Kaleem Aftab talks to Ryan Philippe about his latest role, playing a photographer who helped expose atrocities in 1990s South Africa
It seems odd that there is an element of nostalgia about a movie set in the 1990s. The Bang Bang Club, which comes out on DVD today, is about a group of four photographers who exposed atrocities that were taking place in South African townships from 1990 to 1994 in the years from the release of Nelson Mandela to the first, free, democratic elections.
The photographs were collated in a book, The Bang Bang Club, co-authored by two of the snappers: Greg Marinovich and Joao Silver. The other two in the group were Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek. Today, as shown by current events in the north of Africa, the images would more likely appear on the internet, taken by an army of amateur documentarians determined to show atrocities in real time. Each approach has its own merits but, as Steven Silver's movie shows, the professionals can be distinguished not by the quality of the images, but by their determination to remain impartial and let events unfold as if they were not there.
Playing Marinovich is Ryan Phillippe, the 36-year-old ex-husband of the actress Reese Witherspoon, with whom he has two children. Phillipe made his name as a young actor in teen fodder such as Cruel Intentions, but his career seemed to cul-de-sac when he tried to make the jump from teen star to more adult fare.
To prepare for the role, the Delaware-born actor met the photographers. "I had the luxury of spending time with Greg and Joao Silva, and they are thrill seekers," said Phillippe. "That was something that pricked my interest in the film originally. Their blind commitment to the job was really interesting to me. Joao, who has been in the job 15 years, still embeds himself with the Taliban for two weeks and then the US army for two weeks."
Marinovich received a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1991 in recognition of the pictures he took of African National Congress supporters murdering a man they believed to be an Inkatha Spy.
Phillippe tried to learn as much as he could about the era. "I read Mandela's biography and different historical-based novels, to understand what it would have been like to be there while the country really took shape, which is still happening, but the most pivotal part of that took place when our film took place.
It was important for me to get a better grasp of my cursory knowledge of apartheid and South Africa in the 1990s. I didn't feel like I had enough information before we started and so I did my best to educate myself."
The director Silver was impressed with the commitment shown by Phillippe to get the role right. "When most of us see bullets flying, there is a physiological reaction. We get tunnel vision, we panic and we are not really able to make smart decisions quickly. Ryan's research shows the exact opposite happens with these men, their peripheral vision widens, time slows down, they're able to work out where the danger is and they have a very special sense of their place in relation to that danger. Now some of them are better than others at dealing with that when they get home. Someone like Joao is able to carry it, however Kevin Carter, the character played by Taylor Kitsch, wasn't able to."
Some of the action was shot in South Africa and the blond actor believes that this decision gave the movie an intensity that it might not otherwise have had. He says: "One of the first beatings you see in the film was for me so powerful. We were shooting in the townships and using some of the local people and the emotion there; not a lot has changed in the places where we shot, in terms of infrastructure, and the locations look almost exactly the same as they did 15 years ago. So seeing some of the reactions, it was clear that some of those memories were still so fresh and then to be re-enacting those scenes was intense.
"That first beating in the street, it really crystallised why we were making this film and what it was about and what people go through to still live in these townships, which are still so dilapidated and which still haven't changed that much. That experience was very real for me."
It was a tough role for Phillippe to play because his relationship with photographers has not always been a good one. The actor has often been the subject of paparazzi scrutiny; trepidation grips him whenever he sees a camera lens. "Every actor and celebrity is different," he says, "but personally for me over the years, because of negative things which have come out from those situations, I tend to flinch or look over my shoulder for cameras. So I think, initially, the idea of playing a photographer who you know, some people might say that you are exploiting people in peril, and not to compare that to being famous and pursued by the paparazzi in any way, but that feeling of being an unwanted presence when something should be private, that's something I really struggled with."
However, it was realising that the means justified the end that enabled Phillippe to see the merits of the job and that photography was a worthwhile occupation. "It took some time for me to realise that if these photos were not taken during times of peril in history then a level of ignorance would grow," the star says. "Particularly in South Africa, the white press tended to ignore the problems of those with different skin colours. There was all this going on in South Africa that the rest of the world tended to ignore until these guys went over there and started taking these photos, which were wired all over the world. In those days without the immediacy of the new media, with no internet, it was the only way to get the message out."
The effect of the internet on how the world is viewed from America is something that fascinated Phillippe. He posits: "We live in a time when if something happens in the world it is instantaneously brought to the masses wherever you are in the world. There was a time when the views in the media were so myopic, like in the UK or US, where we are so wrapped up in what is going on at home that certain parts of the world are ignored. I think this is less of an issue now because the world has got smaller by virtue of the internet."
Phillippe has followed his work in The Bang Bang Club with a role in The Lincoln Lawyer, playing a suspected criminal, and then by producing his first film, a feature on surfing called Isolated, about a group of professional surfers in Papua New Guinea who leave their boards for the local children to use. Five years later they returned to see how the local children were getting on and were amazed to discover that they have a natural affinity to the waves.
The actor is producing the project out of love for the subject rather than for personal gain, signing off by explaining: "It's sweet because they have this effect on these people who are so remote, but it's not for any personal gain or anything. It is a sharing of cultures thing."