Conversation with John Carlin

John Carlin is a journalist and author, dealing with sports and politics, among lots of other things. His book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation about former South African president Nelson Mandela is the basis for a new Hollywood film “Invictus" directed by Clint Eastwood. It stars Morgan Freeman & Matt Damon and will be released in Spain on 29th January 2010.

John has lived in Sitges since 1998.

Knowing that you moved to Spain 11 years ago to work for the newspaper “El País”, how did you decide that Sitges was the place for you to live?

I will tell you why. I was working for the Independent in Washington before that and by far the most interesting story at that time was when I was sent to Barcelona to do a article on the guy who was the then the manager of Barcelona Football club, Bobby Robson, formerly the England manager.

 I spent about a week with him and he was great. He gave me all sorts of wonderful access. I was with him during the week that finished with a Barcelona v Real Madrid game and Bobby Robson, being a very kind and generous good chap, invited me to spend the night at his home in Sitges. The thing about Bobby Robson (and those who know about football will confirm what I am saying) is that he was a tremendous enthusiast, doesn’t matter if its football or whatever, he was always really enthusiastic about life and he was terribly enthusiastic about Sitges. He thought Sitges was the most fabulous place. So I spent the night at his home and we went out for dinner and a drink that night.


Playing-the-Enemy.-Sitges-guide-sitges4u. John Carlin, Clint Eastwood, the human factor, morgan freeman, Matt Damon, novel, rugby world cup south Africa, Nelson Mandela,  invictus,

How would you describe Playing the Enemy to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?

Everyone takes it as given, pretty much, that Nelson Mandela is a great man. But think that few people actually know why he is great. People generally know that he came out of prison after a long time and was very generous and didn’t show any rancour towards the authorities and that’s the sum of most people’s knowledge about him.
I’ve tried in the book to go into some detail about him through what I like to think is a cracking good yarn.
A story that rattles along and, hopefully, keeps people turning the page almost without noticing that I am giving them a lesson on why it is that Mandela is such a great man. Such a unique man. The secret is that he is a brilliant politician, which means that he is a great seducer! I proposed to my American publisher, who were the first to publish the book, that we might want to title the book “The Great Seducer” but they said, being rather literal, that people might assume that it was a sex book and that would not be a good idea.

But the amazing thing about Mandela is his ability to win over absolutely everybody. Be it in private, one to one, or be it a whole country. I think the single most astonishing thing about Mandela was that he came out of prison in 1990, regarded by the majority of white people in South Africa as the great terrorist in chief, as South Africa’s Osama Bin Laden, and 5 years later at the Rugby World Cup final, pretty much the whole of white South Africa fell at his knees, and crowned him King. What happened in those intervening five years, and how he won over even his bitterest enemies, is the story of my book.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon are cast as the main protagonists in your film. When you wrote the book did you have them in mind or was it 2 completely different people?

What’s the best thing you like about Sitges?

What I like about Sitges its that’s its recognisably a Spanish/Catalan town with a Spanish/Catalan flavour, but at the same time its completely open to people from all over the world. I would be very surprised if I came across someone who in some way felt rejected or alienated or rebuffed by the indigenous Catalan population. It is a place where you have the local Catalan culture and the big cosmopolitan culture cohabitating in a very friendly and natural way, and I think that is a really nice feature of Sitges.

What thing do you dislike about Sitges?

I find it very difficult to come up with something that I dislike about Sitges. What is there not to like? The sort of thing that people typically complain about is the municipal authorities, the ayuntamiento. But actually, although I have very few dealings with them, my sense is that over the last few years they have done a lot to improve the infrastructure of the town, and the changes that have been made are definitely for the better. I mean the town has grown quite a lot and one of the typical complaints you hear is: “Oh my God why are they building so many more houses?” But it’s a nice place, so why shouldn’t other people come and live here too? Look, ok if you are going to get a bit fussy I suppose in August, when the place gets absolutely crowded with visitors I don’t find Sitges centre as inviting as I do the rest of the year. To be honest I prefer walking around Sitges town in the lonelier winter months than at the height of summer. But again it’s completely churlish to complain about that, people have as much right to come and visit Sitges, as I have to live here.

