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The Haysbert Principle

Vaulted into stardom by his role as President David Palmer on "24," Dennis Haysbert brings his trademark integrity to new role.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

(continued from page 5)

Even though the role was offered in such a way that would allow him to film during his summer hiatus from "The Unit," Haysbert admits that he briefly questioned his ability to take on the role. As he tries to explain it, he keeps his gaze trained on a small black-and-white photo of Nelson Mandela tucked into a mirror frame across the room.

"I just remember it being a very daunting situation," recalls Haysbert. "I was a little nervous about it and almost turned it down. I had a momentary loss of confidence and didn't think I was worthy. He's such a hero of mine."

Goodbye Bafana follows the true story of Mandela's imprisonment during apartheid and the unlikely, but powerful friendship that developed between the South African president and the white, Afrikaner warden of the prison in which Mandela was kept for more than a quarter of a century. (The warden is played by British actor Joseph Fiennes.)

To prepare for his role, Haysbert studied tapes of Mandela's speeches and learned to speak enough Xhosa, one of South Africa's many languages, to use it credibly in the film. He also, he says quietly, felt the need to make a trip to Robben Island.

Located seven and a half miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island once served as an isolated prison for opponents of apartheid, and was Nelson Mandela's "home" for nearly 27 years. Today, Robben Island is a tourist attraction, albeit a grim one, with walking tours conducted by former prisoners.

It seemed appropriate, Haysbert recounts, that it was a particularly gray, rainy day when he took the boat over to Robben Island. "It's an oppressive rock in the middle of the sea that looks out and back at the splendor that is Cape Town. That alone had to have been a hardship, to look out [from prison] and see big, beautiful Table Mountain.

"You can't go into President Mandela's actual cell, but the energy coming from it, sad energy, is palpable. It's a cruel-looking place, and even though there were some murals that had been painted on the walls there [for the tourists]—I guess it's the purist in me—[but] if you're going to show something that was really harsh and ugly, both spiritually and physically, I figure you should leave it that way."

What came as a pleasant surprise to Haysbert while filming in South Africa was how often he was recognized and greeted on the street as "President Palmer," and how easily the locals accepted him, an American actor, taking on the iconic role of President Mandela.

"'24' is big, very big there," says Haysbert, "and everyone seemed to know who I was. They're very protective of President Mandela, of his story, their story, and I assured them that I would be playing him with all the dignity and integrity that I could muster. They were all pleased [with the casting] I think, because of what I had done [before]. I had played a president, a very popular President Palmer, so it was helpful."

Between his starring in "The Unit," filming movies and regularly making Discovery Channel documentaries, it's hard to imagine that Haysbert ever takes a moment to just relax but, he swears, he does. In particular, he makes as much time for his two children, Charles and Katherine, as he can. A divorced dad (Charles and Katherine are Haysbert's children from his second marriage, to actress Lynn Griffith), Haysbert's face lights up when he talks about his daughter's athletic prowess and his son's interest in world news, politics, history and filmmaking. He also sees discipline as a key component of his role as a parent.

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