It is a blistering hot day in Jo'burg, summer's seemingly final stronghold before autumn takes over. 🌞 🍁 It's no wonder then that actor Shannon Esra is dressed in a light green sleeveless top and her hair sleeked back in a neat ponytail. Her delicate earrings, seemingly green too, perfectly frame her striking cheekbones and dance along her jawline when she chats. Her animated style of talking makes her all the more endearing because it is authentic and honest.
We are meeting over a Zoom chat, something that has become increasingly normal in a pandemic-stricken world. While eating lunch we're chatting about, amongst other things, Sandra Stein, a character she has lovingly portrayed since 2017.
Stein is a lawyer, having appeared on numerous telenovelas across the Mzansi universe: The Queen, The River, Gomora, and The Throne. Her latest stint on Legacy as Dineo Price's lawyer, Esra says, is the fifth telenovela for her character to appear in.
We first fell in love with her tough-as-nails character on The Queen when Sandra Stein was hired by the Khoza's to defend our fav Harriet who was charged with the murder of Jerry Maake. It was later revealed that Maake had faked his own death but with a lawyer like Stein, Harriet had the best shot at freedom. Sandra went on to represent the Khozas in other cases and even represent Siyanda's ex-boyfriend in a rape trial.
Harriet Khoza is not the first female criminal mastermind Stein has had to get out of trouble in the courtroom. Lindiwe Dlamini-Dikana has often found herself on the wrong side of the law or at the end of her marriage and called on the formidable lawyer to defend her case. The result has always been a win for South Africa's most dangerous mining tycoon or should we say villain, also known as Madlabantu.
Recently, Sandra Stein has taken on the mammoth task of defending Gomora's biggest hi-jacking queen, Nomasonto Molefe who faces charges of calling for the killing of her daughter's husband after a botched hi-jacking. With a long list of witnesses, a dead man's letter of confession and a prosecutor out for blood, Sandra Stein has a mountain to climb.
In her trademark husky voice, Esra tells me more about Stein. “Sandra is a criminal defence attorney, that is her speciality, of course, as a lawyer she'll dilly dally in family law and stuff like that but really she is the big gun when things are going down. [She is] a little bit of a secret weapon across the Mzansi channels. She's fierce, she's ferocious. She is very enigmatic, we don't know much about her, we just know that she is beast in the court room. She hates to lose more than she loves to win.” Almost as an afterthought, Esra adds: “She is a lot of fun to play.” 👌
The character has become iconic with ardent fans of local telenovelas.
“It has been such a blessing that she has been that she has been received as well as she has over the years,” Esra says. “Four years on, she still has such a wonderful appeal about her. I just thank my lucky stars, and I thank Phatu and Gwydion and Shona and all the people behind her initial creation because without that she wouldn't be here. I am very, very grateful that the opportunity manifested so beautifully.” 👏
As we chat, it is apparent that Esra is as, or even more, articulate than Stein. It is such a pleasure to see passion radiating from her words and in her eyes.
To date, she says playing Samantha “Sam” Hugo on another M-Net original production, Lioness, has been her career highlight because “of the impact the show had on me personally”. She says it was so rewarding how everything came together. “The way people have received and responded to the show has just been utterly wonderful. At times, also quite overwhelming …”, her voice quivers with emotion, “and I am just so proud to be part of such a beautiful production, so proud to be a part of this industry, to be gifted with a chance to make beautiful, nuanced content. It is any actor's dream, it is any story teller's dream.” See, there’s the zeal!
She’s found challenging bits in each of the character’s she has played, including Candice on the M-Net original, Still Breathing. “I think Sandra can be difficult to prepare for because as a lawyer, there is a lot of legal jargon and often it is pages and pages of dialogue so to actually get the lines down and to be right inside and on top of those lines, that is always my biggest stress.”
Sam came to her naturally. But playing Candice didn’t. “I had a lot of emotional upheaval during the placement of her. The process, I found, was quite melancholic, I found myself getting quite sad, so to keep myself afloat, that was the challenge there. To mourn and grieve in private and so secretly and to hide something so fundamentally gigantic and immoral ... I felt heavy,” she says, crossing her hands over her chest and shoulder. “People want complex characters.”
Esra doesn’t yet know what’s next for her and her goal is to stay in the present. “Every day is a gift. We take it as it comes. I try not to focus on what's next. It really hijacks moments of real happiness and fulfilment. I am trying to practise the discipline of staying present and just being grateful for every moment, as a human. It is harder than it looks.”
As her parting words, she’d like people to take care of each other. “Life is hard and it is made a lot easier by loving people and having people love you. Just take care of each other. Stay present, keep breathing.”
And the interview ends in typical Esra fashion, it leaves you wanting more of her talent.
Want to see more of Sandra Stein? Stay tuned to #Gomora as the case against Sonot, Ntokozo and MaZet unfolds every Monday to Friday at 19:30.