'Bafana' was labor of love

Haysbert: Mandela role 'difficult'

The normally cynical international press corps greeted the director and cast of "Goodbye Bafana" with cheers and applause following the film's well-received premiere in Berlin on Sunday.

Dennis Haysbert enjoyed the bulk of the attention for his gripping performance as South African leader Nelson Mandela in Billie August's portrayal of Mandela's growing friendship with his white prison guard James Gregory, played by Joseph Fiennes.

Haysbert, who mastered both Mandela's South African-accented English and his native Xhosa language for the role, said he thought "about five minutes" before agreeing to play the former ANC leader.

"The only doubts I had were about my worthiness, if I was worthy or not to play arguably one of the top five human beings to have every stepped foot on this planet," Haysbert said.

The star of "24" and "The Unit" said his greatest challenge was emulating Mandela's famous reserve as he told his life story through almost 30 years of imprisonment until his release in 1990.

"I found it very painful, the sacrifices he made," Haysbert said. "It was extremely difficult playing someone whose love for his country outweighed his love of self, his love of youth or of his family. (And) to play a man whose tear ducts had been operated on so he couldn't cry made it very hard for me to play. Every night when I went home I would have a glass of wine and just cry."

Co-stars Fiennes and Diane Kruger, who plays Gregory's wife Gloria, said identifying with South Africa's institutionalized culture of racism was difficult but was necessary in order to avoid a two-dimensional depiction of white South Africans.

"It is incredibly complex, the situation of these people they call the pale natives," Fiennes said. "Because they are African but also not. I think there is a certain schizophrenia of that generation. It would be easy to caricature, to just show a cliche of the racist white South African, but to be successful you have to really try and understand this certain social conditioning that is pretty scary and abhorrent at times. Sadly it is not too difficult to understand. You see a similar thing, a similar conditioning of fear, all around us now."

Critical reaction to the film has been mixed but Haysbert said that, for him, there was only one opinion that mattered.

"Nelson Mandela has received a DVD and God I hope he likes it," Haysbert said. "Probably the only person where I really care that he likes the movie and enjoys it, is Nelson Mandela."