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- Interview by Thief12 (Carlo Giovannetti)
Sean Cameron Michael is a South African actor who portrayed UN relief officer Charles Solenz in 24: Redemption. Michael started his career as a teenager appearing in plays, and slowly moved up to television and film work.
In 2008, Michael auditioned for the role of Solenz, and ended up getting the role which he describes as a "life and career changing opportunity". In recent years, he has gained more notability with the role of Richard Guthrie in the critically acclaimed pirate show Black Sails on Starz. Wiki 24 interviewed Michael to know about his life and career, his experience filming Redemption, and what the future might bring for him.
The following session of questions and answers was done by email. The interview was posted on September 7, 2015. It also features SPOILERS about the events of 24: Redemption.
Wiki 24: According to IMDb, you started acting on stage musicals when you were 12. What led you to acting in the first place?
Sean Cameron Michael: When I was growing up as a kid, my father had a passion for opera music, while my mother was an award-winning ballroom dancer, so my siblings and I were continually surrounded by theatrical artists in our home life. It was a fun time. I was in the school choir and drama club and started studying acting privately with a respected teacher, Rita Maas-Phillips. I then auditioned for a new musical called The Magical Mystery Man and got the lead role. I was 12 years old. It became a hit and what followed was a musical radio serial based on the show, as well as us recording an original cast LP. I was then cast in The King & I, which too became a major theatrical hit in Cape Town, South Africa. I had "been bitten by the bug" and the rest as they say, is history.
W24: I also read that before becoming a full-time actor, you served two years of compulsory military service in your country, and then worked in several part-time jobs (waiter, chef).
SCM: When I completed my schooling, I had a choice between either going to the army or studying further at a university. My parents couldn't afford to pay for my studies, so I was forced to do the two years compulsory national service as an infantryman in the South African Defense Force. It was a difficult time for me, 'coz all I really wanted to do was act. So after the army, I got a job working at a telecommunications company as an office clerk. In my spare time I was performing supering/background work in stage productions, which included all the famous operas and musicals. I also did a couple of amateur drama productions to work at my craft.
Eventually I got an agent and started going out to auditions. Finally I resigned from my day job, worked as a waiter to pay the rent and eventually started booking some commercials and small roles in TV and film work. I then left Cape Town, moved to Johannesburg and landed work in soap operas and doing TV presenting and scriptwriting.
W24: What did you get from all these experiences as a person and as an actor?
SCM: In reflection, all these experiences certainly made me grow as an individual and later in life, I often referenced people I had either worked with in the army or in the various jobs I had done, to bring characters to life on screen or stage.
W24: What do you look for in a project in order to sign up for it?
SCM: As an actor in South Africa, there really isn't a heck of a lot of work and choices. You can't be too fussy about the kind of roles that you are offered. You basically take what you can get. The majority of on-camera work that I've done over the past three decades has been for the international market (American or European). Also, when these productions arrive on our shores to shoot, the majority of the time, they already have their main and strong supporting cast in place, with the result that local actors end up playing all the cameo and bit parts (waiters, barman, neighbor, passerby, mailman, receptionist, etc). In the event that a bigger role is being cast locally, it's usually the actors with the most experience, that are put forward for these roles. So, today you could play a nice supporting role in a feature film and tomorrow you're back to playing a barman with one line of dialogue.
Over the past couple of years or so, slowly South African actors are being considered for bigger and more meatier roles in international TV and film productions being shot there, but there still isn't enough work being generated in the country to say "I only play leading or strong support leading roles now". The reality is that actors take what they can get.
I've been extremely fortunate though, that I can now finally be a little more selective about the kind of work that I do. It will usually boil down to: Is it a director, producer or production company that I really want to work with or is the script and role being offered an amazing opportunity to challenge myself as an actor? I'm incredibly passionate about the industry and love what I do. I continually want to be learning, experiencing and growing as a performer.
Each year I also try to do as many local short films as possible – It's my way of giving back and working with young, aspiring directors, writers and producers to help realize their vision. I would rather be in front of the camera every day of my life, doing what I love, than sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring.
W24: How did you end up working on 24: Redemption?
SCM: Auditions started in the United States for the various roles on offer. Casting directors in South Africa were also asked to put actors on tape and submit them to the US for consideration. Virtually every actor I know tried to get an audition for the show. After all the auditions were submitted and viewed by the US producers, a short-list was compiled. Weeks later, when the director and producers were in South Africa doing location scouting, they attended the callbacks, met with the actors and made their final choices. I was fortunate to get a callback and was short-listed for the role of UN worker, Charles Solenz.
Director/producer Jon Cassar gave me a couple of notes before I read for him. He cautioned against a heavy, thick French accent for the character, as clarity of dialogue was vital for international audiences. So I delivered a subtle French accent that had perfect English diction. I also mentioned to the producers that I really wanted to play Solenz as irritating and infuriating as possible, to really give Jack Bauer (and the audience) enough reason to be immensely frustrated with this weak character. I booked the job and I couldn't have been happier.
W24: Were you a fan of 24 before working on the film?
SCM: I was pretty much obsessed with the show from Season 1 onwards. I loved all the characters and everything about it. Getting the opportunity to be a small part of that, was one of the most exciting career changing moments for me as an actor and I will always be extremely grateful to all the casting directors involved, and especially Jon Cassar and Howard Gordon for letting me be a part of the 24 family.
W24: How did the script describe the character of Charles Solenz? How did you adapt it to your acting style? Did you incorporate any trait that wasn't necessarily on the script?
