One doesn’t often have the chance to catch someone on that cusp when things may drastically change in their life – hopefully in the best possible sense.
That’s the case with actor-playwright Conrad Kemp who recently completed a thriller in which he gets third billing to Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker.
The film was shot in Cape Town and is based on the book Zulu by Caryl Ferey that won the 2008 French Grand Prix for Crime.
The campaign for the detective movie started at the Berlin Film Festival (running until Sunday) and only then will the Capetonian know if something will come of this.
But he’s been gaining traction these past few years in a way that will make many hopefuls envious.
He’s been learning as fast as he can with a career that is as much an adventure as he was hoping it would be.
Like many sons, he started studying law, like his dad, who he hoped to emulate.
But while studying, he realised this was not his thing.
But he completed his LLB. This was followed by further economic studies which led him to the Nedcor leadership programme where he shared his time and brain with a group of like-minded people between the ages of 23 and 46. And what this heavyweight corporate environment best taught him was that it wasn’t his scene.
As his career progressed in the arts he realised that he was exceptionally well-skilled to navigate his way in many ways he would not have realised before making the leap. It wasn’t a rash decision to change his life so drastically. Many things happened to give him the shove.
It was the image of becoming a carbon copy of his father, “no disrespect”, he says, and many friends under 25 suddenly dying (in car accidents for example) that got him thinking. What he longed for in his life he knew, was adventure. “It had been itching for a long time and I needed to scratch,” is how he explains the move.
What he did was to apply to audition for a drama school in Ireland. He looked at many around the world but that one responded and he was off to auditions.
Nothing it seems comes simply, and when he arrived, he was told he had been given the wrong date and he was a day late!
Not to go on too much about the way life has its own adventurous meandering, he was allowed to audition, someone withdrew and he was invited to do the course.
What he smiles about a lot is that becoming a lawyer is all about winning.
In fact, he was taught that life is all about winning and here, now as an actor, he finds himself in a profession where you’re expected to fail. It’s all about risks and no one expects miracles. This is his adventure, but where he had been expected to achieve in the past, now everyone assumed he would fail.
But once he stepped into this world, he loved every second. “I had an advantage, I have always loved telling stories and I was a bit older than most students.”
Being cerebral by nature, he adored text analysis and was soon flying – winning acclaim in an early professional production in Ireland of Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys. Then he stepped into the limelight with the two-hander Stones in his Pocket in London’s West End because the lead was ill on opening night and, as the understudy, he had to take over at the last minute.
One suspects that even with the terror of that kind of thing happening, Conrad is challenged by the thought of flying by the seat of his pants.
He returned to South Africa because his father (who died a few years back) was ill. But this also led to the writing of his first solo show, The Clown and Mrs Fell, that passed slightly under the radar because it went to Grahamstown during that extended 2010 World Cup period.
And while he’s had stints of writing, teaching and live theatre (Mike van Graan’s Brothers in Blood), movies is where Kemp is on the move.
Not only was he part of the cast for The Girl, nominated for a recent Golden Globe (starring Sienna Miller), but this most recent foray into film, based on the award-winning French novel Zulu, is something that may launch his career into a different orbit.
It’s not the fame he’s after, that’s obvious. The movie was shot in Cape Town months and months ago and Kemp is talking about it only now.
Kemp is studying towards a master’s degree in creative writing at UCT and he and his wife, Anthea, who is a curator with as much excitement up her sleeve, are hoping to move to New York soon.
I suspect that when next we meet, Kemp’s stories are going to be much more those of the insider than of an outsider looking in.
He’s excited about the unknown, thrilled by the level of authenticity he feels Zulu (a working title) achieved, and impressed by the hard work and graft put into the sound and look of the film.
He knows this is the time to box smart and he’s all about evolving, taking risks and thinking out of the box. There are many strings to his bow (he was rushing off to cook lunch for family and friends), and he believes in sound underpinnings.
He wouldn’t mind that margin of freedom that fame could afford, he wouldn’t mind existing there, but his real dream is about telling stories while landing the knockout blow.
I think he has what it takes.