Chadwick enlisted the help of South Africa’s casting veteran, Moonyeenn Lee, who had cast The First Grader for him. “Justin is a real actors’ director, he loves and respect actors.” says Lee. “His critical requirement is that an actor must not appear to be ‘acting’, they’ve got to be really truthful. This is a quality that I could immediately determine in an audition, so I didn’t have to waste Justin’s time going through thousands of people, so we did it for him.”
The actors who played the roles of the prisoners who received life sentences alongside Mandela, were affectionately referred to by the cast and crew during production as “The Magnificent Seven”.
The cream of South Africa’s acting talent was cast in the pivotal roles of Mandela’s comrades and co-prisoners on Robben Island. Tony Kgoroge - who also starred in The First Grader - stepped into the shoes of Walter Sisulu, Riaad Moosa inhabited the role of Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki is played by Fana Mokoena, while Raymond Mhlaba is played by the acclaimed praise poet, Zolani Mkiva, and Simo Magwaza and Thapelo Mokoena play Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi, respectively.
“They all came together, almost like a rat pack.” muses Singh. “Whenever I met Sisulu, Kathrada and Madiba together, I experienced a spirit and a camaraderie that I felt also existed with the guys that we put together for this film. This is important, as this energy ultimately comes out on screen.” says Singh.
Chadwick worked very hard to identify actors who could not only play the roles of the most celebrated leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle, but could also work together as a cohesive group. In addition to the Robben Island prisoners, Lee and Chadwick assembled a remarkable cast to play other characters central to Mandela’s life, the numerous layers starting with his family; his daughter “Zindzi” is played by Lindiwe Matshikiza, his first wife “Eveleyn Mase” by Terry Pheto, and Mandela’s mother “Nosekeni” is played by Zikhona ZIdlaka. The younger Mandela (age 16-23) is portrayed by Atandwa Kani, son of the acclaimed actor, John Kani, and Siza Pina plays Mandela as a child.
S’Thandiwe Kgoroge (real wife of Tony Kgoroge) plays the role of Walter Sisulu’s wife, “Albertina” - also a staunch freedom fighter. Other ANC stalwarts, “Oliver Tambo” and “Albert Luthuli”, are played by Tshallo Chokwe and Sello Maake respectively. Mandela’s guard on the island, “James Gregory”, is brought to life by Jamie Bartlett, “President F.W de Klerk” is played by Gys de Villiers, and other apartheid government officials who played a role in the transition included Minister of Justice, “Kobie Coetzee”, played by Deon Lotz, and Head of Intelligence Service, “Neil Barnard” played by Carl Beukes.
The Rivonia Trial brought together Mandela’s lawyer, “George Bizos”, played by James Cunningham, and “Bram Fischer” - who led Mandela’s defence team - is played by Andre Jacobs. Louis van Niekerk takes on the role of Judge Quartus de Wet, with Adam Neill as Chief Prosecutor, “Percy Yutar”.
“We had to find actors who could deliver a powerful performance, even though their parts are quite concise.” says Thompson, “Although they haven’t got a lot of screen time, one and all play an essential role and the trick was to make them prominent!”
Determined to fulfill Chadwick’s call for a visceral quality, Lee in searching for ‘real’ prisoners, took her camera and sound crew to Robben Island where numerous former prisoners, ironically, are gainfully employed. The film is, therefore, cast with many individuals who had first-hand experience of incarceration on the island, and if not a relationship, then at least an encounter with vital persons in Mandela’s life. In total, including in the key roles, Lee cast a staggering 140 artists, and those who didn't have dialogue were all seriously featured and had to be able to deliver a performance.