SCM: I recall him being described as this French UN worker who simply didn't want to risk his life or job for anyone else. I don't believe there was much more than that in the brief. When I prepare for an audition (and finally to play the role), depending on the amount of time that I have, I try to do as much research as I possibly can: About the show, the other characters, the director and producers, the style and feel... I focus on the character's nationality, their possible background, their line of work... I'm really trying to figure out who they are, what makes them tick, what their average day might be like, what they eat, what they drink, etc.
In the case of Solenz, it was essential to understand what he thinks about America, France, the UN, Africa, and anything that could possibly influence how he may be perceived by the general public. Also, is he happy, sad, tired, awake, hungry, bored, whatever... It's a long, interesting and exciting process for me creating and figuring out how I think I might want to play a certain role. I think it's important for actors to make strong and specific choices in their auditions and in their performances, but at the same time, being open to direction and being in the moment on the day. There are some things in the script that I missed or forgot about in the initial audition. For example, it had Solenz physically helping the school kids unpack his UN truck when he arrives on the scene. I guess I thought it was maybe beneath the character to get his hands dirty or maybe he has this inferiority complex where he needs to tell other people what to do and pretend that he's in charge the whole time.
Ironically, when we wrapped on filming 24: Redemption, I actually asked Jon Cassar at the wrap party what was that one thing that I did in my audition, that made him go "yeah, Sean's the right guy for the job" and I recall him saying something like "Well, in your audition, you came across as this arrogant guy and that's exactly what we needed for Solenz". I took that as a compliment :)
W24: I read an interview from ShowRatings.tv where you said how you always tried to "create multi-layered individuals, with an honesty, truth, and vulnerability to them". Do you think you achieved that with Solenz? How did you approach his character?
SCM: When I watched the director's commentary on the special DVD release of 24: Redemption, Kiefer Sutherland mentioned that what he loved about my performance was the fact that I did not try to justify the character's actions. Solenz was simply this weak guy who was scared of getting his hands dirty. He didn't want to be some kind of hero and was merely looking out for himself. Ultimately, these acting choices paid off, and audiences ended up detesting the character. There was even critical outcry in the press that a UN worker could be portrayed as an uncaring, loathsome weasel, however, the producers of the show later explained that sometimes people are just normal, human beings and aren't necessarily brave and heroic when faced with life-threatening situations.
W24: At the end of the film, your character was captured by rebel forces and forced to betray Jack Bauer. Since his fate was left unknown, what did you think happened to him in the end?
SCM: I would have loved for Charles Solenz to return to the series and make an appearance at some point. I don't know what happened to the character. More than likely, he was ultimately killed after revealing Jack's whereabouts to the rebels.
W24: How would you describe the overall experience of working on 24? Are you still in contact with anyone from the cast or crew?
SCM: Working on 24 was, and still is, one of the highlights of my career. It was one of the most professional and exciting productions that any actor could have been blessed to work on. I will always be extremely grateful to Jon Cassar and the producers for their faith in my ability to bring the character to life on screen. It was a life and career changing opportunity for me seven years ago and I'm proud to say that I am still in contact with cast and crew.
W24: How was it working with the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle?
SCM: I had been a fan of Kiefer and Robert for many years and I was rather intimidated meeting them for the first time on set. They turned out to be the most down-to-earth, real human beings and consummate, passionate professionals when it came to their work ethic. It was an absolute joy and pleasure starring alongside these legends.
W24: Any funny anecdote or memorable moment during filming?
SCM: When we shot that intense one-on-one moment at the UN truck where Jack runs up to Solenz begging for help, it was a really windy, hectic day of filming, requiring a number of re-takes. At one point when Kiefer and I were literally in each other's faces in this standoff, Kiefer whispered to me "I love what you're bringing to this character Sean Cameron Michael". I responded without hesitation, "hey, you're not too bad yourself." What an amazing moment that was. I will carry it with me for the rest of my life.
W24: You've been working on Starz' Black Sails for the last year. How would you compare the experience on that show with your previous ones?
SCM: In truth, when one signs on to any production, one truly hopes that the finally product is going to be enjoyed by audiences and critics the world over. Unfortunately, due to many factors (usually budget) the end result doesn't always turn out to be what you had hoped. In the case of Black Sails, however, it was (and still is) one of the biggest and most exciting productions to be shot on African shores. Playing the series regular role of Richard Guthrie in Season 1 and 2 was one of the most pleasurable experiences I've had yet as an actor. Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes team, along with Starz have managed to pull off, I believe, the best pirate adventure TV series ever to hit screens around the world. The fact that the show is now in it's 4th season and flighting in over 175 countries is testament to that.
W24: What is the next step in your career? What projects do you have in the near future?
SCM: Being permanently based in Los Angeles this year, I ironically returned to South Africa a few months back to play my first lead role in a new sci-fi post-apocalyptic drama called Last Broken Darkness. The feature film will release early 2016 and I'm really excited for audiences to see it. You can see the making of, behind-the-scenes insert here.
I also have two other South African features coming out next year, Dis koue kos, skat and Double Echo. I've also just wrapped on a new American feature which is rather hush-hush at the moment. You can follow me on Twitter at @seancmichael to keep up to date about upcoming productions.
W24: Finally, any particular director, actor or actress that you dream of working with?
SCM: Over the past few years, I've been fortunate to work on some great productions, opposite some world-class actors - Strike Back with Game of Thrones' Charles Dance, The Challenger Disaster with Oscar-winner William Hurt, and Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen in The Salvation. The list of directors and actors I'd still like to work with is endless, but a couple would include Steven Spielberg, Lars von Trier, Paul Thomas Anderson, Julianne Moore, John Malkovich, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Michael Sheen, etc. etc.
W24: We'd like to thank you for your time, and wish you lots of success in your career.
SCM: Thank you for your support and keep up the good work.