Temuera Morrison found fame as smooth Dr Ropata and savage Jake the Muss. Now he's smooth and violent Hemi Crane the cannibal.
The newspaper photographer has a great idea. Temuera Morrison, famous for being Dr Hone Ropata and Jake the Muss, is now Dr Hemi Crane the cannibal. Cannibal equals meat. Cue photographer arriving with neatly butchered liver and kidneys and a bottle of red sauce to set the scene for a profile marking the launch of Morrison's latest movie, Fresh Meat.
There is mild consternation at Gibson Group headquarters. Dave Gibson, the movie's producer, and PR Noel, flanking the star - who appears politely not to be buying into the discussion - won't have a bar of Morrison's beautiful Hollywood- white teeth sinking into anything bloody today. Thank you, but no. Which foils the photographer.
"I'm thinking," the photographer says. Embarrassed pause. Then, perfectly timed, and completely light-heartedly, Morrison says: "We don't like your thinking. Think of something else."
"And I know," says Gibson, "what the introduction to your story will be." Correct. It's a good scene. But not a patch for impact on the movie itself, in which Morrison graduates from living the good life in Churton Park, if with a human abattoir in the basement, to become even madder, blood-soaked and seriously scary. Not for timid vegetarians to watch alone in the dark before dinner.
Fresh Meat involves an unlikely gang of criminals who think they're taking the Crane family hostage, in their beige house with its excruciating feature wallpaper, only to discover they've fetched up with some devoted cannibals.
If Fresh Meat does for Churton Park what Lynn did for Tawa, heaven forfend. But it's all in the name of fun, an action packed splatter-comedy-horror. Fresh Meat, says Morrison, is not the return of Once Were Warriors.
"This is a comedy, a bit of a laugh. You have to approach it in the right way. I've only seen the film today. It was made last November. I've refresh-meated myself, refreshed my meat."
Did he like it?
"I saw it for what it was, fun comedy. You can see office workers and managers' wives saying 'let's go for a fun night out', though we want the widest audience possible and the fan base that loves this genre. It appeals to everyone if they approach it in the right frame of mind. It's not Dances with Wolves."
It is, he says, "lovely to be home again to be promoting a little comedy horror, to give people a surprise they don't expect."
Fresh Meat is his first comedy. "I think I'm a cheeky fellow. It was kind of a natural sparkle that got me into this business."
It was less sparkle than terrible intensity in the role of Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors that shot Morrison into orbit as a film actor in 1994. He has, he says "survived" the movie and the character - "gut-wrenching and brutal, the most powerful thing. That defined me as an actor, Jake the Muss. It was a stamp of approval: This guy can act.
"This one, people are going to say 'This is quite a funny guy'." Or that's the idea.
Morrison, surprisingly - because he apparently hasn't always been easily corralled into interviews - is the model of an accommodating interviewee, charm personified. He's been obliged, for his career, to do many interviews and when he does get into them he more or less follows the script, glossing expertly over the mind-your-own-business bits like his colourful private life and financial failures.
The private life seems to be on track. His partner of several years is Ashlee Howden-Sadlier, about 25 years his junior. Morrison is 52. "She's good."
His son James, 21, whose mother is pop star Kim Willoughby, is doing business studies at Auckland University and his 7-year-old daughter, Aiorangi, whose mother is Maori presenter Peata Melbourne, is at school in Wellington. She stays with her dad in the holidays. She's a beautiful girl, he says, proving it with an endearing picture on his phone. Aiorangi has her face painted. She could be the one who becomes an actress, he thinks, but not James. "He's so good- looking I keep telling him to get into acting. Being the children of famous people can be a pain in the butt. I love my kids."
Morrison and Howden-Sadlier live in Rotorua, the scene of his rash purchase - for a reported couple of million dollars - of a very flash, unfinished house six or seven years ago. A couple of months ago it finally sold at auction for $975,000 after being on the market since 2008. In the meantime he also sold his Devonport, Auckland house. He wouldn't buy another house unless he had the money in his hand, he says, and he wouldn't buy another big unfinished property.
