Introduced to acting by his drama teacher mother – and the community theatre she set up in a converted helicopter hangar in his native South Africa – newcomer Kai Luke Brümmer is a talent to look out for in the future. He makes his big screen debut in director Oliver Hermanus’ latest film Moffie, the bleak but stirring war romance in which Brümmer plays Nicholas van der Swart, a gay recruit in the South African military.
Inspired by André Carl van der Merwe’s memoir of the same name, Moffie (an Afrikaans term which loosely translates as ‘f****t’) meets Nicholas in 1981, conscripted with other white teens to join the Angolan war frontline. Against the backdrop of a physically and emotionally brutal regime, his queer identity emerges.
Speaking to NME as the film arrives online, Brümmer unpacks the film’s timely arrival, his personal connection to the story, and current streaming habits.
What attracted you to the film?
“The character and the time period. I find that acting is a way to understand other people, and this character was a way to understand my father and his generation: my father had gone to the army during the same time as Nicholas.”
What did your research look like?
“Oliver [Hermanus] and I worked for three months creating a dense backstory so we knew how the character would respond to different things. And then it was a process of watching films that Oliver recommended – the most influential were Loveless [Andrey Zvyagintsev], Rosetta [the Dardenne brothers] and Beach Rats [Eliza Hittman]. But really, my dad was the best resource.”
You made 15 playlists to help you get into Nicholas’s head, did it help?
“I was trying to understand the different stages of the film. There’s very clear moments that change for Nicholas, from boy to man essentially, and because we were shooting so out of sequence it was important to locate his mood, or the tension he was carrying. Those playlists really became my reference point.”
It’s a heavy feature, presumably elements stayed with you?
“Yeah. I have an adopted brother of colour, and this heritage I have is not something that we speak about, or something that’s spoken about in South Africa. I’d never spoken to my dad about the army before, so it became interesting to understand your heritage by trying to live it. It gave me an understanding into a generation that I, perhaps before, judged quite intensely.
This is your first film, and it covers important ground both in history and sexuality. How did you deal with the pressure of representing all these communities at once?
“That popped into my head in the beginning, but it’s important as a performer to try and live the reality of those characters. For Nicholas, I don’t think he necessarily knows he’s gay – Dylan wakes something up in him – so it became about a process of survival, of denying and hiding. But obviously there’s a huge responsibility, and you do feel pressure. Luckily I’ve been leads in plays and stuff, so it was OK.”
We mentioned playlists. What about your own listening habits?
“I’m in love with Alice Phoebe Lou at the moment, kind of like laidback blues.”
And in terms of directors, who’re you keen to work with?
“It’s a three way tie between Claire Denis, Eliza Hittman and the Safdie Brothers. And I’d love to play a really mean character.”
You have a role in the upcoming The Kissing Booth 2. Quite a different arena to Moffie?
“Completely different. It’s a tiny role, but it was fun.”
When Moffie screened at Venice Film Festival, there were protests in South Africa about violence against women. How do you engage with this conversation in the film?
“I’ve been made aware, through growing up in this county, how these structures we’ve created harm all of us. There’s definitely a focus around the feminist movement that toxic masculinity affects directly, but also the men that it crushes – it doesn’t allow them to evolve. This world the film exists in, it’s foreign to me, but I was raised by it. These systemic issues we’re dealing with today, we like to think of them in the past, but how far have we really come?”
Similarly, the title Moffie, what does the term mean to your generation?
“I spent much of my childhood being called a ‘moffie’ [a gay slur in Afrikaans] in the playground because I did ballet. It’s a word that’s used in South Africa to diminish anything that doesn’t fit the specific patriarchal structures. When I spoke to Oliver about the title, it’s really a provocation and a questioning – why do we need to diminish anything that’s ‘other’ by a derogatory term for a queer person?”
Coronavirus has changed this film’s release schedule – is that good or bad?
“You want to see this film on a big screen – our sound engineers made it incredible and the cinematography is fantastic – but the flip side is visibility. In South Africa, some people are worried about going to see a film called Moffie, and this gives them access without persecution. Any kind of art at the moment, that’s giving people some sense of belonging in society is useful, so I’m excited people can watch it in their homes.”
What was the last film or TV show you streamed?
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco, it’s a lot of fun.”
‘Moffie’ is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema now