Ryan Gosling, and other stars whose careers began in New Zealand

Plenty of Kiwi actors have taken Hollywood by storm, but what about the international stars using New Zealand as a training ground? Michelle Duff reports.

Ryan Gosling as he appeared in Young Hercules with Dean O'Gorman
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Ryan Gosling as he appeared in Young Hercules with Dean O'Gorman

Before Ryan Gosling began steaming up screens in The Notebook and Blue Valentine, he was a floppy-haired teenager living in Auckland and shooting Young Hercules with his Kiwi mate Dean O'Gorman.

While it might be a stretch to say Gosling's lead role as Hercules alongside O'Gorman's sultry Iolaus shot him to the fame he enjoys today, it certainly set him up as a teen heartthrob - which is more than can be said for his previous role as a child star in The Mickey Mouse Club.

It got Culture thinking: who else cut their teeth in the industry in New Zealand, using the fertile lands of Aotearoa as a training ground for Hollywood?

NZ on Screen content director Irene Gardiner says the late 90s saw many American and British television production studios choose to shoot here, with the tax breaks and lower wages making it attractive. New Zealand directors like Sir Peter Jackson and Jane Campion also set films here, bringing international casts and budgets to our shores.

"There was a big wave of it in the days of Xena, Hercules and a few others," Gardiner says. "Then it waned a bit, but the new screen incentives have seen it pick up again in the last year or so with the likes of Pete's Dragon and Power Rangers."

This meant employment and opportunities for Kiwi actors too, launching the careers of Rose McIver (The Piano, Power Rangers R.P.M)  Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners) and Anna Hutchison (Power Rangers Jungle Fury).

Ryan Gosling as he appeared in Young Hercules
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Ryan Gosling as he appeared in Young Hercules

Producer Tom Hern, whose film The Dark Horse has won international acclaim, got one of his first career breaks on 1999 New Zealand-British co-production The Tribe, also starring his now business partner James Napier Robertson.

The show gained a huge European fan base, and screened in more than 30 countries worldwide. For Hern, it was the perfect grounding in the industry. "Most of the actors have gone on to have great careers, we formed lasting friendships because we were teenagers working on this crazy show together - we were working on this professional show while we were still in high school.

"It meant we spent hours on a film set, and for me that was invaluable for what I do now."

Ryan Gosling attracted a legion of teenage fans as Hercules in Young Hercules.
Gareth Cattermole

Ryan Gosling attracted a legion of teenage fans as Hercules in Young Hercules.

So who trod the boards (or should that be the misty mountains) of New Zealand before going on to international acting careers?

Ryan Gosling

At the tender age of 18, a young Gosling moved to New Zealand to take up the lead as Hercules in the Fox Kids series Young Hercules. "He was here with his Mum," film publicist Sue May remembers. "Of course no-one knew who he was then."

In Young Hercules, Gosling starred alongside O'Gorman - whose latest roles include as dwarf Fili in The Hobbit and as George Lowe in yet-to-be-released mini-series Hillary – and actor Kevin Smith, who later died after falling from a set in China.

According to People magazine, the Canadian told the Vancouver Sun in 2002 that the series was fun, but he quickly tired of it. "I started to care too much about it, and it wasn't fun any more ... I wanted to do films, have more time to sit with a character and to try to play different characters. So I just said, 'No more television.' "

And indeed, Gosling's film career took off after he finished filming Young Hercules in 1999, with his next role as a young football player in Remember the Titans. The hit romantic comedy The Notebook came four years later.

Gosling almost made a return to New Zealand in 2008 for the shooting of The Lovely Bones, the Sir Peter Jackson film in which he was meant to star. But he pulled out of the part of Susie Salmon's father at the last minute due to "creative differences," with Mark Wahlberg taking the part.

At the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards in Sydney earlier this year, Gosling showed he could still speak Kiwi - cracking out a convincing  "I'm sweet as, bro."

Before she was Rose in The Titanic, Kate Winslet was Juliet Hume in 1994's Heavenly Creatures.
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Before she was Rose in The Titanic, Kate Winslet was Juliet Hume in 1994's Heavenly Creatures.

Kate Winslet

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Before she shot to worldwide fame as Rose in The Titanic, Kate Winslet became known for her role as a young, tormented New Zealander.

Winslet undoubtedly made her mark on Hollywood with her part in the film Heavenly Creatures as Juliet Hume, the Christchurch schoolgirl who colludes with Pauline Palmer to kill Pauline's mother.

Actress Kate Winslet hit the big time playing Christchurch schoolgirl Juliet Hume in Sir Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.
Chris Jackson

Actress Kate Winslet hit the big time playing Christchurch schoolgirl Juliet Hume in Sir Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.

"She wasn't really Kate Winslet yet, she was just a young British actress - until she came out here," NZ on Screen's Irene Gardiner says.

It was the big screen debut for both Winslet and Kiwi co-star, Melanie Lynskey. The film premiered to critical acclaim at the 1994 Venice International Film Festival, sparking off the careers of both young women.

It was also the first film with special effects produced by Weta Digital, with the company founded to work on the movie's fantasy elements. Winslet was awarded a British Empire award and named British Actress of the Year by London's Critic's Circle. Her next film would be Sense and Sensibility, which she starred in alongside Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.

Sam Raimi

The producer of Poltergeist, The Grudge, and Spiderman 2 had to cut his teeth somewhere, and New Zealand was it.

