SA ‘chameleon’ in Hollywood, Stelio Savante, thrives on portraying characters who connect with viewers’ hearts

Stelio Savante

Neziswa Kanju interviewed Stelio Savante, a Hollywood actor, producer and Jesus follower who left Cape Town on a US sports scholarship over three decades ago and went on to make a unique name for himself in the world of screen and stage.

South African Hollywood actor and producer Stelio Savante was born in Cape Town to a Greek Orthodox family. He describes his childhood in South Africa as very painful, tumultuous, and violent. His parents divorced when he was very young. Their divorce left him feeling unworthy; unwanted and irrelevant. He gave his life to the Lord in 1984, “but wandered in and out of Christ’s will for my life for many years because I struggled with myself”, he shares. “When my parents divorced I fell in love with the story of acceptance of Jesus Christ.” His family also became Christians — his mother, father, sister and his grandmother. Stelio was baptised as a Greek Orthodox baby and later baptised again in the Baptist Church in Alabama in the United States in the early 90s.

A young Stelio

Two years ago the Hollywood-based actor recommitted his life to the Lord. He says he felt the Lord encouraging him to be baptised, to make this public proclamation in front of his wife and daughter who weren’t in his life when he was baptised in Alabama.

Stelio has acted in more than 100 films and plays. He came to America from South Africa on a tennis scholarship from the University of West Alabama. He says of his introduction to acting: “The university had a theatre department. I was consumed by it and pursued it.” He is an accomplished actor and producer of many films, both in South Africa and Hollywood, and has played lead and supporting roles in mainstream and faith-based films, TV projects and series. Some of these roles include playing Moses in the hit biblical drama series The Chosen, a Mossad Agent/South African journalist Pierre Barthes opposite Jim Caviezel in the critically-acclaimed action thriller Infidel, playing the role of a Portuguese mayor opposite Matt Dillon and Jim Caviezel in the Hawaiian family drama Running for Grace on Netflix, and parts in many other Christian-themed films such as What If, 3 Blind Saints, and The Two Thieves.

His long career, spanning more than 30 years, has seen him play many varied characters including villains. Many in the church community have questioned his faith, asking how he can be a Christian and still play such roles. Stelio says: “If my characters have a consequence for their sin and I’m not playing characters whose sin is glorified, I’m fine with it.” His character in the Two Thieves has redeemable qualities. He says he is willing to portray flawed men and does not believe in only showing “perfect characters”. That is not realistic, he says. Stelio’s character in The Two Thieves acknowledges the innocence of Jesus. He says, “I don’t know you. I don’t know what you said to be put here. I know little of your teachings. I don’t know why they treat you like this when you remain in silence. I only know you are innocent. I am not!”

Stelio in The Two Thieves

When the other thief mocks Jesus, Stelio’s character admonishes him and says: “Do you not fear God when you are sentenced to die. We deserved to die for our crime but this man has not done anything wrong! Please remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Stelio says, “Too many Christian films portray people as being perfect or shallow. To me that is irresponsible, unwatchable, and void of artistic integrity and I’ve had those conversations with other believers who want to put God in a box and keep Him there. God is the ultimate creator, the greatest unparalleled artist. In order for us to be ‘fishers of men’ in our industry we need to have artistic integrity and really learn the craft, otherwise we push more folks away when we should be speaking to their hearts and we lose our ‘bait’.”

Stelio Savante and Jim Caviezal In Infidel

Because of his range and delivery, Stelio has been described as a chameleon. His exposure at an early age to different cultures and his presence in two countries gives him a unique edge in how he approaches his work. Coming from a multicultural family with a Greek father and a South African mother with Scottish-Irish and English-Lithuanian roots adds to the richness and the realness of his characters. He says that he is able to bring his life experiences to a character without taking away from the character’s authenticity because the two are not exclusive. Actors are hired to bring themselves and the truth to their roles, he says. His craft has required him to play characters experiencing many different emotions. He has portrayed characters who have witnessed trauma (playing a journalist/spy in Infidel and photographer in 110 Stories respectively), who have caused trauma (as the policeman in A Million Colours) and who have endured internal struggles (the good thief in The Two Thieves). Asked how he is able to deal with various characters’ emotional challenges he says that research and preparation are paramount. “The way we live our own lives, the more we travel, the more we learn about other people and cultures, the way we respond to adversity, overcome trauma, the richness of our real life experiences only make us more well-rounded storytellers. All of that factors in and carries you into the scene.”

