HomeTVInterview: Kim Engelbrecht teases dark new South African crime drama 'The Cane...

Interview: Kim Engelbrecht teases dark new South African crime drama ‘The Cane Field Killings’

The Cane Field Killings‘, a new South African crime drama from writer Rohan Dickson, is coming to Channel 4 this weekend.

Starring Kim Engelbrecht (‘The Flash’) and Iain Glen (‘Game of Thrones’), the series follows criminal profiler Reyka (Engelbrecht).

Haunted by her past, a flawed but brilliant criminal profiler returns to her hometown to solve a string of brutal murders committed by a serial killer amongst the sugarcane fields of Kwa-Zulu-Natal.  Having been abducted as a child, Reyka is traumatised by the experience but this also helps her enter the minds of Africa’s most notorious criminals and turn them inside out, but her gift has consequences for her and those she loves.

I spoke to Kim recently to discuss the complex nature of her character, talk about the dark subject matter of the series, and to find out what attracted her to the role…

The first thing to say about this show is there’s a lot to unpack and it’s very, very dark…

I know. It’s a lot. It’s so strange because when we were filming it there was definitely an intense feeling on set. This was at the start of the pandemic and everybody was on high alert, trying to keep everybody safe so it was also that strange feeling. It is dark.

You play Reyka in the show, who is such a layered character with so much going on, and having gone on, for her. What can you tell us about her without giving any spoilers?

Firstly, you need to put it in context. Context is everything. Reyka is a criminal profiler on the hunt for a serial killer in the cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal. On the backdrop of that, Reyka was taken at the age of 12 years old by a banana farmer, and then held captive. When we find Reyka, we find her after this trying to resolve and trying to decide if she’s to backstroke in her past and carry on with the cycle, or is she going to try and let it go and move forward. With every episode, you can see she’s trying to move forward whether it is with her mother or with her daughter, or just trying to interact casually and normally with her co-workers. The only place I think she’s completely herself is when she’s working, when she’s completely zoned in and she can perform at her optimal, with an aim that is outside of herself. Where it’s just her trying to speak for the victim. (It’s) that feeling where you’re working for somebody else and you usually work better that way, rather than working for yourself.

The Cane Field Killings - Kim Engelbrecht and Iain Glen
Credit: Fremantle

I’d picked up on Reyka being at her best at work. When it comes to her personal life, she just falls apart and can’t seem to get it together. That struggle is pivotal to her character. What was that like for you to play?

When I think of Reyka, I think of her as somebody who is completely of service. She’s been through so much and it’s even hard for her to explain her pathology to anybody. What she does know is what she knows, and that’s to be an amazing criminal profiler, to understand behavior, to try and figure something out, to investigate, to nitpick, to always be vigilant, always be aware and always on the lookout to fulfill a purpose in that sphere. You’re right, in terms of her personal life, she does fall apart. She’s unable to have just normal interactions. She’s even unable to hug her daughter without feeling strange and moving away, and she (can’t) even have normal interactions with her mother. Everything is strained personally for her.

In the first episode we see Reyka come face-to-face with Angus, the man that kidnapped her as a child. That scene is so interesting to watch and it establishes an odd relationship between the two. What can you tease about how their relationship evolves?

When we meet Reyka it was 1994 and South Africa was on the precipice of freedom and yet her freedom is being taken away from her. She gets held captive by a man that she has absolutely no idea who he is. She starts realising that he is a manipulator. He’s a mastermind in terms of that and he’s completely gaslighting every single moment. She’s 12 years old. How do you as a 12-year-old, try and negotiate with an adult? For a 12-year-old to try and negotiate with that, it does require some sort of skill and it was just because of survival. Her aim is just to survive to try and see the next day. She has no idea where this relationship is going or why she’s there. It’s her trying to figure it out and then trying to get some normalcy there. I don’t want to give too much away but he starts alienating her from everything around her. The only thing for her to do is to trust the person that she fears. It’s a strange push-and-pull relationship between the two of them, which is absolutely unhealthy, and when she sees him again, there is this strange affinity that she has with him, which is completely convoluted and disgusting in a way. It’s really unexplainable. Stockholm Syndrome, there’s little bits of that, and love, which just makes her feel absolutely full of guilt. How can you love something that’s so evil?

This is a challenging show. It takes on issues and shows dynamics that you just don’t see often, if at all, on TV. I imagine that’s one of the things that drew you to the role?

