The two faces of Shane Cortese
Shane Cortese reckons he's the luckiest actor in New Zealand. Over coffee in an Auckland cafe courtyard he's relaxed, casually dressed and enthusiastic about life. He's been on screen since early July, starring as Colin in TV3's The Almighty Johnsons - the hedonistic, narcissistic, mischievous human incarnation of Norse god Loki. And, from next Wednesday, will also be reprising his role as sensitive, serial monogamist Mac in the third season of TV One's Nothing Trivial.
"I think I've probably got the best job in the country for an actor. I've got eight or nine months employment a year, on television, in two shows that I love," he says, sincerely. Another benefit, he adds, is that both shows are made by South Pacific Pictures. The West Auckland-based production company is home to New Zealand's longest running drama Shortland Street, as well as previous Kiwi favourite Outrageous Fortune - shows which Cortese has also starred in. The novelty still hasn't worn off.
"I came into work about two weeks ago, it was early in the morning and I've been shooting there since January, and my heart started to flutter, I was excited about the day," he says. "I just think I'm probably the luckiest actor around to play in that place and to play two characters who are so diversely different from each other. It's a great time."
Returning for its third run, Cortese believes Nothing Trivial has stepped up a notch this year, building on the success of the past two seasons.
"We established a fairly good fan base pretty early on. It's always interesting to do a second season of something. It's like the second album concept - is it going to work, is it going to be good. We all felt that it was and we gained an audience and now the third season, I think we've all settled into it but you've got to keep adding layers in order to keep your audience."
This season starts with Mac and Catherine (Tandi Wright) continuing their long-waited for relationship, which has been off and on since the show first started. Mac is now pushing for Catherine and daughter Celeste (Manon Blackman) to move in with him and his sons Noah (Simon Mead) and Frank (Dylan Holmes).
"The questions that the writers are making me ask myself are once you've been in a relationship for such a long time why do you jump back into forming another long-term relationship so quickly and what part of the personality attracts somebody to do that so quickly?"
Cortese believes Mac is a man with strong morals, who likes stability in his life. But ex-wife Jo (Katherine Kennard) doesn't plan to make things easy for him and his new partner.
"How lucky am I?" he laughs with a headshake of disbelief over the thought of two beautiful women fighting over him. "When you first separate, it hurts, it's hard, it's dark and it's a horrible place. But as time goes on you start to remember the good times and they far outweigh the bad times. He'll be starting to remember the times he had with Jo that were quite a lot of fun."
The Almighty Johnsons' Colin Gunderson could not be more different from moralistic Mac. A highly successful lawyer who lives his life in search of power and pleasure, this season Colin entered the race for Auckland mayor. While he enjoyed the storyline, Cortese has no desire to forge a political career for himself.
"Those guys are pretty thick skinned aren't they? My job is to try to be liked by people in order to watch the programmes that I'm on. Those guys make some pretty hard decisions. I take my hat off to them. I don't think I could do it. I like to get involved in committees and councils and things like that, but I don't think I could get involved in politics.
"Blair [Strang - Cortese's Nothing Trivial co-star] desperately wants me to get involved in politics. He thinks I'd be a good leader."
Even without a desire for party politics, there's still plenty going on in Cortese's life outside of acting. After our interview he was off to MC an awards ceremony, followed by a live performance with his covers band Class of 58. He says business at The Mentors - the talent-mentoring agency he launched earlier this year with his ballroom-dancer wife Nerida, vocalist Tina Cross and New Zealand's Got Talent music director Michael Dennison - is going well.
"It's fun. Without building it up, it must be great to be able tap on someone's shoulders and just ask questions, from people who have walked the walk and pretty much come out the other side, and who are not in it to be famous."
The pursuit of fame for fame's sake is something that baffles Cortese.
"Why do you want to be famous? What is it about being famous? Are you so insecure in yourself now that you have to be famous? This obession with being on television? I just want to be good. I would start off by telling these kids fame comes if you're good at what you do and you're diligent and you work hard at it. What benefits does fame give you? I'm not convinced I know."
Fame has generally been kind to Cortese with a solid career and a loyal fanbase. But with two prime-time TV roles, which he'll follow with a starring role in a new Auckland Theatre Company production of musical Chicago, Cortese says he's conscious of the danger of becoming overexposed in New Zealand.
He says he is looking to follow in the footsteps of peers Craig Hall, Robbie Magasiva, Sara Wiseman and Danielle Cormack with a move across the Tasman. Nerida is Australian so there is a ready-made support network there to help with their two young sons Kees, 6, and Jett, 2, and Cortese believes he can fill a particular niche over there.
There's a limited pool of actors in their late 30s/early 40s, his South Pacific Pictures publicist explains, with many actors who find success in their teens and 20s dropping out as they get older. Plus, Cortese says, he comes with added appeal.
"When you sign up to a new programme you sign up for three years. And at our age, there's not a lot of actors prepared to commit to that sort of thing. They've come through it, they want to go and find the bigger picture. But I love television, I love the whole concept of television, so I'm quite prepared to sign for three years of my life in the event the show works. So that's attractive to producers."
Nothing Trivial and Almighty Johnsons fans shouldn't panic though - he says he would love to return to both shows should they be commissioned for fourth seasons. Still in the midst of filming Nothing Trivial, he knows how this season ends and says it leaves plenty of room for another run. And with Almighty Johnsons, he just loves how much fun he has every day on set. Life is good, he assures.
"Dad and I play golf - and I love beating him - but we'll talk about work, and he says ‘are you busy?' I say ‘Dad, I haven't worked since 1992. I dress up and play around for a living'. I get to play. That's what we do. It's an absolute privilege."
The Almighty Johnsons screens on Thursdays, 8.30pm, TV3. Nothing Trivial Begins on Wednesday, September 8, 8.30pm, TV One. Chicago Opens At Auckland's Q Theatre on November 1, See atc.co.nz for more information.
Sunday Star Times