Cape Town - Lesley-Ann Brandt is living her dream. The actress has established herself in film and television, and now lives in Los Angeles. Not bad for a young woman with humble Athlone beginnings.
Brandt was born and raised in Greenhaven, Athlone, and matriculated from Pinelands High School. It was after she matriculated, that her family emigrated to New Zealand in 1999.
“They dragged me kicking and screaming,” she recalls. She had grown up in her father’s family home. In fact, her bedroom had once been his and she used his old wardrobe. Inside the wardrobe was a list of women’s names and their telephone numbers, a part of his past.
At that age, she was attached to her friends, and didn’t want to leave them, or her history, behind. It was a very “brutal” experience leaving the place she called home.
But with hindsight, Brandt says it was for the best.
Even though she sang in choirs and acted in plays at the time, South Africa wasn’t really a place where a career in the arts was encouraged or nurtured, says Brandt.
But once she was in New Zealand, the opportunities presented themselves. She eventually quit her job as an IT recruitment consultant when she was cast as leading lady in a series, Diplomatic Immunity.
But it was her 2010 role as Naevia in the television series Spartacus that made everyone sit up. In it she played the role of a slave, who falls in love with gladiator Crixus, played by Manu Bennett.
It was also this time when people became curious about her race, and where she was from.
She wrote “A Lady of Many Colours” on her blog (http://www.lesley-annbrandt.com/blog/) in which she shed light on her heritage, which includes Indian, German, Spanish and British ancestry.
While describing herself as a “melting pot”, she wrote: “I was born on the African continent, so technically, I am African along with everyone else born there and I embrace my heritage whole heartedly.”
This sparked a fair amount of online debate around issues of race, says Brandt. Now she is the executive producer, along with Kiersten Dunbar Chace and Brad Bauer of a documentary film called Tea with Madiba – A 20 year post apartheid journey.
Brandt describes it as a passion project for the team, which aims to give a voice to a community in South Africa, who still don’t have one. The team have been filming coloured communities in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Knysna.
Brandt’s last visit to Cape Town was seven years ago. But coming back has driven home the realisation of poverty in the city.
“It’s been an eye- opener. I came back and I’m not used to seeing that day to day. Coming back home is a way to not only give back but to take South Africa to Hollywood on a creative level. People know about our history…but I think the struggle continues,” she says.
Tea with Madiba is set to be released next year on the festival circuit.
The team is hoping to bring it to South Africa. Speaking of her coloured and Cape Town identity, Brandt says both have been an advantage.
Growing up in Athlone has helped her be thick skinned and street smart, giving her an inherent ability to be resilient. Brandt says these attributes have helped her in an industry that can be notoriously brutal.
Where another famous South African export Charlize Theron had an all-American look with her big blue eyes and blonde hair, Brandt’s looks have been described as ethnically ambiguous. She has been cast as a Morrocan, African American, and Hispanic.
In her latest film Painkillers, written and directed by Peter Winther, she plays an Afrikaans-speaking Black Ops soldier from Bonteheuwel.
Brandt says this is where her mother – Charmaine Brandt – is from, which made the role more personal for her. She even helped the Canadian producers with the Afrikaans in the script.
Brandt has had a constant supply of work, and attributes this to her unusual Hollywood journey.
Many young hopefuls flock to Hollywood, hoping to make it, she says. But Brandt first made her name and then moved to Los Angeles.
Recently, she’s been in the television series CSI: NY, the film Drift, and the dark comedy Killing Winston Jones.
This is quite a schedule, but Brandt does make time for yoga, and while she’s in town, has been training with soccer player Ryan Botha.
Brandt will be in Cape Town until March 5, but hasn’t been back to her old house yet.
“When I come home, I’m still Lesley-Ann from Greenhaven, Athlone,” she says.