Dear Murderer's Mark Mitchinson on 'confident but troubled' QC Mike Bungay
Mike Bungay was a law unto himself and actor Mark Mitchinson hopes he has done the high-profile lawyer justice.
"It's a big responsibility to play somebody real," the actor says of bringing the larger-than-life criminal barrister and Queen's Counsel to life in the five-part drama Dear Murderer.
"You're not just doing an interpretation of them. You hold the responsibility that everybody who knows them has a story and an opinion of that person.
"My job really was to give my interpretation of what I thought Mike was like and who he was and, really, I can't do much about what other people think about it."
Based on the book of the same name by Bungay's widow Ronda, Dear Murderer chronicles the lawyer's history, his lusts, loves, failings, career, and outrageous legal and personal exploits.
Bungay, who died in 1993 at the age of 58, featured in some of the most high-profile murder trials in New Zealand history but is probably most famous for defending William Ball Sutch, the man suspected of being a Soviet agent.
Bungay and Mitchinson, 51, share some similarities. Both moved to New Zealand from the United Kingdom – and both are performers.
"The sense I got with Mike was that his life was one great performance," Mitchinson says.
"I don't think he was necessarily that comfortable in front of the camera but he was very comfortable in court. That was his real stage. That's where he liked to perform."
Mitchinson, who also played the flamboyant barrister in How To Murder Your Wife, researched Bungay's life extensively. He read the book, listened to the stories of those who knew him and formed his own opinions about the man whose personal life was often more colourful than the high-profile trials in which he appeared.
"On the outside he was over-self-confident but on the inside troubled in a huge way," he says, adding Bungay's unhappy childhood had left him with big issues.
"I think pretty much all our demons go back to what happens to us when we're young and I don't think he was the kind of man to talk much about those deep-seated resentments and feelings. I certainly got the sense he was somebody who struggled with demons."
Mitchinson believes Bungay's antics – professional and personal – would not have been tolerated now.
"A lot of people who I came across quite disliked him and I can understand that," Mitchinson says. "However, the people who loved him really loved him."
Mitchinson is no stranger to bringing complex and dangerous characters to life on screen. He put in award-winning performances in Bloodlines as Dr Colin Bouwer, the psychiatrist who murdered his wife, and in Seige as Napier gunman Jan Molenaar. He has also appeared in many local dramas, including The Brokenwood Mysteries, 800 Words, Shannara Chronicles and Filthy Rich.
His success has, he admits, come as a bit of a shock. After attending drama school in the UK in his 20s, he gave up acting for 20 years – until he moved back to New Zealand in 2002.
"I had no intention whatsoever of being an actor but a friend of mine was casting Amazing Extraordinary Friends and said, 'You'd love it' so I auditioned and I got it," Mitchinson says. "It was this weird thing. At drama school, the tutors said, 'It will happen for you late, Mark'.
"You've no idea when you're 20 what that means. But now, when I'm looking back, what they said makes a lot of sense to me.
"One thing about not being an actor is that you get on with your life. You have relationships and you have this whole interesting emotional existence. I don't think I would have been half the actor that I am if I'd just stayed as an actor and not done anything else.
"When I was younger, I wanted to be the next big thing. Now that I'm older, I don't care about getting awards. I just love the fact that I can be in a film or be in a TV series. I think the less you hang on to it and the less that you want it, in some ways the easier it becomes to have."
Dear Murderer, TVNZ 1, starts Thursday September 7.
- TV Guide