What word would you use to describe your meeting with Mandela?

Clint-and-James-copyright,Nelson-Mandela-John-Carlin-Sitges-Guide-Sitges4u-Playing-the-Enemy.-Sitges-guide-sitges4u. John Carlin, Clint Eastwood, the human factor, morgan freeman, Matt Damon, novel, rugby world cup south Africa, Nelson Mandela, new eastwood film, new eastwood movie,  invictus,

John's son James meets director Clint Eastwood on the film set in Cape Town

He’s serene. He’s tranquil, composed, all those kind of words that are all kind of synonyms of each other. The thing that struck me was that there was this big film he was making, and I say “big” in terms of logistics. Whether it turns out to be a big film success-wise we will see.
But it’s a big Hollywood production with a hell of a lot of people running around with a hell of a lot of vehicles, trucks and helicopters and whatever else, and he is at the centre of it exercising this cool, courteous, affable and serene command. I was very impressed.

The name of the film according to the Internet Movie Database is “The Human Factor” is that correct?

No, it’s not decided yet, that is the original working title, and actually I have just been on the film set and at the moment its actually called, rather unglamorously “The Untitled Mandela Project” that’s about how close it has got to an official title. “The Human Factor” has been discarded and its defiinitely not going to be that. It could be the title of my book “Playing the Enemy” but I don’t think so, I don’t think life is so good or so kind! From what I understand what these big Warner Bros type outfits do is they subject these things to rigorous market testing, and they invest quite a lot of money in testing out the best names. Now they have finished shooting the film one of the things I am sure they will be working on in the next few weeks and months is market testing, and coming up with a title that does the business.

Press Release June 5th 2009: Just announced that the title of the film will be "Invictus" to be released stateside on December 11 2009

When I had the idea for the book the only thought in my mind was “please, please let somebody publish it!” If two or three people then bought it after that, was my thinking back then, I would be thrilled and surprised and delighted. So the idea that I would write a book that was published, which already seemed a bit far-fetched, and then for it to have evolved to this point, where a film is being made about the book, - That is pretty amazing!

Morgan-Freeman-John-Carlin-Sitges-Guide.-Sitges4u-Playing-the-Enemy.-Sitges-guide-sitges4u. John Carlin, Clint Eastwood, the human factor, morgan freeman, Matt Damon, novel, rugby world cup south Africa, Nelson Mandela,  invictus,

But then the fact that it’s a Hollywood, Warner Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon film is just absolutely mind blowing. Even though I have been on the set and met them all and seen them all there is a part of me which still struggles to believe that this is all happening. So, no, I did not have any Hollywood actors remotely in my mind when I wrote this book!

I think Freeman and Damon are both fabulous. As the New York Times said in their review of my book, “Morgan Freeman was practically born to play Nelson Mandela”, and the one thing that’s marvellous is that, of course, he is almost exactly the same age as Nelson Mandela was at that particular time. It’s not like they are getting someone like Denzel Washington and making him up to be an old guy. One thing I love about this film project is that the two main players in this, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood are both in their seventies, and of course when Mandela was at the peak of his game, he was in his seventies too. So that’s sort of beautifully appropriate, and also a source of encouragement to us all!

What was the book that most influenced your life — and why?

Forgive me for being a bit heavy, but for me Shakespeare stands head and shoulders above everybody else. I studied English literature at university so I read most of his classics, and for me the Mother & Father of all books is `King Lear´ by William Shakespeare. Why? I just feel like practically, the whole of life is contained in those relatively few short words, almost compressed. I think you will find a large part of the answers to the question “What is the meaning of life?” contained in `King Lear´.

Three favourite films of all time?


Lawrence Of Arabia


Three favourite books?

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Morgan-y-James-copyright, Nelson-Mandela-John-Carlin-Sitges-Guide-Sitges4u-Playing-the-Enemy.-Sitges-guide-sitges4u. John Carlin, Clint Eastwood, the human factor, morgan freeman, Matt Damon, novel, rugby world cup south Africa, Nelson Mandela, new eastwood film, new eastwood movie, invictus,

Actor Morgan Freeman who plays Nelson Mandela and James take some time out together on set.

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