We chat to the first South African to get into Juilliard School’s Drama Division

2017-03-02 08:00
Hannes Otto
Hannes Otto (Photo: Luke Fontana)

Cape Town - South African actor Hannes Otto, who made history by getting into one of the toughest schools in the world, tells us what it was like.

Hannes attended Juilliard School’s Drama Division and graduated with the prestigious Michael Saint Denis Prize which was previously awarded to Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Jessica Chastain and Adam Driver.

Most recently Hannes worked with South African legend Anna-Mart van der Merwe on the upcoming film Kanarie.

We phoned Hannes in New York and he told us all about his gruelling school programme, his major award and working with Anna-Mart as well as lots more. 

Can you tell us what it was like to go to The Juilliard School’s Drama Division? What was your average day like?

It’s a pretty gruelling programme, you’re basically at school for six days a week. You usually get Sundays off. You start your day at about 9 and end your day at about 11 at night. Classes start at 9am until 6pm and then you have a dinner break. Then you’ll have rehearsals for whatever play you’re in at that time which changes every quarter. You’ll do four projects a year. Just like with any other drama programme your day is divided into the three parts of drama training; the body, the mind and the voice. So the body means a whole bunch of physical classes, like variations on dance classes. At Julliard we have something like a boot camp class. Essentially they will whip you into shape, whether you like it or not (laughs). 

Then there are more classical dance classes that we had to do, variations on classical ballet. All with the aim of getting more in control of what you can do with your body. And then similarly with voice classes, more technical classes like dialect mostly and then really abstract classes where you roll around on the floor on make weird noises for hours on end. They pride themselves in the amount of rigger that you go through. Their philosophy is that if you can survive four years of drama school you can survive anything that the industry has to throw at you. Which I am realising – now that I am outside of the school – is different. The rhythm of life changes completely (when you’re out of Julliard). From having 14 hour days at school and then suddenly you graduate and you do like 5 auditions a week, you have this immense amount of time on your hands. Now you have to learn to structure time in a new and different way.

How does it feel to receive an award previously given to Adam Driver and Kevin Spacey?

I was genuinely, sincerely shocked because they don’t tell you anything and it happened at our graduation ceremony, it’s a big deal, everyone is there. There are no real criteria for the award; the faculty decides who they think deserves it. They do look at a whole bunch of different factors like your commitment to your group and to your task as well as promise, initiative and leadership. All these really nice big words, so when you think of yourself that way you don’t really know how to respond. It’s such a lovely, huge compliment. Especially when you look at the other people who have received it; it’s really nice to be included in this group of people where a lot of them have gone to be big names in the industry and others have gone to be successful in other ways. I think it’s really sad that we live in a world - especially in the arts – where we measure success by how famous you are. 

It is really helpful when you’re foreign and get an award like that because, especially with immigration, it shows that you didn’t just come here for four years and mess around, it kind of proves that you achieved something.  It was such a huge honour. My parents weren’t going to come to my graduation then at the last second they decided to come, so it was lovely that it was so unexpected and that my parents got to see it happen. 

What was it like to work with a South African legend of stage and screen like Anna-Mart van der Merwe on Kanarie?

The film is actually is really wonderful and there’s a bunch of Afrikaans actors in it. It’s insane because she and Sandra Prinsloo are the Meryl Streeps of South Africa. I truly believe that if she was a young actress now she would have been in America and had a massive career here, not that I am saying that she necessarily wanted that. She is just so unbelievable, of a different class. I have grown up with her work and always really admired her. So that was really special to be in the same project.

Can you tell us more about Kanarie?

It is a new film, it is set in 1985 and it is about the South African army at that stage of our history, which most people will know, did conscription. This is after you finish high school you go to the army for two years (well the men did). In the 80’s in the army, there was a men’s choir called the Kanaries. If you were in the choir you didn’t have to go to Angola to fight in the actual war, you stayed in South Africa and toured from little town to little town, to essentially promote propaganda for the Nationalist government. All these young kids were just singing Afrikaans folk songs and church songs and they didn’t really know what they were doing, they were just having a blast. But, essentially they were promoting all these political agendas. It’s really exciting. It follows 8 friends who end up in the choir together; it’s about a year in their life. I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this in the Afrikaans film industry. I’m not too sure when it will come out but probably towards the end of the year. 

Fun Fact: Hannes sings and he says that his favourite song on the radio right now is Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.

Can you tell us what you’re working on right now? 

I’m working on a bunch of different projects right now. Some writer friends of mine and I are “skouer aan die wiel’, which just means trying our hand at getting a TV show off the ground. I think a big part of being an actor these days is that you have to generate work for yourself.

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