A few questions with Tim Balme

There is only a handful of legendary actors in the New Zealand film and television industry, but Tim Balme is surely one of them.

From the leading man Lionel in Peter Jackson's 1991 film Braindead, to the long-recurring role of Greg Feeney on Shortland Street, to a critically-acclaimed performance on Mercy Peak, the man has been a fixture on Kiwi screens for over two decades.

You can even say "Balme is a god" - most recently he featured among the core cast on The Almighty Johnsons, playing Mike/Ullr, the oldest and sometimes-wisest Johnson brother, and god of games and hunting.

So to follow up from yesterday's wrap-up of The Almighty Johnsons, I thought it would be nice to have a wee bit of a chat with Tim Balme.

Lucky for me, he was keen to answer a few questions about Mike, The Almighty Johnsons, and his role behind the scenes ...

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Have you been pleased with the response to the show?
Absolutely rapt. Launching a new 'waka', so to speak, is always a challenge but particularly with the Johnsons having to fill the void on TV3 left by Outrageous Fortune it was difficult to know with absolute confidence how it would go down.

As Axl said at the end of Episode 1, 'great, no pressure then.' That was a nod and a wink to the situation we were in.

Were you surprised that it picked up so many loyal fans?
The fact that we've picked up a loyal following is thanks in a large part to the Outrageous phenomenon. Outrageous grew and grew its following and opened the gates for a local prime time one hour drama to be embraced by die-hard fans.

In that way The Almighty Johnsons simply had to deliver and the loyal fan thing was primed, ready to go, and we're very happy that it has.

Were you ever concerned that viewers might be put off by the mythological aspect of the show?
Sure. When I was first shown the prop [proposal] for the series that James [Griffin, producer] and Rachel [Lang, producer] had developed I was sceptical. I thought, 'man, are we ready for this?' - and the network was feeling the same. But then I was involved in a workshop of the first script as an actor (as were Dean and Jared) and we got to inhabit the script and I could see how it would work. Some more development followed that and the network became convinced too. It's a credit to James and Rachel for having the foresight.

Were you surprised by the way viewers really got engrossed in that aspect of Johnsons?
Not so much. I knew the show was good. I knew it would take a couple of episodes to sell the premise. If the viewers were staying it meant they were buying into it.

The ratings showed they were staying - sure there was a fair degree of 'phew!' at that point. But hey, they came, they stayed, we conquered! That was a bit Viking, wasn't it? It's my Norse roots.

How have you found the response to your particular character? Do you have people stopping you on the street to get casino tips or Lotto numbers?
Mike was a slow burner. Being the reluctant god, he was always going to be seen as a bit of a killjoy.

There was a definite sense from the audience that they wanted him to stretch his god power legs. I suspect episode seven came with a sense of relief. But also being somewhat surly as a character people tend to guard me with suspicion in the street.

Mike/Ullr is the wiser, more experienced Johnson brother - but at the same time he seems cautious, haunted by his past. Is Mike's background something we'll see more of in Series two? Would you like to see it explored further?
If we're fortunate enough to get a second series funded - and despite what people write in various places we won't know that for a couple of months - I think Mike will do some surprising things.

Although in terms of his past a lot of that has been played out. I think of all the brothers the future is what is exciting about Mike.

I would imagine portraying a human character with god-like abilities is tricky. Did you find it challenging to "get into" the more fantastic elements of Mike's character, or to balance that side of Mike with the human qualities he displays?
Interestingly, when Mike uses his powers, rarely as this is, the production doesn't employ special effects, just a change in music and some concentration. The tricky stuff was always being the voice of reason and carrying the weight of responsibility.

If you had Mike/Ullr's ability, particularly where gambling is concerned, would you use your powers to rip off a casino?
Rip off? Interesting turn of phrase. I don't think Mike ripped the casino off. He just won a s**t-load of money off the casino. Was he cheating? No, he was just using his 'natural' talents.

When [the casino] fleece a punter do we say the casino ripped them off? It has to cut both ways. But to answer the question - it'd be hard not to! Gotta be more fun than buying a Lotto ticket.

You've enjoyed successful stints on Shortland Street and Mercy Peak, roles in film, and even quick cameos, like on Outrageous Fortune. Which characters were the most fun to play?
I took a break from acting for nearly five years to develop as a writer so returning to be back in front of the camera was a significant decision. I really, really enjoyed the shoot. Primarily because the cast were such a great team.

The four brothers, and Grandpa, gelled very quickly, instantaneously actually and that lead to an easy and fun working environment. As I said before the Mike/Valerie/Rob story was a really satisfying and even though it was a mortal story, as opposed to a god storyline, it was a good journey to go on.

More recently you've been involved at South Pacific Pictures as the Head of Development; what exactly does that entail?
Shepherding in new ideas, nurturing them along the development path and into production, or in some cases not,; liaising with the networks, and so on.

It's an interesting behind the scenes sort of job. You do a lot of work and it's not the glamorous stuff but it's satisfying.

Do you find yourself being bombarded with requests from friends, or strangers, who "have a great idea for a show"?
Yep. Sure. It's what my job is about. Occupational hazard but also a necessity. That next great idea could be just around the corner or fermenting in that stranger's brain.

Have you always been interested in getting involved in production at that level, rather than just as a performer?
As soon as I left drama school I started producing various levels of theatre so I guess segueing into production in film and TV is a natural progression. But I think being in my 'mid-career' phase which is another way of saying 'getting on a bit' has fuelled my interest.

Does that interest spread out to writing, directing, and so on? Are there other tasks you'd like to try your hand at?
As I said I've been writing almost full time for the last four or five years. I was fortunate to team up with Rachel and James on series two - six of Outrageous and learnt a lot about that side of the business. I have never, despite some assumptions, directed a thing. And I'm not sure I'll have time for that in the near future.

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My sincere thanks to Tim Balme for taking the time to answer a few questions.

For a little bit of discussion today, tell me this: are you a Tim Balme fan? If so, which of his many roles did you enjoy most? Would you like to see Mr Balme return in a second series of The Almighty Johnsons? Lastly, would you like to see more interviews here at On The Box?

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