Temuera Morrison: "Mahana is the performance of my life"
At the age of 55, in a low-budget film about rival shearing gangs, Temuera Morrison has turned in the performance of his life, according to him.
Morrison puts it down to Mahana's very Kiwi story — based on Witi Ihimaera's novel Bulibasha — which reminded him of his mother's King Country farming background, and to the talent of the actors and crew around him. But he mostly puts it down to the influence of director Lee Tamahori, with whom he was reunited 20 years after making Once Were Warriors.
"With Lee Tamahori you have to bring your A + + game — not your B + — your A + + game," Morrison says. "It was a buzz him even getting in touch with me again. It was just like we'd never left."
A television actor previously best known for his stint as Dr Hone Ropata on Shortland Street, Morrison broke through in Tamahori's unflinching adaptation of Warriors in 1994, with his violent and complicated character Jake Heke.
After that Hollywood came calling, offering him a licorice allsorts array of parts, from a dog-like hybrid creature in The Island of Dr Moreau to ethnically nebulous roles in action films like Six Days Seven Nights and Vertical Limit.
For Mahana, a period piece shot in and around Helensville, Morrison got to take off the headgear and extreme makeup worn in blockbusters such as Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Green Lantern, and emote. Playing the powerful patriarch of an East Coast family, he is a tyrant with a warm centre, and it plays across his face.
"I might be noticed again in this film, as opposed to the other ones where there's a helmet on my head and you can't even see my face," he remarks. "So I had to be good. I worked with everybody closely, spoke to Witi about his grandfather. I went to wardrobe early — I wanted to wear the clothes and get the feeling I had worn these clothes before. It's what we actors do, we're a pain the arse, we take ourselves far too seriously."
Joking aside, he is proud of the result, and says he is excited to share it with his family and with the people of Gisborne, whose story it really is.
"I think the film is very powerful, multi-layered, Shakespearean. It's not your usual formula ending, there's some wonderful characters and it's told in a very classic film style. I must count my blessings and say, 'Temuera Morrison you are very lucky.'"
Dividing his time between New Zealand and the United States, Morrison maintains that the only significant difference between working on a small film at home and a big-budget Hollywood number is catering. "Craft service is the difference," he says. "They have chocolate biscuits and quite an array of food [on Hollywood films]. Our ones generally have English Breakfast tea and that's it, and those wine biscuits that don't have any chocolate on them."