Stage and Cinema’s One on One Interview with Skin's Sandra Laing and Director Anthony Fabian
The movie Skin is based on the life of Sandra
interview by William Gooch
published November 1, 2009
How old was Sandra when she went away to boarding school?
Anthony Fabian: In the film we have placed Sandra at ten years of
age, but in actuality she went away to school at the age of six. We compressed time in the movie because we wanted to demonstrate the
event when she was expelled from school, which happened when she was ten years old. The parents had a plan that they would send Sandra
away to boarding school and that in time everyone would get used to her and not see her as so different from everyone
At what age did you realize that you
were darker than your parents and your brother?
Sandra Laing: It started when I was in school and the kids told me
that I looked dirty and didn’t belong at the school because it was a whites-only school. I asked my mother why my schoolmates were saying
such cruel things to me and she said that I shouldn’t listen to them because they were misinformed. After I was expelled from school I
realized that I was happier with the black servants than with my parents. The blacks accepted me and I was comfortable with
When you were a young child, you got
a lot of media attention because your parents attempted through the judicial system to get you reclassified as white. How did you handle
media scrutiny at such a young age?
Sandra Laing: At the time I didn’t mind it because I was around my
parents and felt safe. I liked taking photos for the press. I was very young and I didn’t
know that my life would change so dramatically.
How would you describe your father?
Sandra Laing: He was a good man, but he didn’t like black people. He
was a good father who tried his best.
How would you describe your
Sandra Laing: My mother was a loving person. She loved me a lot and
wanted to protect me from everything, but I choose to go and live with black people, which she had trouble
What was your life like living with
your parents as a young child?
Sandra Laing: I was happy living with my parents. They loved me and
took care of me. They tried their best to give me a proper life and make me happy. Everything started to unravel when I went to school. I
was reclassified as colored by the authorities and then I fell in love with a black man and decided to live with him in
Swaziland, which cut me off from my family.
Anthony, there is a poignant scene
in the film where Sandra returns to her father’s dry goods store with her young child to get her own birth certificate. There is a happy
reunion with her mother and, as she leaves the store, her mother frantically tries to fill her basket with as much food as possible. What
prompted you to include that scene in the film?
Anthony Fabian: That scene absolutely happened in real life. When we
rehearsed that scene I burst into tears. Sophie Okonedo and Alice Krige were in such good form when we rehearsed that scene. However, when
we tried to film that scene the baby wouldn’t stop crying, and so we ran out of time and resumed filming the next day, using a dummy baby
part of the time.
How hard was it for you to make the adjustment from living a life of
relative comfort to the harsh realities of life with oppressed black people?
Sandra Laing: I was happier with black people because they accepted
me. I was totally in love with Petrus. After I left him, I suffered a lot because I was very
poor and had small children. I had to clean white people’s houses and do laundry so that I could take care of my kids. Later, I fell ill
and couldn’t work, so for a while I had to give my children up to the state.
Anthony Fabian: We couldn’t include all the details of Sandra’s story
in the film because, cinematically, the movie would have been too long. Also, there was so much pain and suffering in the film that we
didn’t want to run the risk of the audience getting empathy exhaustion. The arc of the story that we wanted to concentrate on was her
relationship with her parents. The reconciliation with her mother was the watershed moment. If people want more details on Sandra’s life
they can go to her biography When She Was White by Judith Stone.
While you were going through these
personal struggles were you aware of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa?
Sandra Laing: In 1994, when we went to vote for Nelson Mandela, I
became more aware of the movement that was fighting for equality in South Africa, but before that I wasn’t very aware of the movement. So
much of my life had been concerned with struggling for the basic needs of my children.
Anthony Fabian: Sandra grew up in the rural areas of South Africa and
most of the major struggles were in the urban areas far removed from where Sandra grew up. The apartheid movement was happening around her
and affected her directly, but she was not politicized.
Sandra, how did you find the inner
strength to keep going?
Sandra Laing: I prayed a lot and I knew that God was looking after
me. I also knew that my mother loved me.
Sandra, there is a moment in the
film when reporters are asking you your opinion on free elections in South Africa and you said that you were happy about the free
elections, but it was too late for you. Why did you think it was too late for you?
Sandra Laing: I said that it was too late for me because I didn’t
know where my parents were. I thought my mother was angry by the choices I had made in my life and didn’t want to see me. When I found my
mother she told me that she always wanted to contact me, but my brothers told her I had died long ago.
When you found out that a book was being written about your life, how did you
Sandra Laing: I was happy to meet the author, Judith Stone. We
traveled back to places from my childhood, which was wonderful. I was happy that people could finally read about what happened to me
during apartheid, and see how bad that system was.
Sandra, how do you feel about
Sandra Laing: It is a beautiful film and through this film I am
healing. I hope people who see this film will never let another human being suffer like I suffered.
What is your life like
Sandra Laing: I have a good life now. I have a big house and my
children and grandchildren are not far from me. I no longer have my little store because I got rezoned and they opened a shopping mall
where my store once stood.
Anthony Fabian: We were very unhappy when Sandra lost her store. We
worked very hard to give Sandra a sustainable source of income by helping her open the store. When we started working on the film, Sandra
had lost her job and lived in a rented house. We felt we couldn’t tell a story like this without helping the person who was at the center
of it. The book contract enabled Sandra to buy her home.
Sandra, how has South Africa changed
Sandra Laing: Apartheid is finished in South Africa but the attitude
of some white people is still the same. Many of them don’t want to live around black people. Maybe it will change by the time my
grandchildren are adults.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
Read William Gooch’s review of Skin