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Isaach De Bankolé: White Material

Actor Isaach De Bankolé reunites with director Claire Denis for White Material, a powerful portrait of a white plantation farmer in war-torn contemporary Africa.

In 1988 Isaach De Bankolé starred in Claire Denis’s debut feature Chocolat, a film set in Cameroon about a French woman who returns to the country she grew up in to reflect on her childhood. Twenty years later De Bankolé and Denis pair up again for White Material, the intense story of Maria (Isabelle Huppert) – a white plantation owner who is determined to stay on her farm despite the growing political conflict around her. Isaach De Bankolé, famous for his roles in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, Casino Royale and hit television series 24, stars as The Boxer, an injured rebel soldier.

Dazed Digital: You have worked with Claire Denis on several films, what do you find unique about her as a director?
Isaach De Bankolé: I met Claire a long time ago, back in 1987 when she was about to do her first feature Chocolat. When I read Chocolat, I was surprised that it was written by a white girl from France. When I read it, it sounded like someone who really knows how the blood circulates in the African body. She leaves a lot of room for input and improvisation but at the same time, she really knows what she wants.

DD: What was the experience like shooting the film?
Isaach De Bankolé: We shot it in Cameroon, in the mid-west region. It was a different landscape from Chocolat where we shot mostly in the North. I really appreciated the effort of all the locals, and we had the chance to find the same people we worked with 20 years before, which was incredible. The first AD [assistant director] we had on Chocolat, Bassek Ba Kobhio, was a co-producer this time on White Material.     

DD: Tell me about your character in White Material, how does he fit into the story?
Isaach De Bankolé: My character is a militia who disagrees with his superiors and he leaves the army. He wants things to change – that’s the underlying thing. He can’t get what he wants, he has to leave, he is injured and escapes, he tries to find people to help him. His uncle works for this white family and that’s how he gets there, his uncle is the one who helps him to hide in the family house.

DD: The relationship between your character and Isabelle Huppert’s character is very interesting – she shows great compassion towards him.
Isaach De Bankolé: I think my character, The Boxer, and Isabelle’s Maria are similar because their quest is the same: they believe in the country, the country they love, and they are ready to fight to their last breath for what they think is right, despite all the trauma around them.

DD: You’ve have also worked with Jim Jarmusch, another very distinct director…
Isaach De Bankolé: I’ve been very blessed to meet these people and to work with them because they have a special vision, whether it’s Claire Denis or Jim Jarmusch. When they write for the black they don’t write because they’re black they write for the character and that’s the difference between them and many other directors. It’s a pleasure to work for a director who has that vision and who can at the same time have trust in me.   

DD: In the US you’ve become a familiar face playing Ule Matobo in 24, in future do you envisage yourself working in both smaller European productions as well as high profile American ones?
Isaach De Bankolé: Whether it’s working with an independent production, or a studio, in French, German or in Portuguese, I’m open. It’s just about having a good part in a good story and interesting people to work with. The most important thing is the story. I’ve passed on projects with big budgets but without a good story. I’m very lucky that I can be in a position to choose.

White Material is released in cinemas in the UK on July 2, 2010.