South African actress Elné Pretorius on making it in The Big Apple

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els caught up with South African actress, singer-songwriter and film score composer Elné Pretorius in New York. 

New York - Elné Pretorius sits on a rooftop in Brooklyn. The sun sets behind her in hues of burgundy and soft pink as purple-black clouds swallow each ray one by one. Gusts of wind blow wisps of hair across her face. A storm is gathering as the South African actress debuts her music in front of a New York audience. The weather gods are against her this evening – she is also recording the performance for her first music video – but she knows better than most how New York works: You have to make this city work for you. 

Elné and I meet a few weeks after, drink wine and order tapas, and talk for hours about our homes. The one we have in South Africa, the other one here, in New Hustle York. The 25-year-old built a professional acting career in South Africa through perseverance and an enviable commitment to her goals. She started young and acted in school, as well as spending her teenage years buckling down for South Africa’s limited leading roles for strong female characters.

She starred in shows like the award-winning Room 9 and celebrated playwright Deon Opperman’s Hartland, but then reality punched her in the gut. The most likely career for her as an actress in South Africa was not the one she wanted. “There are amazing opportunities for actors in South Africa, but at that point, at that young age, I realised – and I now know this was my saving grace – I wanted something else.”


She came to the US in 2016 by way of a scholarship at the New York Film Academy and graduated with an official degree in acting and an unofficial degree in what everyone here needs to survive: American arrogance. But, with a twist that reflects her humble and gracious nature. “I take the good of American culture and I make that my own. The result is confident modesty,” she says and we laugh at how bad we both are at not saying sorry all the time. “Every time I say, ‘Sorry, could you please tell me where the D train is?’ people would look at me as if I’m crazy. ‘Why are you saying sorry?’” A fogyish South African habit. 

After a year in the US she felt an isolated figure in the big city. “You know how that feels,” she says to me, and yes, I do. I know how it can get the better of you. How it doesn’t really matter how well things are going professionally. How even when Manhattan is at its most lustrous, adorned with brilliant lights and the hopes and dreams of millions of souls, it can ring hollow. “If you’re not surrounded by the right people, it really doesn’t matter.” 

Elné rallied and immersed herself in her acting and music with an earnestness that razed through her insecurities one at a time. This intense focus on her craft gave her something to connect to on a visceral level and her mission quickly became a group effort. “It takes a village to raise up an artist,” she says of the love and support she receives. “Success doesn’t happen in isolation. And you have to constantly change your definition of success. That’s fine. That’s completely fine.”

MOVING TO A DIFFERENT CONTINENT

However hard it has been, her decision to move here has been one of the best of her life, Elné says. “It made me think differently about the world and to see things from different perspectives and to think about and recognise the practical steps to reach your goals.” 

With the sunset behind her, wisps of hair across her face and her fingers trailing the keys of her piano, Elné’s rooftop performance culminates with her song, Chasing Light. She describes it as akin to a prayer “that asks to not want to go on. Rock bottom is such a real place, and if you get out of it, it comes with a responsibility. It’s almost like - It’s like when you find light, if you’re lucky enough to find it, it’s your responsibility to pay it forward. And we don’t. Oh, my gosh, we don’t.”

She’ll remember that performance as the night she came to terms with who she is, she says. The actor, the musician, the dreamer, the realist, the child, the adult. “I think I felt alone in my art, and I don’t anymore. It took me years to get here.” 

WATCH HER PERFORM THE SONG HERE:

But, there’s this thing about starting over in a new place. To start anew – you don’t realise what it means until you do it. At least, I didn’t. And Elné didn’t either. “It’s actually quite like ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ You take everything with you everywhere you go. And you can make it, but it takes a lot.”

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