23/01/2017 14:34 SAST | Updated 24/01/2017 15:30 SAST

Lorcia Cooper Says Her 'Lockdown' Character Doesn't Require Her to Be 'The Pretty Coloured Girl'

"She is a tough, no-nonsense, gets-what-she-wants woman.”

"Lockdown" is the new tough-as-nails local prison drama putting the spotlight on South African correctional services. Mzansi Magic's all-women prison drama tells the story of the complex dynamics between inmates and prison guards at the fictional Thabazimbi Women's Correctional Service.

"It is a prison series that is the first of its kind on South African screens, showcasing stories that have not yet been told, matched with a powerful and predominantly female cast," actress Lorcia Cooper told The Huffington Post South Africa.

Cooper stars as Tyson — the prison boxing champion who rules with her fists. It's a departure from her usual screen roles. Cooper, who has more than 30 years of dancing experience behind her, is usually cast as a dancer or choreographer, but Tyson is something completely new for her.

"I loved Tyson from the minute I read the first scene," Cooper says of her character. "It's different to any role I've ever played and that was the main appeal. She is a tough, no-nonsense, gets-what-she-wants woman."

Mzansi Magic // Supplied
Lorcia Cooper stars as prison boxing champion, Tyson, in Mzansi Magic's new series, "Lockdown"

Her experience as a dancer was an asset in preparing for the role of Tyson. "The discipline required to succeed as a dancer is an invaluable skill. Being a boxer on the show requires physical strength, endurance and agility. Being a dancer helped with those physical demands," she says.

The show wasn't just physically gruelling, it was mentally and emotionally challenging too. But Cooper says one of the most difficult things about shooting the show was the reminder that parts of the story "are a reality for many — and a hard reality at that."

Cooper describes Tyson's grit with admiration and appreciates the opportunity to try something completely new in her acting.

"She is in your face and raw and I think the fact that Lorcia Cooper is playing her will surprise viewers," she says. Most importantly, she adds, the show has shifted her career. She says she's "thankful for the opportunity that has now opened doors that don't require me to be the pretty coloured girl".

Cooper says she drew on her own life experiences to bring Tyson to life as authentically as she could. "Growing up on the Cape Flats gave me some background knowledge on my character," she says. "I enjoy stepping out of the norm and pushing boundaries. Shooting at Constitution Hill was also a tangible reminder that jail and its conditions are a reality for many."

Support for the show has surpassed both Cooper's and the production team's expectations. "While shooting, we all knew that "Lockdown" is a good show but we never took for granted that everyone else would too. So it's not a surprise as much as it is an honour. I feel every person who's worked on this show deserves the acknowledgement."

Cooper says working on a show with a predominantly female cast and production crew was a definite highlight of her "Lockdown" experience.

She hopes the chance to showcase stories that are not often told will shift perspectives on crime and criminals. "I hope this moves us away from judgement and closer to solutions. People aren't necessarily born bad and everyone has a breaking point," she says.

What's most striking about "Lockdown", she says, is that while the prison and characters are fictional, the story is all too real for many South Africans — and yet so few people really know about the realities of prison life. "It is an unknown, unseen world to most," she says.

Cooper hopes "Lockdown" will provide some insight into the conditions in correctional facilities for those who have never experienced them. "I feel people are ignorant to the conditions in prison, and more so in female prisons. I think effective rehabilitation should be a topic of discussion."

"Lockdown" airs on Mzansi Magic (DStv Channel 161) at 8pm.