SOUTH African actor Cantona James has described how he had to fully immerse himself in his latest role as Ethan on the new hit show, Spinners.
The show, which debuts on Showmax next week, follows Ethan (Cantona James), a 17-year-old driver working for a gang on the Cape Flats.
Needing to support his younger brother but increasingly disgusted by gang life, Ethan discovers a possible way out via spinning, an extreme motorsport where he can put his driving skills to better use.
James went to extreme lengths to perfect his role as Ethan, by even eating only once a day and even relocating close to Lavender Hill, in Cape Town where the show was shot.
“Because I am a method actor, I had to first undergo letting go of myself and who I am and step back into a young mind and a young body,” James told the Saturday Star this week.
“The responsibility of a 17-year-old and the responsibilities of a 25-year-old are very different and so mentally that’s how I started prepping.”
“Then I started eating once a day. This helped with my fight or flight senses. You learn a lot about yourself on an empty stomach, you learn al lot mentally. You learn a lot about other people as well.”
“Also because we were gifted with shooting in Lavender Hill, I got to speak to a lot of kids in the community and started a relationship with most of the people there so that I can learn just how much a story like this means to them and what is true to their everyday lives, in order to raise the stakes in the story.”
James says he has even relocated to a place near Lavender Hill so that he can continue working on his character as Ethan.
“I didn’t live in Lavender Hill, however to prepare myself for my role, I spent a lot of time within the community getting to know people and to experience what life is like for them.
“I also moved to a place very close to where we shot Spinners as to work on future development of my character.’
“I feel like this show is going to be something very big and people will want more so I have already started working on what’s to come.”
A co-production between Showmax and CANAL+, Spinners became the first African series selected in competition at Canneseries; won three awards at Dakar Series, including Best TV Series; received standing ovations in Paris and from its sold-out South African premiere at Silwerskerm; and was the opening night screening at MIP Africa, generating rave reviews. Variety calls it “Gripping… Part gangster series, part coming-of-age sports drama.”
James, who plays a lead role in the series, says it was an easy decision to join the cast of Spinners.
“Seeing the brief for the first time, I knew this would be a beautiful thing from the heart of the community, because it was firstly 98 percent Coloured and it was through authentic story telling.”
“It was a story that hasn’t been told before. Spinning hasn’t been done on television before, there hasn’t been a series about it.”
“And seeing the audition scripts to prepare, I could see the content in which they were going to dive into. I knew that they would handle it with a lot of love and care because the audition pieces were exactly that so that actually attracted me a lot to Spinners.”
Talking about his character, James says playing Ethan allowed him to sink his teeth into a complex unique character.
“Ethan is a 17 year old boy that’s from a community that we all know from South Africa, its called the Hills. Its like so many other communities.”
“He is responsible for taking care of his baby brother because his mother is an addict and he lost his father , so he is like most of the youth in his community.”
“He has to take care of his brother and the only way he knows how is to drive because his father was a driver and he is also good at driving, so he offers his skills to the gangsters.”
“Just like a lot of kids, Ethan wants to stay on the good path , he tries his best, but is caught up in very difficult situations but then he finds this ray of sunshine in a friendship with Shane who introduces him to Spinning and that’s how he sees a way out in the life he was entrapped in.”
“You follow the tough journey it takes to get out of something he found himself in and how hard it is to get your initial escape.”
James has also revealed that he worked closely with real gangsters during shooting of the show.
“I think knowing about gangs, we were fortunate enough to have the real gangsters that are in the community as part of our cast.”
“So with a all that shooting on Lavender Hill, we got to be surrounded by people that are part of this and have to do this on a daily basis.”
“Working with them allowed us to see the human in them, and understand the reasons why they chose gangsterism.”
“It was an educational process, and it was very beautiful to have it play out that way and to have them part of the project. I think it also brought more heart and realness to the story we are telling.”
Spinners is co-created by producer Joachim Landau and showrunner Benjamin Hoffman of Empreinte Digitale, currently up for the International Emmy for TV Movie/Mini-Series for Infiniti.
The show is helmed by Jaco Bouwer, director of the 2022 SAFTA Best TV Drama winner 4 Mure and the 2021 SXSW Cinematography winner Gaia, which just won four 2023 SAFTAs, including Best Film and Director.
The story was developed by and head written by SAFTA and Silwerskerm winners Sean Steinberg and Matthew Jankes.
Popular DJ Ready D is also the music supervisor and also composed tracks for the series.
James says while he would have loved to have done his own spinning stunts on the show, stunt doubles were used to do the daring stunts.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t do our own spinning skills and I don’t think we would have been able to because of the the work done by the team was incredible.”
“Yaseen Damon led a beautiful team. I had a stunt double as well as a spinning stunt double as well. He was amazing.”
“The amount of takes we had to do and to do the precise same thing every single take, I wouldn’t have been able to do even after a years training.”
“However if we are granted any further chance i will definitely learn how to do it.”
He says it is important that South Africans watch this unique show, as it gives a glimpse into the lives of people who live in communities such as Lavender Hill.
“Its important to watch Spinners because its a message of love. It’s a story that will take you on a journey, its beautifully done, and its also shot in a beautiful way.”
“This is just going to blow everyone's minds and its a very important story of the community.
“Everyone should watch Spinners to get a better understanding of what life is like for young teenagers in communities like these.”
James says the series also provides great insight into spinning, a sport that has taken over many communities in the country.
“I think that spinning is a really beautiful sport. It firstly brings a lot of communities together.”
“A lot of communities get together on a Sunday to watch spinning. There’s not a lot of fights, there isn’t animosity.”
“The community comes together to watch this controlled chaos, poetry in motion with cars.”
“I dont think that a lot of people understand the thrill that you experience when you are in the car and to be part of the crowd cheering and watching it happen.”
“A car is supposed to drive straight and turn and now a car is literally creating magic, so I really do think spinning is poetry in motion.”
He is hoping that the show proves to be a hit in South Africa when it debuts next week on November 8.
“This is one of the first products that deal with gangsterism in this way where they create this life and story around the gangsters.”
“They don’t really villanise or have a stereotypical caricature of gangsters. To have real gangsters as part of the cast, and the way the characters were portrayed by the actors were just phenomenal.”
“You get to know the humans, you don't already place your own ideas about these people and the characters. You get time to be invested emotionally in the story and follow the journey that Ethan is on. Its something no other story has done before.”
James also adds that playing Ethan is without a doubt the best character he has played in his acting career so far.
“It has been the best experience and the best role that I have had up to now.”
“And I’m blessed that it deals with a young mind that has to deal with injustices around him and he has to do what he can and the best that he can.”
“It mentally prepares me for my dream role as Ashley Kriel so its a step towards something very very big.”