Gavin Hood has the body of a farmer. It’s not a powerful body, but one that seems to have been conditioned by the challenges of making the earth and animals productive. At the start of our interview in his room in the Fairmont Olympic Seattle, Hood—who three weeks later will be seen on TV holding an Oscar in his hand—reveals that he desperately wants something to eat. Because he has been told that this is salmon country, an order of salmon is made. I then explain to Hood that, according to my father, an expert in Zimbabwean languages (Shona, Ndebele, English), tsotsi generally refers to someone with criminal tendencies.
Does it mean the same thing in South Africa and also in his movie?
In South Africa it means a thug. A really bad boy. A gangster. It is also the name of the main character. He can’t even remember his real name. He only goes by Tsotsi… Thug.
So, it’s like saying: “Hey Thug, how’s it going today?”
Yes, you could say something like that.
But the real star of your film is Jo’burg. The city of gold. In fact, you could have called your movie City of Gold. But then there would have been the problem of people not seeing the l in gold. Nevertheless, I do believe that your movie introduces Johannesburg as cinema.
That is correct. I really wanted to present Jo’burg as it is today. A modern city with modern problems: the big division between the very rich and poor; problems with crime; an obsession with security—that sort of thing. Jo’burg is a vital city. It has all of this energy. And I wanted the photography to capture the size of the city and its great energy. So the film looks like it was shot in cinemascope, though it wasn’t. I actually blocked the top and bottom of the image to make that wide effect of cinemascope.
I have to ask you this because I’m a freak. But which of the actors are playing down? You know what I mean? Tsotsi takes place in a slum, and you clearly used professional actors. In Africa, however, professional actors don’t come from the slums. They come from comfortable backgrounds and were educated at schools in the West. So, which actors, if any, are really from the slums?
All of the main actors, but one, are playing down. Can you guess who it is?
My guess is the crippled beggar at the downtown train station. The one Tsotsi considers killing under the freeway. He must be the real deal. You picked him right of the streets of Soweto.
Wrong! That man is the most educated in my group of actors. He has a Masters degree in theater and has been acting for years. It’s the woman Miriam [Terry Pheto], the one who humanizes Tsotsi. She is really from the ghetto.
I was almost certain she attended a posh girl’s school. Her skin is so healthy looking.
Well, they were all great actors and without their professionalism the film would have been worth nothing.