‘The British Empire literally stretched around the world, leaving its cultural remnants in India, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia, India, Scotland, Ireland, and New Zealand. Unfortunately, in most of those countries – certainly Australia, Nigeria, and South Africa – even after they became sovereign nations, inherent racism still remained. ‘
By Moonah Ellison & Sophia Fox-Sowell
Photography: Chris Fortuna
“In Thailand, I’m mistaken as Thai, in New Zealand I’ve been told I look Polynesian, Indians can see my Indian heritage and in America, I’ve been told I look African American or Latin American. [But] I like it that way.”
With smoldering dark eyes matched by silky caramel skin, Lesley Ann Brandt defies racial ambiguity and proves that racism is just a social construct, one that we should all strive to look beyond. But looking back on her upbringing, and this history of her country, this South African Native understands “I didn’t really experience racism the way my parents did [and] I look back and I go, ‘Wow I am really fortunate.’”
Originally from Capetown, Lesley Ann Brandt now calls Auckland, New Zealand home. Uprooted at age 17 by her father’s job opportunity half the world away, she was definitely against the idea at first. “I really hated it” Lesley admits, “People really struggled to understand my accent [because] it was very thick at the time.” She relays the emotional trauma she experienced at the airport saying goodbye to her close friends and for the first few years in a strange country. As time went on, Lesley began to come into her own, “The kiwi culture in a sense is sort of similar to South Africa because we were all at one point under British rule so we share that love of rugby and cricket.”
The British Empire literally stretched around the world, leaving its cultural remnants in India, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia, India, Scotland, Ireland, and New Zealand. Unfortunately, in most of those countries – certainly Australia, Nigeria, and South Africa –even after they became sovereign nations, inherent racism still remained. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked hard with other political activists to abolish Apartheid, legalized and judicially enforced racial segregation. In 1994, four years after Mandela was released from prison, he was victorious in ending Apartheid and became President.
Though the National Party who propagated Apartheid governed in South Africa until Lesley was twelve, she confides, “Growing up, I have to say, my generation really reaped the benefits of our parents’ struggles. I was in primary school [and] all of the sudden, I was allowed to go to a school with kids who were white. But I never grew up thinking I was different.”
Similar to America, South Africa is a melting pot of ethnicities, but Brandt tells us that labels are a bit more complicated especially in Capetown, “I’m not considered black I’m colored –which isn’t sort of [just] a black and white mix, it’s Spanish, German, Indian — it’s basically anything that at the time people couldn’t figure out what you were.” The colored community started off as a derogative term imposed by the South African government, but has come to really define Lesley’s culture — she self-identifies as a Cape colored. “My parents were very — they were amazing in instilling the sense that I was a South African.”
Before IT, she worked in marketing and sales for a few years, but was dabbling in commercials and print modeling on the side. When a casting manager pulled her aside and told her to seriously consider acting as a career, Lesley didn’t hesitate in taking his advice. Unfortunately, New Zealand doesn’t offer the plethora of acting classes young aspiring American actors have access to—but she made due. In 2009, after six months of studying the Meisner technique, she auditioned for Diplomatic Immunity, a quirky new half hour comedy series, and was hired within a week to be the leading female role opposite Craig Parker of Lord of the Rings.
As they say, the rest is history.
Brandt’s natural ability and commanding presence made her a force to be reckoned with on and off camera—a quality she’s had since adolescence and something she takes with her into Hollywood. Beaming with pride, she declares, “South African girls are very confident and outspoken and that does me well in a business with a lot of actresses who are foreign that can come over and be swallowed up by an idea of what they’re supposed to be or how they’re supposed to act.”
In 2010, she starred as “Naevia” in the breakout Starz hit, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and made the world take notice. Lesley’s role as the beautiful slave girl who’s story with Manu Bennett’s character Crixus emerged as the show’s big love story creating a fan frenzy worldwide. She reprised her character in 2011 prequel season of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.
Since Spartacus, Lesley has appeared as a series regular on CSI:NY and Memphis Beat, then lands major recurring roles in hit shows across networks and genres that really show her range as an actress such as TNT’s The Librarians, where a group of librarians desperately tries to save the world by uncovering ancient artifacts. On VH1’s Single Ladies, she stars alongside Stacey Dash, as a woman searching for love, success, and prosperity in Atlanta.
But recently, Lesley turns her head towards comic book characters.
Hopping on the DC comic train (and on a plane to Vancouver to finish shooting the final episode in the season) in Fox’s newest hit series, Lucifer, Brandt plays the devil’s companion Mazikeen. Satan decides he’s bored in hell and moves to Los Angeles where he opens up a bar called, ‘Lux.’ There, he uncharacteristically helps humanity with its miseries; and through his telepathic abilities, he brings people’s deepest desires and thoughts out of them. Similar to the Ryan Reynold’s superhero movie, Deadpool, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously and is overflowing with humor. But underneath the fiery glow of Satan’s horns, Lesley confesses the show hits home with its spiritual reflections, making us question our free will. “Are we responsible for our own decisions, did the devil really make you do it or did we have a choice and just chose unwisely?”
Food for thought indeed.
Her good friend, Justin Baldoni from Jane the Virgin, started a philanthropic Carnival of Love in 2015. A community of people joined in camaraderie to show the often marginalized and outcast population of people who have been dealt really hard cards in life that they’re not forgotten. People from all walks of life – Gay, Straight, Black, White, Asian, Atheist, Catholic, Muslim — all came together and spent the day showing love. Obviously we can’t solve the poverty problem in a day, but that type of compassion, Leslie reflects, “is probably a philosophy I live by.”
Despite her staggering surge to stardom, Lesley is humble and beautifully aware of her own lot in life, “I love Hollywood and the job I do — it affords me an amazing life — its still not how 99 percent of the world lives, so when I go back to South Africa it’s very much — I’m still the same girl.”