Few people other than history buffs know the name Ulysses S. Grant outside of the United States. And for good reason, explains South African actor Carel Nel. “He was a very understated president. He wasn’t this hugely flashy person, yet what he did for the country at the time was immense.”

Carel is one of many local faces in the three-part 2020 historical docu-drama series Grant, from Sunday, 1 November on History (DStv 186) at 20:15. “It was surreal, to be honest. We are here, in Cape Town, filming this important production, and I’m playing Abraham Lincoln. And you see your friend across the battlelines trying to get you – yet you are South African.”

Carel, who currently plays Dr. Rufus in Afrikaans comedy show Ekstra Medium, Tuesdays on kykNET (DStv 144) at 20:00, got to see the action up close and personal as Ulysses S. Grant’s predecessor, 16th United States President Abraham Lincoln (Grant followed Lincoln’s VP, 17th US President Andrew Johnson, who served from1865 to 1869). “It was amazing to be cast in Grant. You can only dream about being in a big production, and this is definitely one of them. We had a full on-set sound booth constructed so that we didn’t need to re-record lines later. It was on an immense scale.”

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If the shoe fits

Auditions were held in 2017, and while Carel admits that he doesn’t fully recall the entire process, it was thrilling. “I certainly wasn’t dressed in character, as Abraham Lincoln in outfits from the mid-1800s. I went in (for the audition), we did lines for the production team, and it was a pretty routine audition.”

While a prosthetic nose and growing his own beard certainly helped Carel look like “Honest Abe”, there was one aspect of playing the famed US president that Carel needed to research. “His accent, his tone and how he spoke. There are no recordings of him. There’s certainly no video,” says Carel. So how did he give his character a voice? By watching movies. “I’ve only just heard about (2012 horror movie) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but that’s just silly fun. According to scholars and experts, the most accurate portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was from Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 biographical drama movie Lincoln. They all agree that out of everyone who has ever worn his top hat and spoken his words, that is the most authentic. So I watched that, but I also brought my own interpretation to him.”

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Brothers in arms

Ulysses S Grant, the 18th US President, is played by one of the only international actors on the production, Justin Salinger. Most of Justin’s scenes with Carel were set during the Civil war, when Abraham was President and Grant one of the generals in his army.

“Their bond and understanding forms the basis of our scenes. How they worked together, and how they had the same ideals, and how they fought towards a common goal,” says Carel. “There’s this great build-up to Grant later as President Grant, but the journey there, his time in the army and certainly his time building foundations for the United States, is what is most important.”

Part of that journey is the shared brotherhood between the two leaders. At the time, Abraham is already sitting President, he has been in politics a long while, and he understands the game and situation. And in this younger leader, he sees potential. “Getting into Abraham Lincoln’s mindset was interesting. I had to figure him out, to find his purpose as a man and a politician and a leader, then to see how he interpreted Grant and how they could work together. This is a significant part of American history that I am really excited to bring to viewers, especially in South Africa, because it’s filmed here, made here, and we don’t know about this part of US history.”

Slow your role

Principle filming was done on location at Lourensford, Cape Town City Hall and The Castle Of Good Hope, which are period authentic structures, and it took a month to complete in 2018. During that time and since filming Grant, Carel says that he has become far more aware of and interested in American politics and history.

“There is this great story. Grant is a US President but you don’t hear about him because of presidents like Abraham Lincoln, who were larger than life. And Abraham Lincoln was two presidents before Grant, so not even that far apart. I’m not a historian by any means, but I love reading and learning about people like Grant and Abraham Lincoln to understand what they did, where they came from and how they shaped the world,” says Carel, who will be watching alongside viewers for the first time, too. “I haven’t had a preview. The first time I will be watching will be when it is broadcast.”

Watch Grant S1 from Sunday, 1 November on History (DStv 186) at 20:15

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