Pierre Marais is a South African actor making his rise on stage and screen in The States. His eclectic body of work, along with unparalleled hustle, make him a performer to look out for. We sat down for a chat about his journey, the life of an actor living back-and-forth between countries and where he sees his career heading in the near future.
R: First let’s do some general introductory stuff - upbringing, how old were you when you first got your start, what were your influences and inspirations?
P: I was born in Cape Town, South Africa. My parents (mother Belgian, father South African) met in the circus performing as trapeze artists, working for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, with my father later transitioning into becoming a stunt coordinator for film and TV.
They were both huge inspirations for me growing up. I still have very vivid memories of watching them perform and wanting to be up there with them. I’d say my first legitimate start in the industry came at around twelve. I happened to pick up some keys from a training facility where Jean-Claude Van Damme was training before shooting a movie in South Africa.
We met and struck a conversation; being from Belgium we immediately had a few things in common. By the time I had gotten home, without my knowledge, Jean-Claude had called the producers of the movie, told them to fire the kid they cast as his son, and hire me instead. I was screen testing 2 days later and ended up playing his son in a movie called The Wake of Death which was about me being captured by the Triads and Van Damme coming for revenge. Classic JCVD.
R: That’s dope! Bummer for the other kid but that’s how it goes sometimes. Speaking of your earlier work in film, you worked a lot as a stunt performer. What was that experience like and how did you transition from that into more narrative focused work?
P: Having parents who were professional circus performers, I grew up around acrobats and athletes. I spent a lot of time watching them train and training beside them. Learning trampoline, sword fighting, tumbling and how to hit the same mark every time were all reasons why I was able to start with stunts at a young age.
I learned a lot about being on a set, how movies were made and how to take direction. After my experience on The Wake of Death, producers and casting directors in South Africa became aware that I was trustworthy and already used to large-scale films, which was rare for my age, and that in itself just led to more work as an actor.
A few years later I was cast as the Scorpion King in The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior, a prequel to the movie starring Dwayne Johnson.
R: You were getting work in SA, what prompted you to make the move from South Africa to New York?
P: There was a multitude of reasons for this, but I think ultimately, the underlying reason was that I had gotten a small taste of the career I wanted, through the American films that I worked on in SA. I knew that to sustain that kind of career, I would eventually have to move to the USA, where there is just simply more work. This was a conviction I had since high school, but my parents rightly wanted me to finish high school in South Africa before making that kind of move.
R: Our parents would get along. When I first moved over to New York, there were a lot of unexpected challenges pursuing a career back-and-forth between South Africa and The States. What were some of these challenges for you, specifically being an actor?
P: The extent of the legal red tape that exists to maintain a career in the US was certainly surprising. I wasn't aware of all the rules concerning the actors union for stage and screen and what visas they require to pursue a legitimate career.
The other challenge was to remain relevant in both countries. The more time I spent in the US, the fewer opportunities would arise from South Africa because I was out of the loop. Also, because I spent 2 years at the New York Film Academy on a student visa, I couldn’t work in the US. So, it definitely was an adjustment going from lots of work in South Africa and then having no work for me in America.
R: That’s an important reality to keep in mind when making the move. What was your primary focus of study at New York Film Academy?
P: Musical Theatre and Film Acting.
R: Your recent work is mainly stage and live performance - while you've been doing that for a large chunk of your career what made you choose to focus in on it, as opposed to film?
P: This honestly came as a result of living and studying in New York City. Broadway is a Billion Dollar industry; my New York training had a musical theater focus and most of the connections I made at college were in the theater world. I wouldn’t say I’ve explicitly chosen stage performance at the moment. It just happens to have been the best and most exciting opportunities that have come my way while living in New York.
R: Have you noticed any significant differences between the industry in South Africa vs. over here in The States?
P: I’d say the most fundamental difference is the strength and control of the unions in America. They provide protection for actors, directors, writers, crews etc. that end up dictating so much of what can and can’t be done on productions.
In South Africa, although these unions exist, they do not mandate productions like they do in the states. Essentially if you are not part of these unions, you can’t do work on some of the biggest shows/films in the US. I’m a big fan of these institutions and believe anyone in the entertainment industry shouldn’t be exploited for the work they do. Although, this can sometimes result in simple tasks taking a long time to accomplish so that the union rules are abided by.
The other somewhat obvious major difference is the volume of people and the amount of work available is much larger in the United States than in SA.
R: I agree, I think that’s why, for a lot of talent in South Africa, the goal is often to perform and grow a career in The States. What would say were the biggest moments of realization you've had with regards to appearance vs. reality?
