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JUNEBUG (article first published : 2006-08-25)

Embeth Davidtz, one of South Africa's most famous exports now living in California, was recently in Johannesburg for the launch of her critically-acclaimed movie, Junebug. Directed by Phil Morrison, the movie also features Amy Adams who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as the pregnant Ashley.

Junebug is a rich and emotional tale of a middle-class family in America's south. En route to closing a business deal, newly-married Madeleine (played by Embeth) and George (Alessandro Nivola) randomly decide to stop off and visit George's parental home. George's younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) and their provincial parents don't quite know what to make of Madeleine's worldly sophistication but Johnny's childlike and very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams) is instantly smitten and is determined they will become best friends. As the characters struggle through the final claustrophobic days of Ashley's pregnancy, a truth emerges about people who never conform to the presumption of others.

Director Phil Morrison remembers how, because of a "screwy" shooting schedule, Embeth was forced to spend her first day half-naked on set and her second in the strange, difficult book report scene. "I knew from our meetings that she had Madeleine's beauty and grace and her own clear understanding of the character's inner life,” he says. “However, I almost got teary when she arrived in Winston-Salem and I saw the state of her script. I have no idea how she managed to get it so dog-eared and with every margin filled with notes."

The slim and graceful Embeth praised first-time director Phil Morrison and the "exceptional" cast he assembled, describing Amy Adams' contribution to the project as "sublime."

"It was one of those rare occasions on set where it was like heaven, one big happy family. We lived in a funky little house, with my baby and the nanny. I bought a bicycle to ride to and from set in Carolina. We were staying very close to where the shoot was and each day I would cycle to work with Charlotte in the baby seat. For me, it was sublime on every detail.

"Phil is a genius. You know, you fall into bad habits when you work with so many other directors and you rely on whatever to get by. But Phil picked up on every little nuance and he helped so much. Everybody was incredible, from the actors to the crew."

In a career spanning more than two decades, Embeth has featured in a host of films, on TV and on the stage. She was in the critically acclaimed Schindler's List in 1993 in which she portrayed the Jewish maid who survived both the abuse and attraction of a sadistic commander Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). It was a poignant and critically acclaimed performance. Filming in a bitterly cold Poland, and being exposed to similar conditions that inmates faced in the notorious Nazi concentration camps, proved a great leveller, Embeth recalls.

Over the years Embeth has built up a fine body of work, which includes Bridget Jones's Diary, Bicentennial Man, The Gingerbread Man, Mansfield Park, Fallen, Murder in the First and Feast of July.

Born in Indiana but raised in South Africa, Embeth remains fluent in English and Afrikaans and continues her strong ties to her native country. One of her life's joys is spending time with her parents on their farm and with her brother in Zimbali, on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

A graduate of Rhodes University, she made an auspicious theatrical debut with the National Theatre Company as Juliet in a production of Shakespeare's classic romantic tragedy and she subsequently garnered considerable accolades for her theatrical work. Embeth first entered the film arena in 1988 in a South African TV production, A Private Life, playing the daughter of an interracial couple. She later went on to win South Africa's equivalent of an Oscar in an Afrikaans psychological drama, Nag van 19de.

Junebug is currently on the Cinema Nouveau circuit.




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