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Cantona James: Not just a character

Known best as Ethan from the hit TV show Spinners, Cantona James has journeyed from a small town, through loss and learning, to triumphant success  

Humble, driven, ambitious and thoughtful… These were my first impressions of Cantona James from our conversations on WhatsApp as he moved between film sets. Transcribing his responses in the late hours of the night, my respect and admiration for the 26-year-old actor grew as I learned about his background, his drive to succeed, and how he discovered acting and carefully calculated his drama career.  

It was an unlikely choice for someone who was the head boy of his high school, matriculating from Randfontein High in Gauteng with honours and a ‘black blazer’ (the highest achievement at the school). Gifted from a young age and persevering through loss to represent South Africa globally as the main character in the acclaimed Showmax series Spinners, Cantona’s dream is to bring the best of Hollywood to South Africa.  

Not just a character  

Born and raised in Toekomsrus and Greenhills in Randfontein, a mining town west of Johannesburg, Cantona is the middle child of nine: four sisters and four brothers, and the only one in the arts industry. His family are his biggest supporters, and always have been, which pushes him to strive to succeed. 

In 2012, just a few months into Cantona’s first year of high school, a tragedy struck that changed the trajectory of his life. News outlets were sharing the story, deep-diving into the reasons or motives behind the shooting of his mother and two of his siblings (one IOL article called it the ‘Bloody Suburban House of Horror’).  

According to news articles, Cantona’s mother was shot by her boyfriend, who then shot his two children in their sleep and turned the gun on himself. A few months after their deaths, Cantona found a ray of light in a school play, where he found solace in ‘method’ acting – using your physical, mental and emotional self to create a character – in essence, becoming the character.  

“Being in character for the duration of the concert gave me the relief that comes from not having to be in one’s [own] self, mind and body the entire time,” he says.  

Thereafter, Cantona was inspired to write his mother’s story, dissecting what he read from the news. “I just needed to separate what’s there and tell it from my mom’s perspective. And when I saw the power that held, giving a voice to the voiceless and helping people that might be in that situation get out, that’s when I saw the power of drama and I knew that this is the path I wanted to be on.”  

Method man  

For acting, Cantona says his approach differs from character to character, depending on what they need and what the production allows, since South African productions have lower budgets and actors often work on different sets, characters and stories at once.  

“I developed the 80-20 [percent] method of acting. The 20 is where I keep myself in limbo: I can still have conversations as me, but only for things that concern my body, mind, space and safety. Anything that is emotionally evocative is my 80 percent, which I cannot tap into. ‘My’ emotions and thinking, that’s all my character.”  

Method acting can take a toll on an actor’s body, mind and relationships, so I asked Cantona how he becomes himself again. He says he listens to Adele.   

“Adele was one of my mom’s favourite artists. She brought Adele into my life and heart, and she is the biggest part of me because I carry [my mom] with me every day. As soon as I listen to Adele, my mom is with me, and instantly I’m there with her and it all makes sense.”   

Quick questions  

The South African actor you’d love to work with? 
It was Brandon Daniels, but Spinners gave me that opportunity. Now it’s Jarrid Geduld, my mentor.   

Describe yourself in three words…
A ‘depro’ joker

Finish the line: The best things in life are…
worth fighting for 

Your favourite snacks on set?
Dried fruit and a lot of liquids (mostly Red Bulls)

What do you do to amp yourself up?
I listen to my favourite artist, YoungstaCPT.   

In the driver’s seat  

If Cantona’s career was driving through an 80 zone, he’d have to pay a fine for going 200km/h. While in university, he set goals to win a kykNET Fiësta Award and star in a soapie/telenovela by his fourth year – he achieved both a year earlier, and was also cast in a film and TV series.   

He is grateful for every bump, hiccup and hurdle along the way. “I have learned to be patient and give everything and do anything that is needed from me,” he says.  

In November 2021, when Cantona auditioned for Spinners, he was the second or third person that day going for the lead character role of Ethan, a 17-year-old on the Cape Flats working as a driver for a local gang in order to take care of his younger brother. “I gave everything. The casting director, me and the woman feeding me the lines were almost in tears.” He received a call-back that same day but says that, ironically, he couldn’t drive back because his Citi Golf would sometimes get stuck between first and second gear.  

This role has not only marked him as one of SA’s most-promising stars, but also reminded him of his own goal. “I worked as hard as I did – and needed to work hard – to provide my sister with the life my mom would’ve wanted her to have. So, Ethan and Cantona are very similar in that they have the same end goal: to get him and his sibling out of the community they grew up in.”  

He thinks Ethan is both his favourite and most difficult role because he’s a chameleon. “And to be a chameleon as a character is very hard because you need to be true and real in the ‘chameleonness’ of ‘you’,” he says. In preparation, Cantona only ate one meal a day, as that was what Ethan would have had, and he learned how to do ‘spinning’.  

Screening at the Canneseries Festival in France and nominated for an Emmy in the International Series category, Spinners has allowed Cantona to work with some of his role models, like veteran actor Brendan Daniels, and on a film with Christo Davids. It has also shown him that with patience and dedication, you can achieve your dreams.  

“I want to give so much to Spinners that it becomes a show people, internationally, want to be part of. Because that’s a hope I’ve always had – we [South Africans] have stories, we have heart, we have soul, we have talent, we have passion.”  

Fast Facts

19 April

26 years old

Toekomsrus and Greenhills, Randfontein


Words by: Saadiqah Schroeder
Photographs: Gallo/Getty images, supplied  

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