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Kai Luke Brummer Is 2021’s First Breakout Movie Star

Photo: John Phillips/Getty Images for BFI

Imagine the tense, queer repression of Beau Travail mixed with the ruthless first half of Full Metal Jacket and you’ve got festival-fave Oliver Hermanus’s newest feature, Moffie. It’s widely been hailed as his masterpiece, with Variety going so far as to laud Hermanus as “arguably Africa’s foremost queer filmmaker.” A terrific queer coming-of-ager, the film is set against the novel backdrop of the South African Border War in the early ’80s. Under apartheid, military service was mandated for most white males over the age of 17, and newcomer Kai Luke Brummer plays one such conscript, Nicholas. Amid the torrid brutality, he catches the eye of Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), and the two enjoy something of a clandestine cat-and-mouse, leading to a moonlight tryst when they camp together in the trenches.

Brummer inhabits Nicholas with immense emotional complexity. He has little dialogue with which to flex his performative muscles, but the quiet works in his favor, resulting in a study in subtle characterization. The film’s final frames are Brummer’s heartbreaking money shot: a mid-close which lingers on his profile as he, sitting on a beach some time after his service has finished, stares out to sea in deep, wistful contemplation.

When it comes to our favourite breakouts over the last half-decade or so, queer character studies come up time and time again: think Harris Dickinson in Beach Rats, Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, and Cole Doman in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. (Even as recently as last year, Félix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voisin announced themselves to the world with ravishing lead turns in François Ozon’s Summer of 85.) It isn’t always helpful to compare, but Brummer’s should be considered the next name on this list, for his centrality to Moffie’s artistic success.

You’d think this might be the performance of a seasoned actor, though Brummer is anything but. Shortly after finishing drama school in Cape Town, he was cast in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for which he won a Naledi Award — South Africa’s answer to the Tonys — for Best Actor. Deep into the exhausting, year-and-a-half-long casting process for Moffie, Hermanus took the film’s producer to see Brummer’s show, desperate to crack the mystery of who would play Nicholas. By intermission, both knew they had found their man.

Vulture recently spoke with Brummer via Zoom about the lingering memory of apartheid, straight actors playing queer roles, and who he’d love to work with next. (Eliza Hittman, if you’re reading this…)

Sometimes with a newcomer, I’ll lazily fall into the assumption they’re playing something close to themselves. But you’ve talked before about how different you are from Nicholas.
I’m just way more outspoken than Nicholas is. [Laughs.] You know, I haven’t grown up in that world. As much as my parents were from that world, it’s not the new South Africa. We’re different in, just … so many ways. He’s not at all like me. I tend to talk a lot.

Your dad was conscripted in the ’80s, around the same period Nicholas is in the movie. Did the conversation ever come up when you were younger?
My father had never spoken about the war. I think that’s largely due to the kind of trauma that he experienced, merged with the fact that we come from a mixed-race family where I have an adopted brother of color. But he became my greatest resource, and I felt like I kind of got a better understanding of him: through my research, through taking on Nicholas, and really immersing myself in the period. I feel I have a better understanding of that generation now.

How close were you before Moffie?
I’ve always been close with my dad. I’m close with all of my family. But I think for me, as a young man now, stepping out into the world as my own person, it was a really important conversation for my dad and I to have. I really hope that a lot of young men, from watching the film, have had similar conversations with their dads. I always feel like the only way to move forward is through understanding. There’s a lot of shame around the apartheid period. It’s important to interrogate it.

I wonder how lazy a direct comparison might be between South African apartheid and America’s history of racial oppression, but the relevance is obvious, I think. 
Or the American Vietnam War? There’s a lot of comparisons to be made there, and the damage it caused to an entire generation. The difference, I suppose, with the South African Border War, is that the apartheid government was really good at controlling the [Black] majority. The mechanism that was apartheid was this monster.

It’s strange because, actually, there was more known about apartheid in places liken the U.K., or the U.S., because everything here was so censored. I watched Saturday Night Fever with my mum, and she was like: “Oh, I don’t remember that scene! Or that scene!” The censorship board had cut out everything they deemed inappropriate for South African audiences. It was scary.

Has that carried through to the present?
Yeah, it’s the heritage we carry with us. I can’t speak for everyone, I can only speak for myself, but I feel like everything, as a young South African, is in part a response to the apartheid regime: trying to get away from that, change things, make sure we don’t return to something like it.

My university lecturer said something very interesting: that apartheid was a terrible wound, and in 1994, when we had the first democratic, open election, it was a kind of gauze. It just covered apartheid. We didn’t want to break into civil war. And now, in 2021, there’s all this stuff festering underneath. It’s our responsibility as young South Africans to pull it back and really scrub out all the muck underneath.

Does it feel like COVID has exhumed a lot of those underlying issues?Yeah, COVID highlights them all the time. There’s still segregation, white monopolies, and a lack of spread of wealth across our nation.

You’ve said previously that Beach Rats was influential to your performance, and you can definitely pick up on the overlaps. First of all, are you a big Harris Dickinson fan?
I’m, yeah — I am a bit of a fan. [Laughs.] I really appreciate his performances. They always … he draws you in. He’s a fantastic actor.

He’s a great example, too, of another publicly straight actor whose breakout role was a queer character. Gay casting is a tempestuous topic — was it on your mind when you took the role?
It’s definitely something I thought about, and about representation. As much as I don’t identify as queer, I still believe that sexuality is fluid. It always has been for me, it’s always been so much more about the person. But it’s definitely something that crossed my mind.

They went through a massive audition process in which they tried out people from all over the country. I think they saw 3,000, 4,000 people for the role. And I had faith in the fact that Oliver and the producers felt that I could tell the story most effectively. That’s the most important thing for me: that the story is impactful, and that I can be a vessel to that story.

Looking back to Beach Rats, is Eliza Hittman next on your directorial hit list?
Oh my gosh! If I get to work with her, I would be so happy. I love her films. They’re so intimate, and they’re ruthless at the same time. For a viewer, they just break your heart every second of the film … I really appreciate her as a filmmaker.

Who else would you love to work with?
Claire Denis. [Laughs.] Yeah, I’d love to work with her, she just seems to be this incredible force to be reckoned with. And there’s a couple of young South African directors I really want to work with. But at the moment, I’m really open to working with anyone new. And hopefully I can do that.

Kai Luke Brummer Is 2021’s First Breakout Movie Star