"I think I invested in the wrong area. I had grand plans but it's best to wait till you've got the finance to do it."
He doesn't own a house at present. "I always thought you had to buy a house but there's a big world out there."
He spends a lot of time these days in Rotorua, where he grew up, with his mother, who is 80. His father died in an accident when he was 14, but he has clear memories of him saying: "Be somebody, boy."
"Mum was always the one I was around. My father was a civil engineer and was always on the road, and he was a deer hunter."
The Morrison side of the family was the entertainment side. His father, like his father's brother Howard, was a singer and became known as Rotorua's Dean Martin. Early on Morrison decided there were enough singers in the family, which might have been a pity. When he launches into an imitation of Sir Howard singing "Oh Lord my God . . . " and then the opening lines of John Rowles' Cheryl Moana Marie in the confined space, it's impressive. Imitation is a family skill, he says.
Uncle Howard was an important influence on Morrison, especially after his father's death. "He kept an eye on us. He was always an inspiration."
And was until he died in 2009.
"I used to watch him going on stage. He'd be in the changing room and in the last few shows he had to put stuff on his legs to keep standing up. The show went on no matter what the cost. The moment before he went on he'd be on the side and he'd walk out from that curtain and it was showtime. No matter how sick, he'd just walk on and command the stage from that moment of entry. And I'm behind the curtain and he's on stage singing and I think 'I'm doing just what my uncle's doing'."
When Morrison was little, the whole family - six girls and two boys - were expected to perform and did so happily.
"We were in the background with Uncle Howard as a family. We went to the United States as a Maori cultural group. We used to say 'have piu piu, will travel'."
It was kapa haka that led to him starring at 11 in the fine early children's film Rangi's Catch, made in 1972 and recently re-screened. What he remembers clearly about this film debut was that it was a lot of fun acting alongside "old-timers" Ian Mune and Michael Woolf. "And I remember the director yelling a lot and that I got to ride horses in Marlborough. They stay with you, those things."
Morrison wasn't enamoured with school and took a job as a clerk when he left. That was never going to suit. "I got sick of the job."
He went on a government performing arts scheme designed to get people off the dole. "It was the seed of a better thing going to happen, which wasn't being a clerk."
By 1992 he was playing Dr Hone Ropata on television's Shortland Street, handsome, urbane, and forever remembered for someone else's line: "You're not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata."
In 1994 came Once Were Warriors, from the Alan Duff novel. The film was a knockout at Cannes and back home it dominated the Film and Television Awards. Morrison won the award for best male performance for his role as Jake "the Muss" Heke.
"Warriors was a hard, raw film and it was a role you had to commit yourself to, especially with a woman with such an emotional depth. We lifted and dug deep to match Rena's performance [Rena Owen, who played Beth Heke]. You could feel her mana when she walked on set. There was a spirit on that cast and crew. We had to be up on our number one game when she was there, and she had no qualms about telling you if you weren't."
The big success of Once Were Warriors was the catalyst for Morrison to try his luck in Hollywood. That hasn't been an unmitigated success but, along with his work in New Zealand, it has helped pay the bills. Roles he scored began, possibly to his regret, with Barb Wire and Pamela Anderson. His most starry Hollywood role was in 2002 as Jango Fett in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones.
Jake the Muss both gave him an entree to Hollywood and upstaged his Hollywood roles.
"I was at a Star Wars convention in Orlando and people were coming up with Once Were Warriors posters to sign. Those conventions are for a people who have a passion for Star Wars, like an obsession. They're film people. They know their films.
"One person said 'Sign my leg' and he came back an hour later and he'd tattooed it into his leg, into his calf muscle. I said 'You're crazy'."
