New York ,NY
Photography : Takahiro Ogawa
Realisation: Deborah Ferguson
Interview By Jaimie Kourt
You so recently climbed and summited Mount Kilimanjaro. Will you speak a little about why you made this climb?
I have been involved with a charity in Cape Town’s biggest township for the two and a half years I have been working here in South Africa. Having previously volunteered in a children’s homes in Bolivia, I really wanted to get involved in a social project here in South Africa, especially knowing how privileged I am to be able to come and work here. On my way to work each day I pass Khayetlisha, a mass of ramshackle tin shacks on a vast area of sand dunes that is home to hundreds of thousands of people. Despite South Africa’s attempts to redress the social imbalances caused by apartheid it seemed clear to me that the leftover economic and educational disparities were a long way from narrowing for most of the people living on the periphery of this city. I was unable to ignore the fact that the city I was now living in didn’t work for everyone, so I decided to give my time by teaching English in a township school, through arts, craft and drama, on my days off from filming.
I strongly believe that education is the strongest catalyst for positive social change and development.
Pre-school is an essential part of that. Giving children the correct stimulation at this crucial time in their physical and mental growth allows them to embark on the rest of their school career with an important head-start, a head-start that is so often only available to children from more privileged areas.
Education has been shown to be the crucial factor in allowing individuals and entire communities to climb out of poverty. Thus access to education is essential for Khayetlisha, with 40% of its population being under the age of 19.
ICP (Intyatyambo Community Project – which means blossoming flowers) provides pre-school education for AIDS orphans and vulnerable children in the area and has gone from strength to strength in the last 2 years. Originally started in a tin shack providing full time care for 20 AIDS orphans back in 2007 the school was then converted into a day care center so that they could expand their services. The 20 children who previously resided permanently at the school went to foster families and so that the school could expand and provide education for 80 children in 2 shipping containers. This year the school underwent another big development and moved into a brand new two-story building which now provides education for 100 children.
Since moving to the new building the charity has encountered a steep increase in its running costs. To ensure the school could cover these costs this year Jules (the charity’s fundraiser and chairwoman) decided to take on the challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro. To us Kilimanjaro represented the highest point in Africa we could climb to, and that is what we want for the children at ICP. Ours was a climb to help others climb out of poverty. We also thought it very poignant that only around half of the people who attempt to summit Kilimanjaro actually make it. If you compare that statistic with how many children from townships graduate high school it is shocking, as only around a quarter do. So we had more chance of summiting the highest mountain in Africa than a child from Khayetlisha has of graduating high school!
On the journey there were many things that made me think of why we were doing the climb. From the very bottom the beautiful flowers that you find in the rainforest were just blooming and reminded me of the charities namesake. The clear changes in landscape as the altitude got higher and higher seemed to echo the stages of a child’s school career as they become tougher and less hospitable, calling to mind the steep learning curves that can only be traversed if each stage is tackled at the right pace with the right preparation and guidance.
You raised an astonishingly huge amount of money. Have you ever done anything like this before?
I have never done anything on the scale of this before. We raised a fair amount (about 10% of our target) but we still need to raise more to ensure that the school can run without getting into debt this year. I have had a little insight into how hard a job fundraising really is and so it seems that we will need to find another big challenge before the end of the academic year!
What did you find to be the most challenging aspects? Are you generally a challenge seeker/driven person in life?
I definitely do like setting myself a challenge. I’m an incredibly stubborn person and when my heart is set on something I tend to fight for it tooth and nail. Which is why I was very freaked out when altitude sickness hit me like a ton of bricks only about 500m from the top. It felt like that moment before you faint where you feel sick and dizzy and to top it off your head is pounding. I just kept thinking please don’t pass out because then they would just ferry you down the mountain on a stretcher and you wouldn’t even have any choice about fighting to get to the top.