P: What I thought when I moved here was that there would be all these “doors of opportunity” that would exist, and it would just simply be up to me to A- knock on them and then B- be good enough for those doors to open. But really that’s not the case in most instances. Although many opportunities exist, the doors to them are hidden and much harder to find. It takes a lot of work and patience just to even be considered for an audition and seen by the people who really matter in this city. Nevermind, actually being considered for the part.
If you think you can just move here and be a waiter while trying to audition for a job you would be wrong. Without work authorization, you can’t just pick up and do something like that. At the moment, my current authorization only allows me to be an actor in the US. I've been fortunate to work consistently but for many of my friends, this has resulted in them having to return home because the cost of living without a side job was insurmountable.
R: That’s another reality, not a lot of people may know. So, for other up-and-comers making this journey what is some advice you could give them? Stuff you wish someone would have told you?
P: I wish someone sat me down and explained the details of unions and visas very clearly to me. Just so that my expectations were set straight. Know that most film production companies won’t work with you if you are not a permanent resident, and working in the stage union permanently without permanent residency is also currently not possible.
The cost of obtaining visas can run you close to $10K. Play the Green Card lottery. Market yourself and diligently collect all the evidence of work you’ve done. Know what you can’t change about yourself and know what you can.
The best advice that anyone has ever giving to me is to just be good. When it comes down to it, put your head down, graft, and be a legitimate artist. If you are simply good at what you do, that’s most important, and opportunities/direction will certainly come from that.
If America has taught me one thing, it’s how to network. The industry is too saturated to be the shy person in the corner hoping to be discovered. There is certainly an art to it. There’s a fine line between being smart and getting yourself out there and being annoying and acting like every little thing you do is important.
Taking classes with the right choreographers and casting directors has directly led to more job offers than I can count. Loyalty is certainly not dead. So taking classes and improving is a part of life. My friends who have been on Broadway for decades still take classes for acting, singing and dancing regularly.
R: Solid, solid advice. Something I like to ask actors from international backgrounds is what has been the perception of you as a foreign actor within America?
P: This is a somewhat loaded question, because when auditioning, I am always doing it in my American accent. There's also no real indication that I am foreign on my resume. So, I think that in itself says that... I think if you are perceived as too foreign, often you are not considered for acting jobs.
It undoubtedly resulted in more callbacks and job offers for me when I started doing it. I don’t necessarily see it as denying who I am. It's just a part of the hustle that I think works best for me. The other interesting perception is the idea of my ‘type’ as an actor. Because I have darker features and a tan, many Americans mistake me for being Spanish or Puerto Rican, and so I’ve been cast as this for multiple roles even though that isn’t my heritage, but I’ve had to adopt it because I would not be defined by most Americans as a classic all-American white boy. I have no real issue with that perception of me, but gaining an awareness of it was important for my career.
R: The latter of that has a really, really interesting point, as someone who has created a fair amount of content around the issue of diversity and representation. A topic that often comes up is the idea of white-washing. Casting white actors to play characters of other backgrounds. On one hand it’s easy to get frustrated, but also, actors got to eat, you know? And if that’s the ‘type’ industry is seeing you as, and you need the work... what can you really do? It’s either that, or write and produce your own content (which you’ll need money for, anyways.) Starting out, this becomes a major thing to traverse…
Moving on, speak on your current projects and how you got involved in them - what drives you and keeps you going?
P: I just finished performing in the musical Rock of Ages. Coming from a rock and roll music background this was a musical that sat very well with me. This was one of those shows that I just went to the open call in New York for, got called back about 4 times, then booked. It was very textbook. I was also fortunate enough to assist the original Tony-nominated director, Kristin Hanggi on installing the show for the following cast.
This summer I'll be going to Niagara Falls to be a lead singer for a show called Dancing Queen and then after that I’ll be doing West Side Story and Saturday Night Fever at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut. All of these shows came from appointment auditions through my agent.
I enjoy the challenge of new work. Doing different shows presents new challenges and those are the things that keep me excited.
R: That’s an exciting line-up, are there any dream projects you have your eyes set on?
P: I’d like to get back to my film roots. I’ve really enjoyed working on theater for the past few years but in the 21st century the notion that actors can juggle a career in stage and screen is common, and I’d love to bring my film experience from South Africa to the US in a more deliberate way than I have since moving here.
In saying that though, I would love to book a Broadway show, as would another 100 000 people in New York, but I don’t think that desire will ever go away. Project wise, I would love to get involved in a production of the musical, Newsies. Also, being part of a new series from the ground floor where long-term development of a character is possible over many seasons seems like what all my favorite actors are doing these days, and I’d love to get the opportunity to do that.
R: That’s awesome, I’m excited to see where you’re headed next.
Follow Pierre Marais on Instagram @pierre_marais
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