Rising South African star, Christia Visser, recently played the lead role in Tess, a film adaptation of Tracey Farren's novel Whiplash. The challenging performance recently won her Best Actress, in addition to Tess winning best South African feature film and editing after its world premiere at the Durban International Film Festival.
The film follows the heartrending journey of a woman forced into prostitution and the difficulties she encounters on the streets of Cape Town. Having recently starred in the grueling true story drama, Alison, and South Africa's first zombie feature, Last Ones Out, Visser has become quite prolific... SPL!NG caught up with her in this exclusive interview.
How did you get involved with this project?
I got the audition script and was immediately drawn to the challenge of conveying such a message that is often eluded. When it came to committing myself to the project, however, I found myself declining out of fear... I thank Meg for not giving up on me, because I went on to have conversations about the film with my parents with regards to the very serious subject matter of the film. Abuse is something I feel very strongly about... so I had to do this film. And that was that.
The production has been renamed several times - can you tell us about the transition?
The film is based on Tracey Farren's novel called Whiplash, so that was the first choice for the film obviously... but after the award-winning film by the same name came out, we had no choice but to change it. We then decided on Shushh as that's exactly what people tend to do when it comes to abuse, they keep quiet about it.
It felt fitting, but unfortunately it wasn't exactly a marketable name as most people struggled to pronounce it and the meaning wasn't clear for some reason. It was only then that we decided on Tess, which actually seemed quite natural, since the story follows Tess's journey...
You’re playing a very challenging character with a difficult history, how did you prepare for the mental and physical demands of playing her?
As an actress you can not judge your character. As humans, we are inclined to judge things like sex work... I had the privilege of meeting some former sex workers, whose stories and hearts changed mine... The harsh reality of their lives and the fact that for them there was never a choice, broke my heart and it made me realize that you can be a good person thrown into an unbearable situation that makes you feel unworthy of anything good.
This was my first and probably most important step towards becoming Tess. I don't ever really have a recipe of preparation... I learn to understand my character, I trust my instincts and then I throw myself into every scene heart first... and then I trust that my director, cast, crew, family and friends will be there to catch me when I fall.
Has this role inspired you in any way?
Absolutely. It's made me want to stand up against abuse, now more than ever. It makes me want to tell more stories like this in Afrikaans, to push the boundaries and push past my fears as an actress.
What was it like working with Meg Rickards?
Meg has all the heart and passion a project like this needs. She is an incredibly supportive person. This was a difficult film to make, it's tiring and it hurts, so you have to treat it with a lot of sensitivity, she understood that.
What did you find most challenging about making this film?
I had to let go of my moral standards... the soliciting and sex scenes were really hard for me to do. Physically my body was sore and tired and more than that it was hard to stay in an emotionally wrecked space for such a long period of time. At some point you start forgetting what is yours and what is hers, that made the recovery process difficult.
What was a highlight or a special memory you’ll take away from Tess?
The incredible support of my fellow cast members and crew... they were with me every step of the way, carrying me when things got too much for me to handle. After one scene... when I looked up, the crew were standing with their backs towards me in order to give me privacy in the moment, they were hurting with me.
The film centres around abuse… is this a message movie, and if so, what message do you think it’ll leave with audiences?
For me, yes, it definitely has a very important message... I hope when you watch this film that the reality of abuse will hit you in the gut, because it's not pretty and it's not okay. Even though abuse may only last for a while, the effect of it can last a lifetime. But there are always angels among the darkness. For those that have been victims of abuse, may this film give you strength and hope. There as so many good people in this world, we just have to choose to stand together.
Have you read the book, and if so, how faithful were the film-makers in bringing this book to life?
I haven't read the book actually... I started and then decided that the script was more than enough to deal with. But I do believe that it was truthful, we used the exact same locations as in the book and the story unfolds in the same way. Obviously a lot of scenes had to be cut for the film, but Tess's journey and the essence of the story stays the same.