There were too many people relying on us getting there. So that smile plastered onto my pale face at the top is one of pure relief that I can now get my ass back down the mountain. It was so stunning up there, and I have never seen or heard anything like it. You can hear the glaciers pop and crack as they are melting at an alarming rate and the crater is so vast it feels like you have landed on the moon but my physical state really didn’t allow me to fully appreciate where I was.
What are the things that go through your mind when you are in the midst of this very physically demanding, scenically beautiful and I imagine spiritually stimulating experience?
I suppose the main thing that I kept thinking about was how small I am. The vastness and the scale of the landscape put a lot of things into perspective. You also have to move at an unbelievably slow pace in order to deal with the altitude (the guides are constantly saying “Pole pole” which means “Slowly, slowly” in Swahili). The phrase made me work against my natural tendency to want to power ahead and conquer a mountain. Instead the whole process became a meditative experience, in which I knew that the most important thing was to respect the enormity and hostile nature of the landscape. There were moments where I definitely felt like I didn’t belong on this part of the earth. That the beauty and serenity should only be for those animals and plants that had adapted and evolved to be there. When I was at the very top it really hit me how privileged I was to be there as there were practically no plants or animals at that altitude. Watching the sunrise from above the clouds, creating red lava pools of light as it shone from underneath was an incredibly humbling experience and I was a blubbering wreck as the first rays of warm light hit my face after the 6 hours of trekking through the night to reach the summit.
Do you remember your first thought when you reached the top of the mountain?
“Thank fuck I made it and didn’t disappoint everyone!” Then… “Right, now, take the photo and I can go down and start to feel better.” Then… “Shit, it is so beautiful up here though.” Then… “No, really, I need to get down off this mountain.”
How did you train for the climb? Are you a fitness person in general? What is your favorite exercise?
I was in Utah filming so got a bit of altitude training in the beautiful mountains there. I bought a mountain bike and started powering up the slopes of the ski resorts (not realizing until I got to the top that you could just put your bike on a ski lift!). Coming down was a bit hairy but I got myself some arm and leg protectors that made me look like Robocop.
Surfing is my one big love and trail running comes a close second, so once I got back home I was in the water everyday and powering through mud up hills. For me exercise has to have some kind of connection to nature for it to be fully beneficial. I love the fact that when you are in the water all you can think about are the waves and when you are cycling or running all you can think of is the path. Those things make me feel present.
With all your charitable involvements, have you ever filmed or considered documenting any of your experiences?
I do try to write as much as possible but really only use it to reflect on what is needed, what I have learnt and where I need to go in order to achieve what I want to achieve.
I love photography so always try to take lots of pictures. I took nearly 2000 photos on the climb and I have love photographing the children as they play at the school, but when teaching or doing an activity I tend to put the camera away to ensure I’m present with the kids.
How do you cope with some of the difficulty and sadness associated with your work with children? What is the happiest part about your work with children?
One of the things that I do find very difficult is that there have been times when there are general strikes and riots that cause chaos in the townships. At these times it isn’t really safe to go into the school and it also has to occasionally shut when this happens. I sometimes do feel immensely guilty for being able to go back to my comfy, safe apartment and leave the kids there, but I have come to realize that that is something I alone have to deal with and not let that feeling inhibit my ability to work with them. I try to find the way that I can be of most use to the children, and not shy away from working with them because that feeling of guilt is too uncomfortable for me.
Yet working with the beautiful children and the incredible staff of ICP is hugely rewarding and this completely overrides any negative feelings of sadness or difficulty. The joy on the kids faces as I pull out paints, glue, paper, glitter, stickers and any other detritus that I can make an activity up with, is the most beautiful thing I think I have ever seen. The jumping and excitement and hugs that come flooding my way when I walk in the door is so exhilarating and it is a joy being able to see the wonderment and pride that children have as they learn something new.
Where do you live when you are not working? What is your most cherished aspect about your hometown? What is something you wish you could change about where you live?