Sure, and also just an absolute compassion for Reyka, for the situation and for the world that she finds herself in, and just trying to have some sense of normalcy. She’s trying to be a really good mother but she doesn’t feel fit. She’s trying to be a really good daughter, but she just doesn’t feel fit. She doesn’t feel worthy, I think, of even being a mother or a daughter. The character is just filled with so much guilt, where she just cannot even sit in their own skin. This strange obsession she has with with Angus, she can’t seem to make sense of it, because as a criminal profiler, as somebody that understands behaviour, she knows that this is not what she’s supposed to do. This is not the way that she’s supposed to feel. This is not where she should be. But she’s there.

The show has already aired in some parts of the world. What’s the reaction been like?

The show itself is just so much more than (a usual crime drama) like you’re explaining. Number one, it’s a procedural cop drama. Number two, it’s a family drama about three generations of women – a mum, a daughter, her daughter – trying to pick up the pieces because of the terrible past and trying to resolve certain conflicts that they have within within their own relationships, and the strange connection and odd love story between her and her captor. It’s all of those things. I think people are trying to identify with certain parts of the story and also trying to figure out the whodunit in the show. It’s sparking a little bit of an investigative journalist within them. In terms of the world, I think the world is very interested in other parts of the world with things that they don’t see and locations that they haven’t been exposed to. I feel that South Africa is so multicultural and so diverse in the way that we are, but there is a unifying heartbeat to the way that we tell a story. I think that’s really interesting to people.

The Cane Field Killings - Kim Engelbrecht
Credit: Fremantle

We don’t get access to a lot of drama from, or set in, South Africa. It must be fantastic for you to be part of something that is able to shine a light on South Africa and tell stories like this?

Right and not only that, also just the talent that we have. The actors on the show are really amazing talents in South Africa and just to expose the world to what we have is incredible. Also, obviously, our landscape, our cinematography, our cast, our crew… it is absolutely world class. I think Fremantle has done a fantastic job in getting the show out. You don’t go into making a show thinking that it’s gonna get such legs and move so far and have such a large reach, but it has. I think it’s just because it’s such a human story. I think people relate to Reyka because, like you said, she’s really multi-layered but I think they feel with and for her.

What would you say was your biggest challenge playing her?

I was very worried. I just wanted to get her right. I wanted her to be really strong but like a piece of porcelain where at any moment, if you get it at the wrong angle it cracks. With a character like this there are so many traces of trauma with her that she tries to run away from, tries to shy away from and tries to deflect from in different ways. I thought that was really interesting about her. She comes across as really hard and guarded but she isn’t, she’s really soft and she’s got a tiny little heart.

We’ve discussed how dark the show gets in places. Is it hard to turn off from the material when you leave set for the day?

Because we were shooting in a pandemic and we were shooting the show for about four months, I think it did give me an opportunity to completely immerse myself in the show, and I think it needed that. For that period, I was just completely immersed in the material and in the lines, but also I wasn’t doing it alone. My directors were set – Serena Cullen from Serena Cullen Productions and Rohan, the writer. Everybody was there as an emotional support to me. Everybody on set knew that the subject matter was important and really dark, and we needed to handle everything very gently. You are dealing with a story about a young 12-year-old girl so you need to be as gentle as possible and delicate as possible with the subject matter. I didn’t bulldoze my way through the material. I tried to softly and gently approach it, which helped.

You mentioned about being sensitive and there were actual cane field killings that took place. Was it difficult to tread the line there knowing these murders had happened?

Yes, I think so. I hope we did it justice and I hope that we dealt with it with the seriousness that it needs to be dealt with and with the respect that it needs. I hope that comes through in the show.

What do you have coming up after this show?

I’m looking at some scripts at the moment. The UK gets to see a TV show I did called ‘Raised By Wolves’. So yeah, you guys get it soon. It’s pretty incredible because I went from something completely rooted in the real to something science fiction, which is very exciting.

Some of our readers will know you for your work in ‘The Flash’, which is a big sci-fi/superhero show. Do you have a preference between doing that kind of show and real-life drama?

I don’t actually have a preference. I do love the fact that I get a chance to play different characters in different worlds. I was exposed to sci-fi when I did a TV show called ‘Dominion’ and then a little bit later I did ‘The Flash’. I do love the world of make believe, I really do. I love the escapism that’s attached to it. Everything is on an absolutely grand scale. Anything that you that you can think of is possible. I do love that about it.

‘The Cane Field Killings’ will air on Channel 4 at 10.30pm on Sunday 10th April 2022.

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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