The people Morrison has worked with and met in Los Angeles are a Hollywood who's who. After Anderson they include George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sandra Bullock. He met Michael Jackson, shook his limp hand and breathed the air in his personal on-set oxygen tent. 'I couldn't stop staring at his face. I told him to come to New Zealand on tour, which he wasn't originally. And who was the person who met him? Howard Morrison."
Morrison has just been back to Hollywood. He visits regularly to press the flesh and keep up contacts. Contacts helped when he worked with Hastings- born director Martin Campbell on the 2000 movie Vertical Limit. He hoped for the lead, but was cast as a Pakistani helicopter pilot. Campbell was responsible for his subsequent role as Abin Sur in Green Lantern.
"If you're not there it's out of sight, out of mind. Hollywood is about temperature. If you're hot you're in, if you're not you're out."
He guesses he's "simmering" at the moment. "I have to be there to see my agent and see what's going on."
Yes, there are a few possibilities, but talking about them could jinx them.
Curiously, others Morrison worked with on Shortland Street followed him overseas and arguably did better, like Martin Henderson and Karl Urban, currently on screen as Judge Dredd. Morrison is also close friends with Cliff Curtis, who has carved out a busy career in Hollywood.
Someone once remarked to Morrison that "your choices are not good. Cliff, his choices are quite superb." But he was in Hollywood first. "It's a timing thing. Everyone has a time. I was the first one to go up there. The others said 'We can do it too'. Cliff always says that. It's just how it works out."
In New Zealand, though, Jake the Muss marks him out for most fame, and he accepts that. People who pass him in the street often whisper his name to each other disbelievingly, say nothing to him, but look back - " 'No it isn't.' 'Yes it is'. They're thinking I'm a big guy. I can blow up pretty good." (He's 167cm, small but perfectly formed.)
He does feel "a bit famous" and takes his cue to dealing with it from Sir Howard. "I grew up in a famous uncle's shadow and I saw my uncle deal with fame to a certain degree. He was always nice and cordial to people. There are some people famous in the movies who don't know how to handle it."
He hasn't always nodded philosophically back at Once Were Warriors and been the embodiment of charm he is today. He once said he thought Jake's anger would be with him for life. In 1999, he attacked a 17-year old who he thought had set fire to a real estate sign outside his North Shore house and ended up in court. It was a long time ago. Morrison was 39. The kid is reported to have said: "I've never had a fight in my life, then I have Jake the Muss staring into my face in the middle of the night."
In 2009, police were called to a domestic dispute between him and his separated partner, Melbourne, but no charges were laid. That it made the media at all was a spinoff of his fame playing one of the most violent and intense characters of New Zealand film, and that he subsequently spoke out against violence.
Morrison is in Wellington to promote Fresh Meat, but he's already moved on from it professionally, working on a New Zealand movie being shot in Pukekohe, Mt Zion. In it he appears as a hard- working contractor. "It's another nice little New Zealand movie. Fresh Meat is quite different."
He'd like to have a go at directing and is looking at that "slowly". And he'd like to do comedy again, having learned that it is "a serious business" and that he has natural timing.
"There's a great saying," he adds. "Film makes you famous, TV makes you rich and theatre makes you good. I haven't done enough theatre. I've never branched into theatre. I focus on TV and film. I love working in front of a camera. That's where I belong."
He also really belongs in New Zealand, which is where his greatest career moments have been and where his family is.
He has taken his father's exhortation to "Be somebody, boy" seriously - but is he happy?
"My kids' happiness is the most important," he says. "Going through life you've got to be happy. You've got to work at that. Family's a big part of that. It's a hard question to answer. I'm blessed with things. Sometimes I've bitten off a bit more than I can chew.
"For us, you get a calling to come home and take a bit more notice of what's happening at the local marae."
Plus he keeps in mind the advice of the producer of Shortland Street, to which he returned in 2008, briefly, as Dr Ropata. "Tem," she said, "you're the thinking woman's bit of fluff. Keep smouldering."
"I keep that smoke coming out of my ears," he says.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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