I am a bit of a nomad and have been for quite a few years now. For work I am between London and LA, but for pure relaxation I escape to Ireland. London is my hometown and I love it in short bursts. I love going to galleries and the theatre, catching up with friends and family but I have come to realize that the pace and stress of it does me no good in the long-term.
LA is a new playground for me and every time I’m there I find new little pockets that I adore. I lived in Silver Lake for a while and loved it, but last time I was in town I discovered Topanga and could see myself spending some very happy times there nestled in the hills, not too far from the ocean.
Ireland to me really feels like home because it is the place where I am forced to slow down and take stock. It is breathtakingly beautiful and I can only describe the feeling of being there as weightless. I get to do all the things I love most. Surf everyday, read, cook, drink the odd pint of Guinness and sleep. Back to basics.
You have traveled extensively. Where would you like to return to most? How have your experiences around the world affected your life?
I often get pangs to go back to South America and explore more as it is the place I felt that I first learnt how to really travel independently. It was the first place where I could speak the language and I realized what an amazing doorway into cultures that is. I made so many friends. Learnt more about the history and everyday life of the people than anywhere else I had ever been to and I suppose, in that way, South America informed me of who I wanted to be and what values I would hold true for the rest of my life. I would love to travel more towards Central America as I feel like I have only scratched the surface of what I could discover there.
You are currently shooting the STARZ Series BLACK SAILS in Cape Town. Tell us a little about the city- it’s people, the style, attitude…
Cape Town is an incredibly beautiful city that really has everything. For me, a city girl who can’t live without nature, being able to wake up and look out at one of the most beautiful mountains (Table mountain) in the world is awe-inspiring. Being able to step out of the city and climb a mountain, or find a beautiful beach within minutes of your door is truly phenomenal.
For me, African style and attitude is most vibrant in the Townships. The colour, vibrancy, laughter and dancing that can be found there make it the most alive place. There are some amazing ethical crafts, arts and fashion projects that come out of the townships. The products, everything from beautiful African dresses, handmade shoes, house wear made from recycled tea-bags to toys made out of old flip-flops can be found at markets in town such as the Watershed at the waterfront, the Biscuit Mill and Hout Bay market. In recent years I have become more and more interested in ethical fashion and I love it when I find outlets that support small businesses from the Townships.
T-shirt: Electric Love Army / cropped top: Costume National / pants: Costume / national shos: AGL
Do you have a greater camaraderie with the crew and other cast members when you are working so far from home? Is local talent used? What do you do on your days off in South Africa?
Yes, we really have become a family down here. We are very lucky as no one takes themselves too seriously and there isn’t one single pain in the ass on our show, which I am told is extremely rare.
It is also really cool that most of our crew have remained the same through out the three seasons and there is absolutely no sense of hierarchy that can be sometimes felt on film sets. Everyone talks to everyone and that extends to taking the piss out of each other.
We have the most amazing local talent working with us too, actors who have worked on huge productions over the years and new talent that never cease to impress me with their dedication to the craft and pure professionalism. It’s also just been so great to hang out with the local cast and crew. Local knowledge is priceless when it comes to seeing the city at its best and most real. Days off are spent on the beach, braaing (the Afrikaans word for barbequing), hiking, whale watching, wine tasting… basically sucking up as much local expertise on how to make the most of being in this awesome city.
The show is such a huge production. Working on it must be fascinating. What are some of the most amazing facets about shooting this series? Do you have the opportunity to hang around other departments and gain an understanding of their work/contributions?
It is huge and my first thought when I got here was “What the hell have I got myself into!?” But it is amazing and the quality of the craftsmanship of everyone who works on it is insane. When you walk onto such a beautiful set, put on such incredible clothing, you really know you have to bring your A-game.
