Talking about his generation

Nawaal Deane spoke to Strini Pillai, of popular South African soapie, Generations, about life before fame

Did you know that you wanted to be an actor when you were in school?

I was an all rounder, always involved in singing, dancing and acting from primary school level. Academically I was a good student and achieved high marks but I didn’t have to work at it. I was involved in every talent competition in school so I suppose it was natural to fall into acting.
But I was never interested in the subjects they taught at school. School just never offered what I enjoyed but I still did as well as I could.

It seems as though you had no problems, the ideal student?

Yes, I was good at sport and very popular with the other students. I attended Rylands primary and secondary school. Teachers also loved me because emotionally I was mature for my age. But in Std 7 our school became involved in the political struggle. We were taught “political awareness” as an alternative to the brainwashing history lessons and for that reason our school teachers got into serious trouble with the government. At the time I found myself in some trouble - politically related - and my father sent me to Durban where I attended Reservoir Hills High.

Did this affect your attitude towards education?

Yes, I was safe at Reservoir Hills but angered and frustrated by the fact that people were dying in the country, fighting for their rights and at my new school no one was interested in politics.

It seems as though your schooling career did not involve the conventional problems facing students?

Yes that is true. However, I did learn that education is your biggest tool. I returned to Rylands in standard nine amidst the “chalk downs” and no classes but I managed to write the examination and pass with a 50% aggregate. My father forced me to repeat it at St Columbus Boys School in Athlone.

Did you find any of the subjects beneficial?

Learning history was definitely an advantage in terms of my career. When I need to do period pieces it just gives me a broader perspective. But generally I found that I used only 20% of the subjects taught at school. I had lived with my brother and from a very young age was taught to be self-sufficient. School does not give you practical skills like cooking. My brother taught me more about life and acting. After matric did you immediately get into acting? No, I took off a year to explore my interests - to find out more about me. I don’t think everyone knows what career path they want when they leave school. I decided to study drama at University but unfortunately found out that it did not give me what I required - it was not practical. The bridge between tertiary education and the real world is wide.

What was varsity life like?

I learnt that I had talent. You don’t really need a drama degree if you have a creative flare. It is more your willingness to achieve, confidence and knowing you can do the work better than others.

You have a two-year-old son. What is your approach to educating him?

Connor, my son attends a Montessori school where he is stimulated to enhance his own natural talent and interests. He is not given useless information that he cannot use. I love the idea of disciplining him without shouting or hitting him - rather denying him what he enjoys most. He is so advanced that I ask him what he prefers, what he wants to eat and strive to give him the basic practical skills he needs.

In retrospect what advice would you give students who want to have a career in acting?

Take the initiative, feed your own interests, explore and nurture who you are. At the end of matric you should be a well-rounded individual. Don’t worry about being “cool” or being the best-dressed student - look ahead and know what you want.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, February, 2001.

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