It is Star Wars Day, May the fourth (a play on the legendary phrase "may the force be with you” from the movies) and I am chatting with two superb actors over Zoom to talk about, no not Stars Wars, but a topic that is becoming increasingly mainstream, however uncomfortable. Trix Vivier (Petra Potgieter on Legacy) and Russel Savadier (Mike on Legacy) are talking about their story arcs on Legacy, where Mike as Petra’s boss sexually harasses her.
It is a story arc that closely resembles former Hollywood film producer, Harvey Weinstein’s famous fall from grace and the explosion of the much-needed #MeToo movement. And Legacy has never shied away from difficult topics, rather throwing it to the fore.
I begin my questions with Vivier asking about her experience with #MeToo.
“So, to answer your question have I dealt with it, yes of course.” She lists some of the incidences she’s experienced: when some sound operators add a mic to her clothes, they comment about her bra, and once or twice there were actors who crossed the line on set but she said she was too young and inexperienced so she didn’t know she could say something.
“Most people I know have had experiences with sexual harassment of some kind, whether it is unwanted, and this is in the work place and the domestic space as well as a social space. That will vary from a hand on the shoulder, an unwanted touch, comments about the way one looks or dresses, the presence of female bodily hair that hasn't been removed, it goes as far as that.” She commends the entertainment industry in South Africa for stepping up and having certain protocols in various sexual harassment addendums added to employment contracts. “When I sign that contract, my producers give me a voice and say you are allowed to speak up.”
That lends itself to things being brought up in open discourse, it evolved to breakfast table conversation and the fear was taken away. An important component of that, Vivier says, is not having to explain why something is wrong. “That's a key ingredient in Mike and Petra's storyline as well, he is constantly challenging her and asking her: ‘why can't I do that, why can't I do this, why can't I compliment you’. And I don't need to explain myself, it is a place of work. Don't demand an explanation, that's wrong. Period.”
Whereas Mike feels differently. When asked what his character, Mike thinks of the movement, Savadier says: “I think that he thinks it is a complete overreaction, I think he wouldn't have any time for it, I think he would joke about it with his friends at the golf club or over drinks. I don't think he has any respect for it and I think he finds it stupid. And I think he is surprised that he gets called out by Angelique about this, I mean clearly she knows him and it’s all rubbish, it’s just a bit of fun, why should it be taken seriously?” He quickly adds: “Make sure that is my character saying that.”
Mike is as different from Savadier as day versus night. He says: “My wife watches it with me and she goes: ‘OMG, who is this person?’ Which is good, I mean, clearly, it works. Honestly, first of all as an actor, it is a lot more fun to play characters who are as far away from you as possible. And I would say Mike is far away.”
He says even though he is of a certain age group and part of a different generation he considers himself woke and he understands the issues. But he flips the coin a bit. “The other thing as an actor, you have to sympathise with your own character, you can't ever judge your character. You can't go I'm playing a baddie, therefore its bad. You have to have respect for the character enough to be truthful to the character. In this case, it is far away from my own life, my own experience and my own rules but once you're playing the character, you have to embody it and be as truthful and honest as you can. And give him the humanity that he needs to sell the storyline as well.”
Vivier says she knew she had to be very delicate in her execution of this part of Petra’s story because “I am telling my own story to a certain degree because I've experienced it but I am also telling millions of other women's stories who have experienced the same thing in various degrees who have responded in various ways and many will carry that experience with them for the rest of their lives.” The more we chat, the more difficult it is to separate her thoughtful nature from Petra’s. The similarity is uncanny.
“And you don't know what kind of memory watching a story like that will bring up for women watching it,” she says. She adds that a lot of women, including her mother, have opened up about their difficult experiences because of this storyline.
“For example, my mum had never told me that she had three incidents before and then I started getting direct messages on Instagram from people who support the show and watch it and [they tell] me their stories. I realise now, oh my gosh, I can't do anything about it because we filmed that three months ago but the response has been overwhelming. At the time, I knew this was one of the most heated and sensitive and common subject in South Africa being sexual harassment and gender based violence (GBV) and sexism and so I am going to handle it with the utmost respect because I am holding a mirror up to women who will probably experience some kind of trauma when watching this and so it was important to do it truthfully.”
Most people watching the show have seen that Petra wants to take matters into the her own hands when she realises she isn’t the first person to have seen this side of Mike. “That ignites something in her to plan and put together to allow a scenario to happen to actually record him so she has hardcore evidence of his wrongful behaviour which is so insane that a girl of 28 has to use herself as bait to herself in a scenario that if she doesn't get lucky, she might be raped. In Legacy's case, that's what it takes for her to get evidence so she can prove she isn't going crazy.”
However, she wouldn’t advise people to take Petra’s route. Vivier describes it as both insane and brave. “She has Stefan, Sims and Sanele waiting for her outside the door. And I think she also knows that Mike isn't physically the strongest of people. Regardless I do think it is a very silly thing to do but it is part of who Petra is. She is very idealistic and determined, she's very strong-willed, when she puts her mind to something.” Vivier takes a sip from her glass of water. Yes, the topic is difficult to talk about.
She would rather advise women to find out what the sexual harassment policy is at a company before they are hired so then if they know the rules, then they also know when it is being broken and by whom.
From Savadier’s perspective, men can alleviate GBV by having open dialogue. “I guess for men to realise it is a problem, for them not to be in denial about it, I think that is very easy. In the story, Michelle's character [Angelique] says he is part of the old school and that is the way they are. She kind of excuses it and Mike also believes that as well. He goes: 'I don't know what the big deal is. Saying things that you look nice, that your dress looks nice, why is that such a bad thing?' And [he] fails to understand the power dynamics within the situation. Here is your boss being sexual or being inappropriate. I think Mike himself doesn't see that. He is genuinely surprised. The fact that he pushes it as far as he can, means that he doesn't take the lesson on board.
He says programmes like Legacy is also raising awareness. “As tough as it is to be on the receiving end of the hate and bile, it is an important message to get out there so to keep the conversation going.”
Savadier’s adds: “I think men in power, men who behave this way, and are able to entice young workers and colleagues with the promise of a higher position, it clearly happens all the time and is continuing to happen, it’s not just gone away which is exactly the point about raising awareness. And people should have consequences. You shouldn't be allowed to get away with that. And what has happened over the last few years is that people are so hyper aware of it now, people are not getting away with it, at least getting away with it a lot less.”
Vivier echoes Savadier. Her starting point is to name something that is inappropriate. “It's calling people out … you name something, you take control of it and the power dynamic within the conversation shifts immediately. And that's really about using your voice, setting your boundaries, and saying what you are okay with and if you do that a lot of people are taken aback because they weren't expecting it because they've been doing it for so long and nobody has been saying anything.” In the background her dog starts to be bark.
“You know when you're an actor, you go to work and you do these things and in the moment it is a very visceral experience … and you are upset afterwards and you have your cry and you do whatever you need to do and at the end of the day you can go home and put your head on your pillow and I have a wonderful partner, and I'm okay. But the scary thing for me is that other women who are going through what I am pretending to go through, are not okay. [Majority] of women don't get to leave it behind when they leave work.”
The problem, it seems, has transcended generations. May the force be with us all as this generation asks the tough questions to make things better for the future.
Featured image: An edited version of an image supplied by Trix Vivier
What do you think of Mike and Petra? Let us know on social media. Join the conversation using #LegacySA. Find us on Twitter (@MNet), Instagram (@mnettv), and Facebook (@MNet). Watch Legacy Monday to Thursday at 19:00. You can also binge-watch Legacy on Showmax or catch up on DStv.