I did work quite closely with our brilliant costume team in developing Eleanor’s look, especially as it is not what you would traditionally expect of an 18th century woman. Eleanor is not bound by the constraints of London society. She has grown up with very little female influence and therefore doesn’t wear corsets or dresses to the floor. She wears hardwearing boots and even types of culottes when she has to ride, as she never would have been taught to ride sidesaddle. We were able to add very key details to her costume such as the keys that she always has on her belt that really are the symbols of who she is and what she controls on the island. Her jewelry was also an important aspect of who she is and the status she holds on the island. She wears rings and earrings that she would have inherited from her mother, but combines it with ethnic beads and wooden and tortoise shell bangles that symbolize her tie to the island.
I also got to work with our talented art department to learn about the many items that adorn Eleanor’s office, tavern and warehouse: books and ledgers, beautifully written out by hand with the dates and facts of real ships of the time; stores of ivory, spices, dried fish and meats, and barrels of various types of alcohol; a functioning kitchen in the tavern. All of these things brought a full sense of truth to Eleanor and her world. Learning about the character through the various departments and getting to develop a character in that way was a totally new experience for me and I have the most immense amount of respect and admiration for the people I get to work with.
BLACK SAILS is about pirates in their heyday (early 18th Century). Did you know anything about this era of history before you were cast?
I studied English and Spanish literature at university so had only really learnt about these periods through a few modules I did at university. I looked up some of my old textbooks and remembered how fascinating I found it. The literature of the time very much encompassed the discovery and commercial potential of these new worlds, the mythology and fantasy associated with them.
When I began to research more deeply the history of piracy I started to see what a huge gap there was between the reality of piracy and the literary version of it. The gossip and scaremongering that was created in the media of the day to create monsters and villains of these men and women who had once been commissioned to protect the crowns interest but were then cast-out as thieves.
I started to see the potential for us to show the reality of this time period, a contrast to the image held by London society of an uncivilized and brutal world, that’s when I started to get really geeky and excited about it all. The 18th century is really the point at which capitalism and globalization, as we know it today began. In a time such as today where we can really see the failures of that system there are some very poignant parallels when you look at the politics of piracy.
Does your character “Eleanor Guthrie” share any commonalities with modern day women? What makes Eleanor such a strong and influential woman, in such a testosterone driven world?
Yes, Eleanor is a businesswoman, who is trying to make it in a man’s world against all the odds. Not because she wants to be one of them, just because she can see ways of doing it better than anyone else, and she has a vision for the island. It isn’t always the healthiest of approaches but her self-worth is very much tied up with what she can achieve through her business and her career, and that is something that I feel that many women today can identify with. She definitely wants to be the custodian of her own security and future and that is something that I can definitely identify with.
She is still a woman and a beautiful one at that. What are your conversations in working with the wardrobe department to develop her style and attitude through her clothing?
Every detail of her costume is associated with a core aspect of Eleanor’s professional persona and emotional life. It is how she asserts her individuality and reinforces her unique position on the island. She is proud of being a beautiful woman and even though she does not powder her skin or have elaborate hairstyles like the women in the brothel or women in society, she likes to be clean and tidy and it is just another way she reinforces her superiority over the pirates.
Do you think about your own personal dressing in the same way you approach a character’s? In certain circumstances, do you choose clothes to say something about yourself? For instance do you dress up a certain aspect of yourself when you are promoting a particular project, attending a certain type of event?
I don’t use clothing to assert who I am quite the extent that Eleanor does, but there are occasions where I love clothing to bring out something in me that perhaps I wasn’t aware was there. I often find pieces that I love because they make me feel playful. I quite often find myself picking out clothes that seem futuristic in some way and perhaps that ties into me wanting to play with who I can be and find things that are original.
As a kid my mum was a single mum who worked full time so she didn’t have time to tell me what to wear. My best-friend and her sisters always remind me of times that I would turn up to parties wearing the craziest outfits, combinations of dresses and dungarees and crazy patterned t-shirts. I would even pull things out of the dressing-up box and wear it out. I had this one Japanese happy jacket that I always used to wear and I loved it. I think because I never saw any other kid wearing anything like it. More than anything I have always seen fashion as an opportunity to play. Invent characters. Be different.