In 2007 he became the first male South African-born Screen Actors Guild award nominee (Best Ensemble in a Comedy) for his recurring role on Ugly Betty. Among his many accolades is being named alongside Nelson Mandela and Charlize Theron on the South African Consulate of New York’s :Notable South Africans” list.

Stelio Savante and Matt Dillon in Running Grace

Dallas Jenkins cast Stelio to play the iconic figure Moses in The Chosen, the highest crowd-funded project of all time, downloaded over 125 million times in over 180 countries on The Chosen App. He has worked with Jenkins twice before — in What If and in The Two Thieves. Stelio says: “At first I was tentative at the thought of playing Moses because he’s been so ironically portrayed that people have this impression of a heavily bearded, very old man with a staff. I studied the script very closely and went back and looked how easily Moses was angered in certain situations in the Bible which helped guide me.”

Stelio is a producer of the current Christian football film Under the Stadium Lights by Paramount, starring Laurence Fishburne and Milo Gibson. Under the Stadium Lights focuses on the Abilene High School Eagles, a team that was considered the best in their division until they lost in the first round of the playoffs. The movie’s theme is “Who’s your brother’s keeper?” The players have to constantly ask themselves this question as they navigate the many challenges that they faced on and off the field. Themes of identity; purpose and community are covered in the movie. Under the Stadium Lights released in American theatres on June 4.

Stelio has recently finished shooting Pulled From Darkness, which was inspired by the real life story of a woman who was abducted in the night, torn from her three small children, and sold into trafficking after her husband lost her in a card game. After living in a pitch dark, concrete cell for three years, she grew so ill that her captors dumped her body in the street. She woke up from a coma in a hospital, where a compassionate nurse befriended her, and joined her in the miraculous search for her missing children.

Also in the pipeline is a sci-fi thriller Destination Marfa starring Stelio Savante and Tony Todd, which will be released on August 3. Stelio says that audiences can expect “a character-driven, entertaining journey that slightly crosses over into sci-fi. The film has a great message that hopefully elicits thought and discussion. It was filmed in some pretty special and well-known historical locations that haven’t been seen in film very much at all. I think that plays into the thought and time that went into crafting it and viewers will pick up on those little nuances”.

Stelio Savante in Destination Marfa

A notable South African movie role for Stelio was in A Million Colours, a 2011 production directed by Peter Bishai and co-written by Bishai and Andre Pieterse, based on the lives of Muntu Ndebele and Norman Knox, who were the child stars of the classic 1976 movie e’Lollipop. Stelio’s portrayal of Major Shawn Dixon, a ruthless apartheid-era policeman garnered praise from critics globally. His ability to “transition from rough around the edges, blue collar criminals to highly articulate, ruthless, white collar professionals to charming, quirky, vulnerable and broken characters, makes him a chameleon….” critiqued film reviewer Stephen Aspeling.

To commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks Stelio produced and performed in a New York stage production 110 Stories featuring celebrity benefit performances with Samuel L Jackson and Melissa Leo. Sarah Tuft directed Stelio in the lead role of Ecuadorian photographer Bolivar Arellano who took photographs at the World Trade Centre as the victims fell to their death. Stelio spent a lot of time getting to know Bolivar and told Gateway News that playing Boliva, was “raw, it requires tremendous commitment, and it gets me out of my own head”,

Reflecting on Stelio’s portrayal of so many diverse characters, I think of how the Carpenter who hung on the cross with The Two Thieves created many beautiful pieces out of raw material. Savante’s character in that movie says to Jesus “I bet you’ve never spent time with common thieves. How do you like us? Are we good company?” Jesus’ ministry was to the “least of these”, people that were looked down upon, from the tax collector to the woman who had five husbands to the woman who was going to be stoned. He healed the sick; He showed compassion to Judas who betrayed Him. Jesus did indeed “spend time with common thieves”… characters that are flawed. Stelio Savante continues to portray these characters to remind all of us that there is redemption in Jesus Christ and we can be “Pulled from Darkness”

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