victory. How did you overcome at your darkest hour? That’s how you catch lightning in a bottle. And that’s why the USA had an entire generation of Vietnam films that will go down as some of the greatest films ever made. (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, etc).
And that’s why Athol Fugard is one of the greatest playwrights we will ever see. He truly understood conflict and how it shapes a character’s life and motives. I think we should be telling truthful stories that people can identify with. Instead of making something that is attempting to be too clever or trying to be too funny. We have so much raw talent on the cast and crew side in SA. Harness that talent into making great product as our country has a rich history and a fascinating present mix of cultures and generations that are growing up together.
"South African acting schools need to recruit some great American acting teachers..."
The South African film industry shows great promise, but sometimes seems naive, do you have any advice for up-and-coming local actors and filmmakers?
It does show great promise and I commend people like Darrell Roodt and Anton Ernst for making brave films like Yesterday and Little One, which I saw with him at a screening here in LA just two weeks ago. But South Africa has become so obsessed with movie stars as opposed to actors. And obsessed with A-list movies as opposed to great films. It’s got a very glossy, naive perspective of what film-making is. Both in the general public and in the industry. I think local actors and film-makers need to learn more about the great generations of films (Cinema Novo, The French New Wave, the 70s, Cinema Verite, etc.) and I encourage them to learn and watch more from pioneers like Kurosawa, De Sica, Kubrick, Kieslowski, etc.
On the set of A Million Colours I kept hearing about one of the great acting teachers in the country. Was introduced to him in a tent when it was raining. Heard him talking about Sandy Meisner and Meisner’s principals/methods to one of his students (an actor in the film) and I was mortified. I’ve studied with Robert X Modica, the foremost Meisner teacher in the world, and this acting teacher had no grasp or concept of what Meisner was teaching. He was giving this poor young actor way too much to think about in his upcoming scene. So I think the South African acting schools need to recruit some great American acting teachers and bring them over. And we need screenwriting teachers too. Doing soapies with weak dialogue and schlocky plots is not helping our local actors. They develop too many bad habits.
You played the lead in 110 Stories... how did you cope with the emotional content?
Yes, a role that I’m very attached to and had trouble letting go of. I’ve grown very close to Bolivar Arellano, the real-life photographer that I’m portraying. And I was also only a few blocks from the World Trade Center when the planes hit. NY was home for fifteen years and to experience something so traumatic first hand… I can’t put it into words. But by spending a lot of time with Bolivar it cathartically directed my compass. It had to, because doing the material isn’t about showing the emotions. It’s about how we all overcame… I think our entire cast (Samuel L Jackson, Melissa Leo, Jeremy Piven, Katie Holmes, etc) achieved that. And by giving back to NY in the form of charity and this love letter (that’s essentially what the play is) one is able to use that emotional content in a positive way.
It seems that deeply human stories have a special place in your heart, how has this affected your life outside of film?
Well it's more my life that has affected my career. I was diagnosed with Celiac’s disease over two years ago. It attacked my organs. That kind of unexpected circumstance really makes you think about life, and about what you’re doing in your career that can help other’s lives. Since then I’ve used my platform to support charities and causes that are important to me and the masses. And I’ve also looked at the type of projects and roles that I consider with a different perspective.
"...Daniel Day Lewis is the greatest living actor we have..."
In your career, you've starred opposite some of Hollywood's greatest, what makes a truly great actor?
That’s a good question because the term 'great' is so loosely used these days. Actors who can consistently present outstanding memorable performances that affect others. And actors who can master all mediums (film, theater and television). I would say that Daniel Day Lewis is the greatest living actor we have because he fulfills all of the above and is in a class all of his own. On a more direct level: it takes dedication, commitment, confidence, a very thick skin, passion, patience, and of course… talent.
What can we expect from Stelio Savante over the next few years?
I try to take it one project at a time. But there are several already lined up for 2013. Exciting projects that are strong creatively and not just pay-days. In the long term I want to continue to be part of films, TV shows and plays that are relevant and allow me to use my platform to help and encourage others. There are several directors and producers that I’m partnering with in features and you will be hearing about these and seeing a lot of press about them in the first quarter of next year.