Having a modeling background, how do you feel about fashion in general? What is fashion to you? Are you interested in the fundamentals of it as an art form, or enjoy it more as something to play with and an expression of your personality? Or do you consider it at all beyond just putting on something to wear for the day or an occasion?
Ha! I suppose from the last question it would seem that I just want to play, but having said that, I do love fashion as an art form and love wearing well-made original pieces. My dad is a sculptor and I think that my love for things that create beautiful lines and form comes from him. My days as a model exposed me to some of those amazing works of art but I think my true understanding and appreciation of form and beauty came from visiting art galleries with my dad. I always remember going to see an exhibition of Rebecca Horn at the Tate Britain where I saw videos and photos of her wonderful body sculptures that extended her fingers to touch the floor or gave her a unicorn’s horn. I remember thinking it was the clearest example of what we put on our body affecting and changing the environment around us, the character we create around ourselves in a particular space. I suppose that is exactly what we do when we dress for a certain event, or to go to a certain place, but just in a slightly less conceptually overt way.
What is your favorite fashion trend/era of all times?
I would probably have to say the 60’s and 70’s because of the freedom and playfulness that the clothes of that era embraced. It was also the era that I got to explore most as a teenager raiding my mother’s wardrobe. I also love it because of the nutty space-age futuristic vision that was part of the culture at the time. I can’t help but love everything Barbarella wears, even if half the time there isn’t much of it!
What’s your current clothing “go to” piece? Your clothing must have?
I have a pair of baby blue ankle boots, which I can’t stop wearing and are getting very scuffed up. I quite often get an obsession with one piece in my wardrobe and wear it until it falls to pieces. Statement boots are probably my biggest weakness…other than that, when I’m not working, I spend most of my time in a wetsuit!
Having been part of MALEFICENT and BLACK SAILS, you are now working on an entirely different scale. Have you received any words of wisdom about how to handle the scope of this work and how many people it will reach?
I try not to think about it too much as it is a bit scary. I never imagined I would be doing things quite on this scale at this time in my life. I think all through drama school I prepared myself for doing the odd low/no budget film and fringe theatre for many years and being a struggling actress before something big came, so everything that has come to me really is a huge blessing. I feel very honored that so many people have loved MALEFICENT and BLACK SAILS and it is amazing to talk to people who get as passionate about the aspects of the characters I play as I do.
My mum is extremely down to earth person and she has always forced me to keep my feet on the ground by not getting overwhelmed or obsessed with work and everything it entails. Finding things that give me perspective, such as the voluntary work or connecting with nature, hopefully will keep me conscious of the important things in life.
Is there a way you can prepare yourself for this type of success and the public life that goes along with it?
I think that you just need to adhere to your own code of conduct, work hard, know you do your best, take every opportunity by the horns and be prepared for the fact that not everyone is going to love what you do. As long as the work itself still makes you happy and you know you put everything into it, I think that is the most you can hope for.
Above and beyond that, I know that the one thing that I need to keep in the forefront of my mind is how lucky I am. I think having a true sense of gratitude is such an important element of happiness. It keeps me from falling into the trap of focusing on the things I struggle with; allows me to see the wood for the trees and love the forest I’m in.
And when push comes to shove, who are the people you most love to be with in the world?
My best friend has been my rock since I was 5 years old. We have lived in each other’s pockets and shared some of the most beautiful moments of our lives. We know everything about each other and she always knows how to bring me back down to earth. She puts everything in perspective when the shit hits the fan.
Follow Hannah New on Twitter
Watch Hannah New in the second season of Black Sails on Starz and Maleficent, released in May 2014.
Photographer: Takahiro Ogawa / Realisation: Deborah Ferguson / Makeup Artist: Mark Edio @ See management / Hair Stylist: Rudy Martins @ L’Atelier NYC
Location: The Music Building
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