From South Africa to New York to the Madrid International Film Festival to promote “Life After Her,” it’s been a busy year for NYFA Acting for Film alumna Esther Van Zyl — and she shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Since co-writing and creating “Life After Her” with fellow NYFA alumnus Guilherme Festa, Van Zyl has been been juggling travel with production and acting work (including two upcoming episodes on Netflix’s “Killer Instincts with Chris Hansen”).
We had a chance to catch up with busy alumna to hear some of her insights on life after NYFA, from producing original work to inhabiting characters.
NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to New York Film Academy?
EVZ: I grew up in a small fishing town called Gordon’s Bay about an hour outside Cape Town, South Africa. I discovered performing in preschool, when I sang my first solo, “Silent Night,” as a four-year-old in a Christmas revue. I became addicted, and did everything I could to be onstage … By 5th grade I was writing, directing and starring in my own plays.
I had always, since those childhood days, had this very vivid dream of moving to New York to become a world-class actress in film and theatre. I’ve also always wanted to study in a New York acting school … I first did a BA in Dramatic Arts and Psychology at Stellenbosch University, where I trained primarily in theatre, and towards the end of my last year I heard that the world-famous New York Film Academy were hosting auditions in Cape Town — and offering talent-based scholarships.
I jumped at the chance, and heard very soon afterwards that I had received a scholarship to do the conservatory 1-Year Acting for Film Program. Three months later (on 21 January 2015) I was on a plane to New York, and I started in their class of winter 2015. The whole thing was quite literally a dream come true.
NYFA: Do you have a favorite NYFA moment from your time studying with us?
EVZ: There are so many. I was very lucky to be placed in the most fantastic class I could have asked for — by the end of the first week, we already felt like a close-knit family. Our class was Winter A, and we very cheekily called ourselves “The A-Team.” We also had fantastic teachers, and I have moments from each class that will always stick with me, especially ones that turned out to be personal acting breakthroughs for me that I recall on set/stage to this day.
One such moment that really stands out was in an Acting for Film class with Zachary Spicer. It was a day we were filming scenes, and I was dreading mine — it was a monologue by a slightly unhinged writer who gets thrown out of a café because she can’t stop talking to herself. I had no idea how to play the character, or the scene…
I remember calling Zach over and saying to him, “I don’t think I can do it, Zach. I feel totally out of control.” And he said, “Well, how do you think your character feels?”
And that’s when I realized that acting wasn’t about doing something, “performing” a set of behaviors a certain way — it was more about truly letting go and allowing yourself to exist exactly as you are in a moment, not caring about what it looks like. Being in control of being out of control. I did the scene and told Zach afterwards, “I don’t even know what I just did. I feel like it was just a mess, it can’t possibly be good.” He told me to watch it back and tell me if I still felt that way. Punch-line to the story: that’s the only scene I filmed at NYFA that is in my current acting reel. You can see it online, here.
NYFA: Coming from South Africa, what surprised you most about studying at NYFA in the U.S.?
EVZ: The very international diversity of the student body. In my class, we were four South Africans, two Brits, four Brazilians, one Scotswoman, two Swedes, one Canadian and only one New Yorker. The other classes, including the other programs — directing, writing, photography, musical theatre — were the same.
And what I loved about the structure of the system at NYFA was the cross-pollination between these programs. The directing students cast the acting students in their films, and actors could team up with photographers to build their mutual portfolios, etc. This in-built pre-industry networking was actually what I feel helped me get the material I needed to prepare me for the industry once I left school …
Also, the film that I co-wrote and starred in that is this year doing so well at festivals, “Life After Her,” started out as a passion project for me and one of the directing students I started working with regularly, Guilherme Festa. It became his final film project, and we filmed it the week after I graduated from NYFA.
NYFA: What advice can you offer to fellow international students preparing to study at NYFA?
EVZ: Make the most of the time you have at NYFA to build your network within the school. The students studying acting, directing, writing, cinematography alongside you will also enter the industry alongside you as professionals, and you will most likely work with them. If you’ve built strong relationships, that’s the beginning of your oh-so-important network in your career.
NYFA: Your film “Life After Her” features an emotionally intense story and was accepted to some major festivals. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
EVZ: It took eight days to shoot the 28-minute short film, which was done in locations all over New York and Brooklyn, ranging from Coney Island to Central Park. We all got very little sleep, sometimes shooting until late into the night and having very early call-times. The exhaustion made things harder, but funnily that actually helped me — most of the time — to drop into the emotional spaces the story required. When I’m that tired, I care less, and that usually makes me feel freer and more spontaneous. We also had the most amazing gift of an acting coach on set: Anna Cianculli, one of the best teachers I had at NYFA (she taught Meisner), who became a mentor to me …
It was one of the most intense and challenging weeks of my life. But it was also one of the best weeks of my life. Playing the lead character in a film I had helped write the story for, shooting with an incredible crew (Gui had arranged to bring a professional crew he knew and trusted to work with on the film from Brazil) in my City of Dreams.
