From Shorty to Auckland's mean streets

SMOOTH CRIMINAL: Calvin Tuateo plays nightclub owner Joe in The Last Saint.
SMOOTH CRIMINAL: Calvin Tuateo plays nightclub owner Joe in The Last Saint.

Best known as the literal ''poster-boy'' for Once Were Warriors (that's him with the moko) and Dr Victor Kahu on Shortland St, Calvin Tuateo is back on New Zealand screens this week in the pivotal role of nightclub owner Joe in Auckland-set crime-drama The Last Saint. He talks to James Croot about the role and his career.

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How did you hear about the role and what attracted you to it? 

Ren (writer-director Rene Naufahu) just rang me up one day to see if I wanted to do it and I just said "yeah". It sounded like a mean script.

How did you find your inner "smooth criminal"?

The actual truth was I didn't know what I was doing. I was just getting direction from Ren. I have a son the same age as Minka (the film's ''last saint'', played by Beulah Koale) so that helped. Joe's probably a bit colder to Minka than I am to my son though.

Did that make him an easier character to leave behind at the end of a day's shooting? 

Most jobs I do, when I'm trying to play hard men, as soon as they say cut I just crack up. Because it's not me, I just have to laugh to get it out. 

Did you have much say in Joe's snappy wardrobe?

They pretty much had all the wardrobe sussed. I think originally he was going to be in a suit all the time. But that all changed and now he's just in jeans, a black shirt and a vest and that hat.  

So what was the toughest challenge of the role? 

At our script read through, I was thinking, "ooh, hell, this is going to be harder than I thought". I originally thought he would just roar, roar, roar,  but if I did that he would be like that all through the movie. Ren said, ''you don't even have to try and be tough - he is the man. You don't have to be all growly because you're the boss. You've got others who will go out and do what needs done - persuade people. If you push being an aggro, hard dude all through the movie it won't be as good''. 

You also had to sing a karaoke version of The Holidaymakers' Sweet Lovers...

Yes - that was the one thing I thought "what?, I'm not a singer bro!" Ah, it was good fun though.

That must have brought back memories of the infamous "hospital musical" during your time on Shortland St?

Oh, I try to forget that one.

Of course your Last Saint director Rene recently had another stint on Shorty, have you ever been tempted to reprise your role of Dr Victor Kahu? 

They haven't asked me to go back. I'm not really fussed about it. I had my time there. I was back for a month ages ago when Tama and Shannon got married. I haven't heard anything from my agent. I've run into a few old Shortland Street-ers and hit them up - "oh, have you had a phone call yet? When are you going back?"

My son watches it - I don't. "Oh Dad, that Sam, the guy who's making your movie is back on.  You should go back on Dad."  

"It's not up to me son." 

Actually it used to be quite funny playing Victor. Some of the things I would get out on the street were hardcase.

You must be quite glad you're not doing it in the age of Twitter. 

Yeah, you see I don't even know much about Twitter, Facebook. I'm not on those social media things - I'm not into that.

It's been 20 years since you're film debut in Once Were Warriors, how have things onset and in the film industry changed? 

I only did two days on Once Were Warriors. Even back then didn't know what I was doing, that was my first ever job, I hadn't acted before. I just went with what Lee (Tamahori) was wanting. At the end of the day it's the director's vision. I try and stick with that.

In 2012, you got the chance to work with another of our famous directors, Jane Campion, on Top of the Lake. What was that experience like? 

That was a mean job. That was huge.  There were so many actors in there - 80 to 90 speaking parts. I'd never been to Queenstown before and I got flown down there every couple of weeks. Some days I wasn't needed so I would just be relaxing back in Queenstown. That was good fun and Jane was awesome - she's cool.

So what's up next for you?

I'm in about a third of Toa Fraser's new film The Dead Lands (scheduled to screen in cinemas from October 30) and in an episode of The Brokenwood Mysteries  (scheduled to air on Prime later this year).

Finally Calvin, some of your contemporaries are now working steadily across the Tasman. Are you tempted to give Australia or the US a crack? 

Back in my Warriors days, I thought "ooh, yeah - Hollywood, Hollywood". Now I'm older and no wiser, I just think I'm happy just staying here at home. However, if an opportunity came up overseas, I'd jump at it probably, depending on the part. 

The Last Saint (R16) opens in New Zealand cinemas on Thursday.