One of the most interesting things about Sunshine is that the main boys in the series – Jacob (Wally Elnour), Santino (Autiak Aweteek), Deng (Ror da Poet) and Dazzler (Nick Perry) – are played by first-time actors. They’re all local basketball players recruited by members of the production, including creative consultant Ez Deng, who went around local tournaments with the series casting director to help out.
Finding the right basketballers for the job
“The African diaspora is very different, and we look different,” explains Deng. “People from South Sudan, they’re a bit darker than people from Uganda – they're a bit lighter. Kenya, even lighter. Nigeria, darker. It was an eye-opening experience for the casting director. When we went to the basketball tournament and she was like, ‘Where is this guy from?’, I'm like, ‘Ethiopia.’ ‘Ah, I thought this one was from Sudan.’ So it was kind of a hands-on search, to be able to look physically, meet the boys and hand the flyer to them.”
That’s how Elnour got involved with Sunshine. “They said, ‘Come audition for the new show,’ and I said, ‘I don't really want to audition for a show; I'm not an actor,’ he recalls. "Then my friend got into it so then I wanted to audition. I got the part.”
Sadly for his friend, he didn’t make the cut, but for Elnour it was a game-changer: “I never imagined acting at all. I didn't have a clue. It didn't cross my mind, but it was a fun experience.”
Bringing reality to life onscreen
“Well, first of all, Jacob is... he's basically just me,” says Elnour. “It's my everyday life. It really is. He plays basketball like me, and he's trying to go to America, which I did. And he's the humble kid. And I'm a bit humble. What else? He's a talented guy. It kind of gets reflected on me, I guess. So when I came in, I just played myself. I didn't have to do much acting.”
And when the story went beyond Wally’s everyday life, he had some big guns on hand to help out. “Anthony [LaPaglia] told me a lot about presenting myself and how to act without acting," Elnour explains. "Being yourself while you act. That helped a lot.”
LaPaglia, who plays reluctant basketball coach Eddie Grattan, expands on that: “There was a scene with Wally where he's quite angry with me. In his delivery, he was leaning forward when he spoke to me. I just said to him, ‘You give away your physical power when you lean forward. When you pull back, it's just a physical thing. You have more power. You don't have to change what you're saying or how you're saying them. Physicality will change it.’
"He tried it and it worked. It's little things I take for granted because I've been doing it forever, but then I watch somebody else who is kind of new at it and finding their way at it. I remember being taught that myself.”
Playing with first-timers
Melanie Lynskey, who plays local lawyer Zara Skelton, has also enjoyed the experience of working with novices. “It's been amazing," she says. "I do it a lot because I do a lot of independent movies and often there are first-time actors. The hard thing is when you're working with somebody who has realised they hate it. They've never done it before, it sounded fun and now they're just like, ‘What am I doing?’
“That just definitely has not been the case. They're all so passionate and thoughtful, and really smart. The character work they've done has been really impressive. They've really gone into it and made some decisions. It's been great.”
“Because I knew I was working with first-time actors, I had [my role] prepared in case I wasn't getting anything to work with, because you never know. The nice thing for me has been to let go of that and just really be in the moment. Just be available to everything that's been given to me because they're so open and present. It's been much more fun than I could have imagined.”
When the sun sets on Sunshine
“My own feeling is you can't teach acting, really,” says LaPaglia. “It's something you either have or you don't. You can teach people how to get through a scene reasonably well, but there are a couple of boys in there that I think have really unbelievably good natural instincts. You see that, maybe, one in every 5000 actors. There's a natural thing, where you actually think that if they went to acting school, you might f*** them up.
“They should just keep doing what they're doing. What they need to learn more, if they want to be in the business, is how to navigate the business. That's the trickier part. My big concern is that [we're] basically taking these young men out of their communities and putting them in a very hyper-real situation, which they seem to be enjoying a lot. What happens when it's over?”
Lynskey has some post-Sunshine advice for the boys: “They're all really great actors. My first movie was with Kate Winslet. You meet Kate Winslet, you see her working and you're like, ‘Well, you're going to be a movie star.’ I have that feeling about [Autiak]. I think he's so special. There's an energy, a magnetism. His talent is so pure. Every scene I've done with him, I've just been like, ‘Learn your American accent!’ I want him to go to a place where the opportunities are endless.”
As for Elnour, he’s got the acting bug for sure. “It was crazy. When I first saw myself on that big screen, man, it was amazing. I want to see so much more.”
Sunshine will air over two big weeks, premiering Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm or stream it online on SBS On Demand.