One of the most poignant moments for me was standing on the edge of the water at Brooklyn Bridge Park at sunset, filming the scene where Rachel scatters her best friend’s ashes into the East River and dances off into the sunset with her new boyfriend. I remember looking at the New York skyline and thinking, “You’ve made it. This is the dream. You’re actually living it.” And I don’t think you get to feel that kind of high unless you are prepared to go through the really scratchy, difficult, chaos-moments, so a part of me feels strangely but truly grateful for the rough parts as well.
NYFA: What advice can you give to our acting students for preparing for intense roles, and intense festival tours?
EVZ: “You can never spend enough time thinking about your character,” Rachelle Greeff, a wonderful South African playwright, once told me during rehearsals for a play back home. And I think that’s what really made me secure in this role, at the end of the day … It also helped me to stop trying to think of Rachel as “transforming into someone else” — but rather, trying to find my own essence in her life story — what would “Esther” be like in Rachel’s set of life circumstances? I believe that way of thinking can help make one’s performance more personalized and authentic.[The film’s director, Gui Festa] has attended more of the 2017 festivals than I have (I think “Life After Her” has screened at 7 so far), and he was at Cannes Short Film Corner with it before it went to the Madrid International Film Festival, which is where I went, as I’d been invited to the awards night with a nomination for “Best Actress in a Short Film” (and as a co-writer with Guilherme Festa and Anna Cianculli for “Best Original Script”).
Being at an international film festival of that caliber was an incredible experience. You meet so many surprisingly like-minded creatives from all over the world and get to inspire one another and build your network of potential future working relationships. The whole thing is quite tiring, and you have to make sure you plan your sleep hours in between the schedule of films you want to see, as well as sight-seeing, and then still have some stamina left for all the parties! I wished afterwards that I had planned better in advance so that I could have had a better balance of everything. I was quite exhausted afterwards, so my first week back in New York I spent knocked out in bed!
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA was at all useful in preparing for your current work?
EVZ: My time at NYFA taught me so much. Not just about acting as a craft, but also the actor’s lifestyle, which can be the more difficult part. I had never had any experience in film acting before NYFA, and being in such an intense course where you are acting on screen and watching yourself back more days than not really stimulated me to grow and hone my on-camera technique quickly. And funnily enough, my best teachers were the ones that started teaching me how to let go of my ideas about techniques and all the work I thought had to go into acting; on camera, it’s all about being very real and present, working with whatever is happening with you at that moment. It totally transformed my entire way of thinking about acting, and the lessons I learnt there — many of them very profound life lessons — are the ones I know I draw from in auditions, on sets, whenever I work.
NYFA: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you’re working on?
My experience with “Life After Her,” which I co-wrote and was very involved in developing in the early stages especially, and the success it is garnering, has shown me how possible and wonderful it is to create your own work. So one of my main focuses right now is writing and developing a few upcoming projects with other amazing filmmaking folk I’ve grown to know and love working with, to produce film content — short films, short series, leading up to bigger projects like features. My dream is to be developing and producing beautiful, well-told stories with a trusted team of like-minded creatives and good-hearted people. It’s amazing to get to act in someone else’s stories, but there is something extra special and fulfilling about getting to bring your own stories and visions to life.
NYFA: Is there anything I missed you’d like to talk about?
Some of the other work I’ve been doing since graduating from NYFA has included working with a theatre company called BrickaBrack, of which I became one of the core ensemble members of the New York branch soon after graduating. We got together once a week to “jam” and workshop productions, which we performed in the city. One of our plays, “On the Flip Side,” was part of the HERE Arts Festival in 2016. I had recurring appearances as a variety of characters on a comedy web series, “Neem’s Themes,” which has won several awards at major international film festivals this year. I also appeared on two episodes of the third season of the Netflix series, “Killer Instincts with Chris Hansen.” I believe it is set to come out in October 2017.
I spent some time in South Africa at the beginning of this year and tried my hand at producing: I was the lead producer on a popular reality TV show, “Sê Net Ja” (“Just Say Yes”) about romantic partners proposing to their significant others in dramatic and unforgettable ways. It was a lot of fun, but very challenging, and I quickly realized I could never be a producer full-time: acting is simply my core passion. I also started dabbling in voice-over work, and for a while I was voicing the lead character on a Bollywood TV Show, dubbing English over the Hindi text for international audiences. I loved it, and hope to start doing more voice-work here in New York soon as well.
The New York Film Academy would like to than Esther Van Zyl for taking the time to share a bit of her story with the NYFA community.