Steve Coogan on Playing a Lawyer in Apartheid South Africa in ‘Shepherds and Butchers’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Shepherds and Butchers low-res
Courtesy of WestEnd Films

Variety spoke exclusively to Steve Coogan, who plays the lead in “Shepherds and Butchers.” The film world premieres in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section today. WestEnd Films is handling international sales.

The movie is set in South Africa in 1987, when a young white man kills several black members of a soccer club. Nineteen-year-old Leon Labuschagne works as a prison guard in a high-security wing, and in the last two years, he has been required to administer the death penalty no fewer than 160 times. In this courtroom drama based on actual events, director Oliver Schmitz exposes the traumatic experiences of a police employee forced to be an executioner. Coogan plays the young man’s lawyer.

What was it about the role that attracted you to it?
It was just very intelligently written and these days genuinely smart, thought-provoking polemic material is thin on the ground, so when you see something that is powerful then you jump at the chance to do it. This was a very powerful indictment of capital punishment. It is set at the end of Apartheid, but it is not really about Apartheid per se, although that forms a back-drop; it is about the fruitlessness and banality of the state executing people.

Was one of the difficulties of the role that a lot of the conflict is internal, in terms of the moral dilemma your character faces?
Yes it is and that’s what makes it more complex. He is a white man who has killed six black men at a very politically sensitive time in South Africa’s history. It is the murky waters where ostensibly there is very little sympathy for the defendant, and it is not an easy case for my character to defend. But he is someone who has worked on death row, and it is about the brutalizing effect of killing people.

For this role did you get to do some research by talking to lawyers who had been in that positions themselves?
Yes I did quite a lot of research in South Africa. I spoke to some black high-court judges, and a white lawyer who had worked for the Pretoria Afrikaans government, and was a government prosecutor who then switched sides and become a defense lawyer for the ANC. And I spoke to Albie Sachs, the human rights lawyer who became a constitutional judge in the new South Africa. He cooked me a very nice lunch at his house. He lost an arm and an eye when he was blown up by agents working for the Pretoria government in the 1980s, and saw the huge change that occurred there and understands the problems that faced and continue to face South Africa. So I spoke to lots of people involved in human rights and activists, and that helps you submerge yourself in the legal system there. Of course, there is no jury there, there is a judge and two adjudicators, which is very different.

Are you going for these tougher roles rather than lighter material?
Not especially. I want to do more of that but not exclusively. I mean the next film I am about to do is a comedy with Paul Rudd in New Mexico, so the answer to that is yes and no. Like everyone I want variety — I want to do all types of things, which might be confusing for the audience but it very satisfying creatively. I am doing a political drama with Oren Moverman in New York right now. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed as an actor, so anything that helps me to escape that is great.

Having been a producer on “Philomena” does it make it tougher to relinquish control and put yourself in the hands of others?
Not if you trust the people you are working with and their integrity. If anything it is like a holiday because I don’t have to worry about that side of things. I continue to produce and the film with Paul Rudd I am producing. But it is sort of the reverse really. It is nice when you can concentrate just on the acting. When you are an actor for hire it counter-balances your producing commitments.

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