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Lemogang Tsipa on 'Beyond the River'

Lemogang Tsipa is an up-and-coming South African actor best known for his TV roles as Dini Masilela in the detective drama series, Traffic!, and Smiley in Jab. More recently, Tsipa has been making a name for himself as a film actor with a supporting role in Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky and a leading role opposite Grant Swanby as Duma in Craig Freimond's Beyond the River, which opens in South Africa on 28 April.

Can you tell us a bit about your character and how you came to be involved in Beyond the River?

The character that I played is a young man by the name of Duma, who is caught between two worlds. He's really poor, living a life of crime and gets pulled into something as part of his life that forces him to pick a side and move forward. They held auditions, I did as best as I could and got the role. Just tried to make magic from there.

It's based on a true story, did you get a chance to meet Pierce and Siseko?

Yes we did, originally it was a lot closer to their real lives and stories, however the writers discovered that Pierce is too nice, so we had to take a bit of creative licence to make the story more dramatic and more interesting. The same was true for the character that I played, based on Siseko. A movie about two really nice guys who come together after a few ups and downs isn't as dramatic, so we took a bit of poetic licence. We managed to meet the guys and draw from them as much as we could to tell their story.

What was it like working with Grant Swanby?

Even before shooting the film I remember seeing him and his work, he's a legend in this country, one of the best. I was initially very intimidated and excited to work with him... luckily we had a couple of months of training beforehand, so I really got to bond with him. He's a really amazing guy and phenomenal actor so it was a pleasure, we never clashed heads, we had great chemistry from the onset.

It's always useful to come across with a sense of history, it helps inform the characters and Grant has got such a wealth of experience, if you had to say one thing that he gave you... any nuggets of wisdom?

I received a goldmine from that guy. One thing I did note was his level of discipline and dedication to his work, I think what we do is both easy and not easy, depending on how much you commit. He taught me a lesson of how far you can push your commitment to your work while not being obsessed about it or letting it take over. Where you commit and give it your all, but don't let it consume you, which is a line some people often blur... lost in the work, they lose the initial vision of what it was they were going for. He's a master, who's balanced it quite well and I'm figuring it out slowly.

It sounds like you spent quite a bit time time with him, developing your character, how did you prepare in terms of rowing, your fitness and diet?

A lot of falling in the water initially, we just needed to know how to swim. Canoeing is hard... I always say that canoeing is similar to trying to ride a unicycle on a tightrope. The first thing we had to gain was the balance of sitting in the canoe. That had to do with our core strength, so sit ups, joining the boxing gym... as much of anything conventional, unconventional to get my core strong, the focus was on upper body.

Diet-wise I just continued eating clean... proteins, no carbs or at least non-processed carbs. I felt myself bulking up and I had an eight pack. As much as it would be good to get him to look like that, it's wasn't ideal. Realistically, being a guy from an informal settlement I didn't want to look like I had a Virgin Active membership and got food from Woolies everyday. I had to tone down a bit about a month before the shoot... I think I found a balancing point there.

There's a wonderful cross-cultural contrast between the co-leads. Do you think it's a uniquely South African story and will it travel?

Definitely I think it's uniquely South African in so many respects. The dynamics, looking at a poor black person and middle-class white person and the challenges we go through everyday. Even though much of it is universal, it's still specific to South Africa. I think it also has a strong universal message, which everybody will be able to relate to around the world.

What was it like working with Craig Freimond?

Craig is a crazy genius! He's amazing, full of ideas and is very creative, he's got a solid vision and knows exactly what he wants. He also gets you to give your input as an artist, to make it more collaborative. His body of work speaks for itself. He's a man that loves films... whenever I'd go to his place or have a conversation with him over coffee or tea, we'd discuss film. You can see he has a real affinity for it and that has such a great influence over his work. You are whatever you put into your system... he puts great films in and produces great films.

After doing this film, do you have any desire to do the Dusi in the future?

No, not at all. It's actually a very tough and grueling race. I have not done the Comrades marathon but I jog a bit. I would easily say it's tougher than the Comrades. It's not something you just wake up and decide to do, especially since so much can go wrong. When Grant and I were rehearsing, falling underwater, it's very dangerous and some people have lost their lives to paddling. I'm a super amateur and I wouldn't try and put myself in a position like that because I was even struggling with little baby rapids. I've seen some footage of the actual Dusi, there are some rapids you cannot avoid, you have to go down them and I would die, which is not something I'm looking forward to doing any time soon(!)

It features some spectacular backdrops in KwaZulu-Natal, did you have a favourite shooting location?

The Valley of a Thousand Hills is the most gorgeous place I've ever seen, bearing in mind I've lived in Cape Town for quite some time. You have amazing views here... Chapman's Peak, Signal Hill, the mountains are breathtaking but the Valley of a Thousand Hills… it's got a thousand hills, not literally but it seems like it. It's so untouched and the water down there is peaceful. I'm a KZN boy so I think I may be a bit biased. The weather was really hot, which I usually enjoy, but I think the next time I visit will be in winter...

The film was shot mostly outdoors, did this make it much more challenging?

We were fighting a lot of battles: with light, continuity of light, the elements... There was a stage when we were filming in Soweto Dam and one of the biggest Highveld thunderstorms I've ever seen rolled in. It started hailing and boards were falling off of the highway, it was crazy and pretty scary to see the clouds and lightning approaching so quickly.

And your favourite memory from Beyond the River?

There was a scene I did with Israel Makoe... it was just one of those moments that happens, it wasn't a thing I had any control over. I wish I could take credit for it but it was just one of those magical moments where the scene just took over and I wish I could work at that level every single time. I was bouncing off of Israel's energy and he of course is a legend in his own right. That was one of the highlights of my life.

So you've got two films down with him now, are you looking for a third, fourth or fifth?

Definitely, I remember when I worked on the second film with him him he kept saying that every time he works, I work. I really look forward to working with him, he's so much more than the characters he plays, charismatic, funny, smart and business-orientated. I think this film will unlock a number of different viewpoints on him and hopefully open up a lot more opportunities other than him just playing a gangster.

He is a human being with so much depth and he's an amazing storyteller. He plays a motivational guy, who is one of my mentors in the film. Just coming from that angle, he doesn't have to be one of these hard-core guys, but you really see him open up and be more vulnerable. He's an amazing actor, not just a one character, one dimensional man. He is a "full chicken" actor as I like to say!

If you could choose, who would you like to work with in the future?

One guy I have to work with is Edward Norton. He's a genius, the thing I love and respect about him is that he's very selective about his work, you can see he's a man who takes this craft very seriously. I could really learn a lot from him and his choices, what he brings to the table is quite amazing. Then Tom Hanks, I don't even need to elaborate, he is Tom Hanks! The third man who would push me to unlock levels I don't think I can, is Daniel Day Lewis, he is a god. By virtue of working with him it's almost like running a relay with Usain Bolt, the pressure of performing with such an amazing talent - it's motivating.

Unlike Usain Bolt, he won't be stripped of one of his Oscars...

Oh no definitely, there's no doping in acting as far as I know.

What do you think audiences will take away from Beyond the River?

I think the biggest thing that we should take away as South Africans is re-opening dialogue that seem to have been swept under the rug. Being a middle-class black African in South Africa I've been exposed to both sides of the world, black sides from poor to rich, white sides from poor to rich and I think there's a huge disconnect in us as South Africans. As much as the rainbow nation has healed, I think there's a lot more that can be done to bring the two worlds together and I think that's a strong message. At the end of the day we are all human beings and we can all learn from each other.