The Wellingtonian interview: Ray Henwood

AGELESS: Ray Henwood says he feels 25, not 72.
AGELESS: Ray Henwood says he feels 25, not 72.

Multi-talented actor Ray Henwood appears this month in Circa's All the World's a Stage. He talks about supporting the All Blacks, teaching at Mana College and getting nervous on opening night.

Wellingtonian: So you're Welsh. Do you support the All Blacks or Wales?

Henwood: The All Blacks. But it took me a few years to swing around to that position.

Wellingtonian: You were 24 when you arrived in 1962. Are you now a Welshman or a New Zealander?

Henwood: A New Zealander. I've been here nearly 50 years. My parents and brothers have died. My ties are with this country, but there'll always be a bit of Welsh in me.

Wellingtonian: You didn't come as an actor, did you?

Henwood: I'd worked in professional theatre in the UK. But I saw an advertisement in The Times educational supplement for a science and mathematics teacher at Mana College. It was going to be what might now be termed a gap year.

Wellingtonian: Did you know anything about Wellington?

Henwood: Very little. A woman at my local bus-stop in Swansea was a New Zealander. I told her I was moving to Porirua and she smiled. She said going to Porirua had a special connotation in Wellington. She explained there was a mental institution there. You don't hear that expression any more.

Wellingtonian: What did you think of Wellington?

Henwood: I loved it, and I soon knew this was where I wanted to live. There was a sense of equality and freedom. The headmaster said: "Call me Don." That didn't happen where I came from.

Wellingtonian: How long did you stay at Mana College?

Henwood: Five years.

Wellingtonian: Didn't you also introduce breath-testing to New Zealand?

Henwood: Yes. When I left teaching I became a forensic toxicologist and was part of the team that introduced the breathalyser to New Zealand. It was very rudimentary. We also did drug tests for the vice squad.

Wellingtonian: Weren't you involved in the start of Downstage, in 1964?

Henwood: It was exciting. There had been no professional theatre here, but there had been good quality amateur theatre through Unity. The three Downstage founders were Martin Sandeson, Tim Elliott and Peter Bland. Those three plus a group of us, including Ken Blackburn and Grant Tilly, were there at the start, when it was down in Courtenay Place.

Wellingtonian: The good old days?

Henwood: People talk about the good old days, but there was one theatre, and audiences were small. There is better writing and acting now. It was wonderful fun 40-odd years ago, but the scene today is light years ahead.

Wellingtonian: What about Circa?

Henwood: By 1976, a group of us felt Wellington could support a second theatre  hence Circa. From its small beginnings  a 100-seat theatre in Harris St  it's gone from strength to strength.

Wellingtonian: You were John on Gliding On in the mid-1980s. How famous were you?

Henwood: There were only two television channels in the 1980s, so if people were watching TV, there was a good chance they were watching you. Outside Wellington they thought Gliding On was a documentary. Everyone knew that office. That was the greatness of Roger Hall's writing. Because of that programme, I could cash a cheque anywhere in New Zealand!

Wellingtonian: Was that your first taste of national fame?

Henwood: Actually no. I'd done an advertisement for Moro Bars before that, and the exposure that gave me was massive. It was my first experience of being stopped by people outside Wellington. People would wave to me before they realised they didn't know me. I'd been in their living rooms.

Wellingtonian: What was it like working with Peter Jackson on Heavenly Creatures?

Henwood: He was just beginning his climb then. I had a nice day with him on the set in Christchurch and what struck me was how dedicated he was. He knew so much about every aspect of the movies. He told me he wanted to remake King Kong, so when it happened a decade later, it wasn't just out of the blue.

Wellingtonian: You've done radio, television, stage and film. What's your favourite?

Henwood: My first love is stage work. The demands are different. The best film actors can sit around for hours, then turn it on. In theatre, I go in an hour before and am ready to go on. Then again, I can't say to the audience, "I'm sorry about this. I wish you'd seen me on Tuesday."

Wellingtonian: Do you get nervous before a show?

Henwood: Apprehensive on opening night. You need that to keep yourself sharp. If we've had poor rehearsals, I feel more nervous. I don't like not being prepared properly. You're exposed then.

Wellingtonian: You're 72. What does that mean personally and for your career?

Henwood: I don't feel 72. I feel 25. With the acting, it does restrict my roles. In middle-age, you can play up or down, but my range has become more limited.

Wellingtonian: Has Wellington changed?

Henwood: I'm the son of a publican. I got here to find the pubs closed at 6pm. The cars were all black. Women didn't go into pubs. Wellington has grown up since then, but I've always loved it.