Mind the Soap
Sat, 1 January 2000
Country boy Braam left the family farm in Okahandja for the bright lights of Johannesburg. The Engineering student and part-time bartender turned many a female head, but Braam came out soon after his arrival in the big city.
Enter Krynauw, a young single Johannesburg guy. The two hit it off and sparked a relationship. One thing led to another, as they say, and Braam and Krynauw have just moved in together.
And it all happened on Egoli - South Africa's hugely successful daily soap on M-Net.
But what's it like to play openly gay characters in SA's well-known and well-loved TV institution - with a large Afrikaans audience? Like his character Braam, actor Ebi Halberstadt is a farm boy from a somewhat conservative background himself. Hannes van Wyk, playing Braam's love interest Krynauw, has played gay characters before but this was a new kind of challenge.
What was the public reaction to the gay liaison on screen? And what does the future hold for Braam and Krynauw? Mamba Online caught up with Ebi and Hannes during a break between shoots, and they chatted about some of these questions.
It was lunchtime at Egoli, and I got the bonus of a tour through the studios. We stopped by Nora's kitchen and strolled through the impressive offices of Walco. We stood in the library of an opulent house, and just a step later we were in a homely living room. This living room belongs to Braam and Krynauw's new home - the place they've just moved into together.
Back inside, the men in question were ready and waiting. The two actors sat back just like two regular guys, lit up a couple of cigarettes, and talked openly about their characters and their backgrounds. Ebi (who plays Braam) hails from Namibia, and he studied drama and did some electronics work before landing the role on Egoli. Hannes (who plays Krynauw) has performed and taught drama for a number of years.
As to whether either Ebi or Hannes is actually gay is something that we'll leave up to you to decide... They weren't letting on.
Mamba: How did you feel when you first found out you'd be playing a gay character?
Ebi: I knew that my character would be gay when I started at Egoli. It was quite a shock to me. I'm from a farm and those people have their own ideas about what gay people are all about. It took me a while to convince everyone that people don't change because they're gay.
Hannes: It's always difficult. I did it a couple of years ago in a stage production. What both of us try to show people is you can have normal gay relationships.
Mamba: What was the response from your friends and family when they found out you'd be playing a gay character?
Ebi: I kept quiet because my mother watches Egoli and if I told her there would be no surprises. (smiles) My family watched and was happy when Braam came out as gay although my mother went into a depression for about three days! My dad was positive from the start. My grandfather is still uncomfortable with the Braam/Krynauw thing. So I phoned him on his birthday and as a joke said Krynauw sends his love and he must have a nice birthday! And he was just quiet! (a cheeky laugh)
Hannes: My mother said the storyline is taking on new dimensions! But overall they're very positive. But I'm sure every mother would like her son to be straight and play a straight character.
Mamba: What has the public response been like?
Ebi: The question I get very often is whether I'm gay or not in real life. The gay people want to believe you're gay. The straight people want to believe you're just playing a gay character.
Hannes: It's human to ask. People ask very often but not in a negative way. But it's time now for South Africans to open their eyes and see there are gay people. Young people deal with it much better than older people.
Mamba: Do you think South Africans are ready to see gay characters on their daily soaps?
Ebi: Egoli's only a re-creation of what's out there [in South Africa]. A lot of people didn't want to look at it but now they are watching. People say "he's gay, and that's fine but if he gets a boyfriend we'll stop watching." But now he's got a boyfriend and they're still watching!
Hannes: What Franz Marx [the creator of Egoli] is creating is a very realistic approach to life. What Franz Marx wants to show is that a gay relationship is fine. But in the beginning we both thought they could push it further. For older people you can't give it to them immediately. It takes time to accept. Egoli caters for every person.
Mamba: Do you feel that it's more of a challenge to play a "minority" than to play a perhaps more socially acceptable character?
Ebi: We play two "boereseuns" who happen to be gay. It would've been harder for the public to accept a "screaming queen" than two normal guys.
Mamba: So then how big a part does being gay play in Krynauw and Braam's identities?
Hannes: They have their lives like any other couple in South Africa. They're just happy in a relationship. The only "happy" relationship on Egoli at the moment is the gay relationship! (said with a proud smile)
Ebi: Everybody think gay people sleep around and stuff but our characters aren't like that. They are committed to each other and that's nice.
Mamba: How much political correctness goes into the creation and portrayal of these characters?
Ebi: Egoli respects the people who don't want to see the gay thing. They don't want to shove it down their throats.
Hannes: As far as the storyline goes they [the writers] are very careful not to offend anyone but still be representative.
Mamba: Soap operas have always been pioneers in the sense that they have been the first TV shows to introduce gay characters. Why do you feel this is the case?
Hannes: Maybe it's over a long period and they have time to develop it. In a soapie you can develop a character and show they have different sides.
Mamba: Do you consider yourselves to be gay icons?
Ebi: A lot of gay people who have never watched Egoli now watch it. It's important for gay people to see gay people [on TV].
Hannes: I don't know if I have the looks for an icon! (laughs bashfully) There are a lot of people still in the closet, especially young people, and very unhappy with themselves. I think this will help them.
Mamba: Soap operas are well known for their sexual shenanigans. Do you think the physical element will enter into your on-screen relationship any time soon?
Ebi: I think within the next five years there must be something happening. I think people will be ready to accept it then.
Hannes: Friends say there's chemistry on screen between Braam and Krynauw that works. At the moment you don't need a kiss. Some gay people want to see more but it's a show that caters for everybody. You also don't want to force it or there will be negative reactions.
Mamba: So how far would you go?
Ebi: If the money's good then fine! (laughs) It's a wait-and-see type of situation. I trust Franz Marx. If he thinks it's good for the storyline I'll do it.
Hannes: Both of us have a lot of respect for Franz Marx. It depends on the storyline, like any storyline. I've been naked on stage but it contributed to the play. I'll just have to close my eyes when I kiss him! (Laughs and points to his "partner")