Esther van Zyl on beginnings, real life stuff, and dreams

By Laurie Scarborough

When I first heard about Esther van Zyl, it was through a mutual friend who described her as the Rachel Berry to his Kurt Hummel.

A few years later, while working full-time at SBAM I received an email from another SBAM actor and drama teacher, Sue Diepeveen. She said there was this girl we should meet, a past pupil, who had returned from training in New York. She wrote, “Dare I say it, but I knew from the beginning. She had ‘IT’.” Attached was a headshot of a brown-eyed girl, her face framed by brunette curls.

Days later the SBAM family gained a member.

Flash forward four months and Esther is smiling at me on Skype from France where she is visiting family before heading to Spain for the final leg of an international film festival tour to support her film Life After Her.

Esther always knew she wanted to perform. “Since I was seven that’s what I’ve wanted.” Ever involved in theatre, at eleven she wrote and directed her school play, and throughout high school she participated in national performing festivals. An all-rounder in school, her parents wanted her in a safer, more stable career, but she was determined to act.

“You watch all these movies that are in New York and then you’re like, that’s what I want to do. I want to go to New York and act,” she says, like it’s never been more obvious. The final punch to her let-me-act campaign came with her matric results. “My marks came back and I came eighth in the Western Cape for science which is great, but I came first in the country for drama. So I was like, the marks have spoken.”

At the end of her performance degree at the University of Stellenbosch, she saw an audition call for the New York Film Academy. “I thought I’d just go and see if I got in or not, and see what level my acting was at on an international level. Not that I knew much about the New York Film Academy back then. I was just like, H! New York! Film Academy!”

Not only was she accepted but she received a scholarship to attend and she grabbed the opportunity. “You don’t really say no to New York.”

It was there that she met Gui Festa, a Brazilian directing student at NYFA. “It was over coffee one day when we said let’s make a good film, like a good short film,” she stretches out the ‘good’ for emphasis. And Life After Her was born.

Creating the project together, they invaded New York cafés with storyboard flashcards, excitedly spreading them over tables and arranging scenes and ideas into the story they wanted to tell. They had always planned to play the lead characters themselves, and so they incorporated aspects of themselves and messages they wanted to express into Rachel and Lucas.

“For me, it was this thing that growing up in a religious home tells you how to think about things and how to behave and what the right way to live is. And how holding on to those beliefs totally blocks you from expressing yourself and realising that you’re actually going to be okay. No one’s condemning you, you’re the only one condemning yourself by holding onto these things.”

Once the script was finished, Festa showed it to a writing teacher who was impressed and put them in contact with the right people: an acting coach and a Hulu producer. Festa contacted a Brazilian photography team he had previously worked with and the project was a go.

The day after NYFA graduation, shooting began and was completed in eight days.

Originally titled ‘Rachel and Lucas’, Life After Her is a coming-of-age story about a young couple who struggle with questions about the human condition in the midst of tragedy. Rachel, a South African girl living in New York, was brought up strictly Catholic by her step-father but is struggling to understand God and the life He’s given her. She meets Lucas at her best friend’s funeral and his dysfunction meets hers. Through their relationship they realise that they can let go of some of their hard-held beliefs to enjoy their lives.

The film has been internationally noticed, first picking up a Platinum Best Film award at the NYC Indie Film Awards. An official selection at the Grove Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival, and an honourable mention at the Rochester International Film Festival, Life After Her rounded up its indie award season at the Madrid International Film Festival, where Esther was nominated for Best Actress and for Best Screenplay.

Following the success of the film, Festa hopes to receive funding for a feature-length film, although Esther is unsure if she will return as Rachel. She will however be returning to New York and hopes that the exposure of the film and her work in it will show talent agents, “This is me. This is what I can do. I want to do more.” She hopes to secure good bi-coastal representation based in NY.

Although she plans to go wherever the work is, she is more prepared for a New York career. “I understand the industry now and I know what I’m getting into so it’s a good place to start. I have friends there and teachers and other people who can help inject me into the industry.”

Remaining authentic in the trade of storytelling has made NY another positive place of connection for Esther. “In New York it’s easier to find people who are not afraid to strive for authenticity. Sometimes that can go in the extreme and in their search for authenticity they end up acting. You know, ‘I have to be so real. So. Real .’” She says it with comical intensity. “Like stop. Why you doing that? Just be.”

She also prefers NY to LA, saying “This is where you live best, this is where your soul flourishes and I feel most alive.” She reflects on the message of film Birdman, saying that while LA tends to commercialise films by telling “stories that make money in a way that makes money”, NY film-makers are more interested in the art of telling good stories well, saying they “want to keep an art form alive and contribute to the growth of the human spirit”.

There are no ‘ifs’ with Esther, there are just ‘whens’. This is clear by how she speaks about her future in the entertainment industry. She intends to work on screen, eventually writing and acting in her own films, but she will never wave theatre goodbye. In fact, first on the agenda upon her return to NY are a few theatre readings. “It’s how I’ve grown up and how I’ve been trained. There’s a magic that exists in theatre that doesn’t exist in film, and vice versa. I get different things out of them.”

Cultivating healthy habits to sustain a long career is a current focus for Esther. Daniel Day-Lewis’s retirement from performing (reportedly because of his painfully immersive method-acting), reminds Esther to leave characters on set, more pertinent still after an emotional day on the Life After Her set left her physically ill. Striving for emotional intensity throughout the shoot, Esther was drained after repeating a 6-minute fight scene, in which Rachel confronts her step-father, 20 times until she was satisfied.

This happens more if she isn’t able to play out all of the emotions on set, and is left to deal with them after wrap. “I’ve done all this intense emotional prep for something and I’m sitting with this pent-up stuff and maybe it didn’t all come out in one take, maybe I got scared and held back a bit. Then it will really sit with me. But I’m trying to not do that because it’s not nice. I don’t want to live like that.”

Taking inspiration from other young actresses like Brie Larson, Alicia Vikander, and Emma Stone, she aims for authenticity in her performances. She finds Larson’s “meaty, raw” role choices, from films like Room and Short Term 12, particularly inspiring. “It really requires the actor to strip down and show what is just there without putting on anything extra. Just deal with the real life stuff.”

She also loves Emma Stone’s versatility, fearlessness and her unique characterisations. “She has these huge eyes and weird ways of expressing,” she begins a quirky imitation. “But you’re not going to find any other actor like Emma Stone. I want to find my Esther-isms, that are only mine, that I can bring to characters. Because that’s what a master ends up doing. Not that you want to be yourself, but you want to use what only you have, your magic, to bring characters to life.”

But what are these “Esther-isms”? What defines Esther? She laughs when asked and says that like Rachel Berry, she identifies with gold stars. “My name means star in Hebrew and Persian and several other languages. So that’s always been me! But for so many reasons: to remind me to always look up and also hold things lightly.”

She also thinks of herself as a bird. “Right now because I’m flying all over the world and drifting and migrating, but also the feathers and holding things lightly. Soaring, going higher, always in flight, reaching.”

“So you’re a bird flying towards the stars?” I ask. She laughs again. “Yeah, let’s hope it’s not like Icarus flying too close to the sun.”

Although a farewell to Cape Town, this is certainly not a curtain call for Esther van Zyl. We expect to see her on international screens and stages and she plans to return to South Africa for season.

“Keep dreaming, everyone, and more – walk into them. It’s scary, but once you arrive at the boarding gate it’s like you know you’ve been ready all along.”

Onwards and upwards Esther! And in the words of Langston Hughes (and also Esther’s Facebook intro):

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird, unable to fly.”

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