Versatile: Carmen Pretorius has, at the tender age of 23, already performed in a number of varied roles on both stage and screen.
Versatile: Carmen Pretorius has, at the tender age of 23, already performed in a number of varied roles on both stage and screen.
Carmen Pretorius in 'Lien se Lankstaan Skoene'.
Carmen Pretorius in 'Lien se Lankstaan Skoene'.

From the start – four years ago – when she won the High School Musical competition, Carmen Pretorius has had a dreamlike life.

Everything that happens is larger than life. She’s the kind of girl who on the same day she first saw Lien se Lankstaan Skoene – in which she played the title role at last year’s Silwerskermfees – also heard she had to stand in that night for Sam Peo as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

“I didn’t have much time to take any of it in,” she says.

And that’s quite something – your first movie and the lead in Cabaret in just one day. She feels her life is sometimes surreal, and wishes she had more time to catch up and think, but then she also tends to overthink, so perhaps it’s not a bad thing that she’s running to keep up.

“I do perform best when I’m challenged and pressured,” she says.

It’s that time again, with a starring role in Jersey Boys, currently playing at Montecasino (until June 6), before moving to Cape Town (opening on June 19 at Artscape), as well as her first big movie, which opened this past weekend,The thing that appealed to Carmen most about The Jersey Boys was the range of her role. “When the Broadway producers first met us, they told us to think of it as a play with music.”

She loved that, and her performance has been taxing because, apart from the main character, Lorraine, who is the only fictional character in the piece (“an amalgamation of two of Frankie Valli’s girls”), she plays 16 different characters – and that stretched her.

“I’m usually cast in these youthful roles,” she notes, “and I don’t mind, because I won’t always be able to play that young, but it’s nice to be pushed into the real world every once in a while.”

From the start of our interview, it feels as if I’m chatting to someone wise beyond her years. And when you think of all she’s achieved at the tender age of 23, that’s perfectly understandable.

She chats easily, seems to bare her soul, almost matter-of-factly, and has a cool head about her fame. She says her family keep her grounded, but also describes herself as insanely ambitious.

This past Friday, her first movie opened on circuit. While film is something she’s always wanted to do, it all happened quite unexpectedly while she was doing Janice Honeyman’s panto Cinderella, which also starred Anna-Mart van der Merwe, a friend of Andre Odendaal, the director of Lien se Lankstaan Skoene.

He was complaining that they were battling to find a Lien, and Anna-Mart suggested he see the pantomime.

Carmen was contacted and, after checking the director’s credentials, she auditioned and won the part. “It all happened in a flash,” she says.

When she first turned up for rehearsals and the shoot, she was like a fish out of water. “I was terrified and didn’t know any- thing about film.” Everything was exacerbated because she didn’t have any formal training, but her stage work obviously prepared her for what was to follow.

That and her life, she says. Describing herself – somewhat reluctantly, realising how pretentious it might seem – as a method actress, Carmen tapped into her past to deal with her character’s pain.

Lien is faced with a mother who is falling apart and turns to alcohol.

“I didn’t have any alcoholics in my family,” says Carmen.

What she did have to come to terms with, though, was the divorce of her parents when she was just a baby. “Also, my dad is gay,” she says, as matter-of-factly as she announces she’s a feminist.

This is a young woman who has dealt with the issues in her life thus far. If she has to find angst or terror for a role, she knows where to turn.

Music is another emotional tool. “I made play lists of songs that could evoke different moods,” she says. And that got her into the moment. She marvels about the experience, and was totally in awe of the cast, which included seasoned actresses like Elize Cawood and Franci Swanepoel. “They were all so supportive and nurturing,” she says.

Carmen’s keen to pursue a career in film.

“I want to learn much more,” she says. Like pretty much everything else in her hectic life, this also happened with alacrity.

When watching the movie without any family support for the first time, she felt quite overwhelmed, and went through a hurricane of emotions.

But she loved the experience.

As an actor himself, Odendaal is an actor’s director, and following a bad first movie experience with a director who undermined rather than encouraged her, this was awesome. “One feels so vulnerable,” she explains.

But those emotions also fuel her desire to explore and expand, and it’s something that Carmen is determined to take further.

In her me-time, she is discovering Buddhism and meditation, which is something she needs in her monstrously busy life. She likes to feel grounded, not to let her career change her perspective, and to live and enjoy the moment.

Most of her friends are finishing degrees and setting off on their own career paths.

“It all seems so ordered and so planned,” says the performer,who has only insecurity when it comes to her career.

One suspects, though, that it is part of the adrenalin that propels her forward.

She is in a five-year relationship with a man who knew her before High School Musical.

“I love him and we’re best friends,” she says, but she’s realistic about their future. He is just starting his articles as a CA, and their young lives are still in flux.

She knows family turmoil and has learnt from mistakes, but she also knows that their journey has shaped her life. Her parents are the ones who inspired and supported her, and who keep her level-headed.

Chatting to Carmen is refreshing. She’s calm and collected about her fame and talents, knows she’s an unusual artist, and is determined to explore the boundaries. She’s hoping to reach the top.

You go, girl! South Africans will be rooting for you.