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Standing your ground opposite John Malkovich is no easy feat for the most experienced of leading ladies. Imagine, then, making your international screen debut as the veteran actor’s daughter in a film based on a Nobel Laureate’s novel. To say “Game on!” would be an understatement.
South African newcomer Jessica Haines finds herself in just that position with the Sept. 18 release of “Disgrace,” the cinematic adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s much-lauded work of the same name. And even by phone from Tunisia, where she now lives with her husband, she makes no attempt to downplay her break.
“It’s a character that an actress could work her whole career for,” says Haines, 30, who admits to some trepidation over her co-star. “You kind of expect [Malkovich] to be all these weird, psychopathic characters, but he was very gentle.”
In “Disgrace,” Malkovich is David Lurie, a university literature professor in post-apartheid Cape Town, with a taste for bedding young, exotic women. When a student conquest costs him his job, he retreats to the countryside where his strong-willed daughter Lucy (Haines) leads an isolated, bucolic existence. After she is the victim of a racially charged rape, Lucy’s martyrlike behavior forces them both to reassess the troubled state of modern South Africa.
“When I read the book, my initial reaction towards Lucy was disquiet. I didn’t understand her from a woman’s point of view and she makes very difficult decisions that go against the grain. A lot of [readers] get quite frustrated with her for that reason — they want her to stand up and fight,” explains Haines. “The challenge for me was to try and justify why she makes those decisions.”
It is a part for which Haines was particularly well-equipped, having grown up in the same rural, Eastern Cape area that is Lucy’s home.
“It was still very much segregated, but I went to school with black people,” says Haines, who was 12 when apartheid ended. “I wasn’t really aware of it when I was younger. But it’s always haunted our country.”
According to the film’s Australian director, Steve Jacobs, Haines’ upbringing helped her beat out a slew of marquee actresses.
“If you don’t have a background where you’ve lived in a society that’s got trauma and conflict on a daily basis, then you don’t really understand the issues,” he explains. “I was looking at girls who were brought up on ‘Sex and the City’ and it’s not in their mind-set. Jess is an excellent actress combined with the fact that she has a deep understanding of the situation.”
The daughter of a civil engineer father and interior designing mother, Haines earned a degree in performance from the University of Cape Town. She moved to Johannesburg, where she did theater, local short films and some TV work. After her casting in “Disgrace,” she shot “The Bang Bang Club” with Ryan Phillippe and Malin Akerman, and will appear in this fall’s AMC remake of the cult Sixties TV show “The Prisoner” opposite Sir Ian McKellen.
But the taste of international work has yet to seduce her to abandon her current lifestyle.
“The problem with growing up in Africa is you’re so unbelievably spoiled. You’ve got open skies and you have this sense of [being an] individual. Whereas in America, you’ve got to work really, really hard and there’s so much competition,” says Haines. “But I do love a challenge.”