The American producer, director, writer and actor was the founder of Renaissance Pictures with Rob Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell, the production company behind Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Hercules, starring Kevin Sorbo and New Zealander Michael Hurst, ran for six series from 1995 and produced spin-off Xena, which also ran for six seasons. It provided employment for both national and international cast and crew, with up to 250 people working on a single episode.

Xena in particular was a hit, finishing top out of all syndicated dramas in the United States for four consecutive seasons. The company spent $400 million in New Zealand making Hercules, Young Hercules and Xena.

At the time, publicist Sue May says, New Zealand was chosen for it's beauty, financial benefits and talent base.

Raimi has filmed here several times since, with two series of Spartacus from 2010-2013. He directed the first episode of Ash vs Evil Dead, the television series starring Lucy Lawless currently in production here. His most recent project is a film adaptation of the critically-acclaimed video game The Last of Us.

Lucy Liu as she appeared in Xena with Kevin Sorbo
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Lucy Liu as she appeared in Xena with Kevin Sorbo

Lucy Liu

It may have been a small role, but pre-Ally McBeal Lucy Liu appeared on Hercules episode The March to Freedom as Oi-Lan, an Asian slave who seeks Hercules help to rescue her fiancee who is about to be fed to a pride of lions.

Also notable for bit-parts on the fantasy series are Anthony Ray Parker as Bacchus (later: Dozer on The Matrix) Ted Raimi as Joxer (later: Hoffman on Spider-Man) and Charles Mesure as Archangel Michael (later: Ben on Desperate Housewives).

Actress Lucy Liu was once a slave in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
MARIO ANZUONI

Actress Lucy Liu was once a slave in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Holly Hunter

Jane Campion's 1993 film The Piano flung Hunter into the spotlight, with the American actress scooping an Academy Award for Best Actress, BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and Cannes Best Actress Award for the role of mute piano player Ada McGrath opposite Harvey Keitel.

She went on to star alongside Sigourney Weaver in thriller Copycat, achieving critical success again with 2003 drama Thirteen.

Actress Holly Hunter, pictured here with Anna Paquin and director Jane Campion, was propelled to fame with 1993's The Piano.
REUTERS

Actress Holly Hunter, pictured here with Anna Paquin and director Jane Campion, was propelled to fame with 1993's The Piano.

Saoirse Ronan

The Irish actress was 13 years old and an unknown when Sir Peter Jackson cast her as murder victim Susie Salmon on 2009's The Lovely Bones. Partway through filming, Ronan attracted public attention when she was nominated for an Oscar for 2007's Atonement.

TIME magazine rated her The Lovely Bones performance as the third best in a female role in 2009, and it led to future film work including on big-budget productions The Host and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Russell Crowe

Director Sam Raimi has filmed several series in New Zealand, including Xena, Hercules, and Spartacus.
NEIL HALL

Director Sam Raimi has filmed several series in New Zealand, including Xena, Hercules, and Spartacus.

Yeah yeah yeah, we know he's Australian, but old' Russ actually polished his on-stage performances in New Zealand. Seriously: Crowe, who was born in Wellington to film set caterer parents, was once known by stage nume "Russ Le Roq"  releasing several singles in this country including 1982's portentous I Just Want To Be Like Marlon Brando. He was also involved in several theatre productions.

"It wasn't even a particularly good record, in fact it was rather awful, but to everyone who knew Crowe in his years as a pop-wannabe in New Zealand it was clear that the singer was rather driven," writes Simon Grigg on Audioculture.

Russ then ran nightclub The Venue, released one more single with band Roman Antix, and played the roles of Eddie and Dr Scott in a local production of The Rocky Horror Show before heading across the Tasman to build a film career in 1987.

This picture appeared in The Dominion Post on 14 May 1986, with the caption: "It takes a while to become a rocky horror, ...
Greg Baker

This picture appeared in The Dominion Post on 14 May 1986, with the caption: "It takes a while to become a rocky horror, as Russ LeRoq, left, and Mark Rimington found last night while making up for their parts in the Rocky Horror Show." Russ LeRoq we know as Russell Crowe. He played the roles of Eddie & Dr. Scott.

MADE IN NEW ZEALAND

At least seven productions are filming or have just finished in New Zealand, Film Commission Screen Incentives manager Naomi Wallwork says.

Filming has begun on horror-comedy television series Ash vs Evil Dead, starring Lucy Lawless and made by Sam Raimi's production company Renaissance Pictures. In Wellington shooting has started on Krampus, starring Adam Scott and Tony Collette. Filming has just wrapped on Dreamworks Light Beyond Oceans in the South Island, and the Weinstein Company's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2 in Auckland. 

Disney film Pete's Dragon has finished shooting in Tapanui, while filming on Disney series Shannara is beginning in Auckland. Other projects include Power Rangers: Dino Charge and television pilot Lumen was also shot here.

The industry had picked back up after a lull in 2012-2013, when it became difficult for New Zealand to compete with other, cheaper locations, Wallwork said. The international New Zealand Screen Production Grant introduced last year, which provided a 20 per cent rebate of New Zealand production expenditure on feature films spending more than $15 million and TV series more than $4m, had reinvigorated the local industry.

Film New Zealand chief executive Gisella Carr said work had showed in the years preceding the change, with the biggest productions being The Hobbit, Power Rangers and Spartacus. International action in the past year had tripled, a trend which was expected to continue.

 - Stuff.co.nz

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