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It has been 20 years since Lee Tamahori’s adaptation of Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors left international audiences stunned. At the centre of the brutal, heartbreaking drama was Jake ‘The Muss’ Heke, brought to frightening, vivid life by one of New Zealand’s greatest acting exports, the charming Temuera Morrison. Ahead of an anniversary screening of the film at the recent Gold Coast Film Festival, a lean and chatty ‘Tem’ sat with SCREEN-SPACE to reflect upon his early career days, the Warrior shoot and working in the madness that is Hollywood…

Acting was always you’re passion, but I gather you entered the scene as a techie on The Piano…

I was working on the crew of Jane Campion’s film and had met Sam Neill and Holly Hunter and the great Harvey Keitel. I mentioned to someone that I wanted to give this acting thing ago, that was my burning desire; watching Sam, Holly and Harvey, all of whom had their own particular styles and techniques, was just incredible. I got a small role in The Piano, but actually left the film because I got a role on Shortland Street, which was, of course, very different from The Piano gig (laughs). But all of a sudden, I was a working actor. 

Can you recall those early days, when Riwia Brown’s script was doing the rounds and buzz was building for Once Were Warriors?

A lot of the industry was off working on Rapa Nui, which I was overlooked for, and word had started to get around about the Warriors script. After the first round of auditions, I got a little role in the film as a policeman, then I got the Uncle Bully role. About a month out from shooting, my agent got a call and he told me they wanted me to read for Jake. When I got that news, a light went off in my head. The first thing I thought was, ‘Here’s my chance’. I’d grown up in Rotorua, where the book is set, and I’d read it. So between my scenes as a doctor on Shortland Street, I got the make-up team to put some tattoos on my arms, found some rough shirts and went into the audition. And I just fired into one of the scenes, just thought to myself, ‘Right, I’m going to give this a nudge.’ (pictured, right; Morrison as Jake)

How did you begin the process of bringing Jake to life?

My agent was a lovely guy, Robert Bruce, (pictured, left; Morrison and Bruce preparing for the role of Jake) who has passed away now. He was a bit of a scrapper, a fighter; he was wrestler, as a younger man. So he relished the news that they wanted to cast me. When the director rang Robert, he said, ‘We are going to go with Tem, but you have to get him ready.’ So he would get me revved up, got me into physical shape. We’d start training at 6am, do lots of boxing and fighting.
And a lot of the kids hadn’t acted before, so I was able to work with them and work through getting the dynamics of the family right. Especially Grace (actress Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), who I had to get revved up for all her scenes. They weren’t always nice times for me, for us, because it was a bit raw. You have to put those moments aside, convince yourself you are doing it for the character, for the film.
Also, we based a lot of the film on A Streetcar Named Desire, so I watched that a lot. The domestic situation was similar, Brando’s wild animal performance; Lee told me to watch that a lot. Years later, the reviewer in The Chicago Times, called me ‘The Maori Stanley Kowalski’. And I was like, ‘Yes, this guy’s got it!’ (Ed. - Reviewer Roger Ebert called Morrison's performance "as elemental, charismatic and brutal as a young Marlon Brando")

Were you prepared for what Rena Owen brought to the role of Beth?

No one could have played Beth other than Rena. All the other actors, me included, had to lift our game to match this woman. She was just so powerful, her well was so deep, her energy source and emotion that she could draw upon. She could be a little bit, you know…she had an edge about her, that kept you on edge as well. 

You were carrying a major film in your first starring role. The physical nature of the role aside, was it a tough shoot?

Rena had concerns about me, just as the producers had their concerns about me, which I could feel. They were waiting for me to drop the ball.  It was a painful lesson, learning to believe in myself. I wasn’t getting the support I wanted going into this film. They were nervous and I could feel that nervousness. They weren’t giving me the things I needed as an actor so I just went for it myself, doing the work as best as I knew how. I heard that stuff was happening behind the scenes, stuff like ‘What was I doing in that role?’ Rena had a few words to say, I know. So I just took it all on board and used it in the role. When the cameras started rolling, I just said to myself, ‘All right, let’s go.’

Were you in any way prepared for the impact the film would have globally?

We didn’t realise what we had made. We never anticipated anything.  We had a cast and crew screening early on and it was a very solemn, very quiet experience. We all went back to one of the cafes that was nearby and everyone was silent. I knew then that if this film was affecting us like this, all the people who were there making it, then I knew it was going to affect a whole lot of people. We played a packed theatre at Sundance and I knew it was packed because just after the film started, a bloke came in and sat in the aisle right next to me, stayed there for the whole film. When the lights came up it was Robert Redford.   

The Hollywood scene beckoned and you got some pretty high-profile gigs…

I took Barb Wire because it was Casablanca! I don’t know how I didn’t win an Oscar. Pamela Anderson (pictured, right; with her co-star) was Ingrid Bergman and I was Humphrey Bogart. That’s how I was playing it (laughs). Then Speed 2 and Six Days Seven Nights. I had an agent who’d bring me out to Hollywood, which I knew straight away was too crazy for me. I couldn’t relate to it. But I’d love going for there for two weeks, then I’d love going home again.

Perhaps craziest of all was your part in the madness that was John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr Moreau…

We get there for one of Brando’s first scenes, just as David Thewlis’ character arrives on the island. Brando starts going, ‘Look at all my children, look at what the French nuclear bombs have created’. He starts blaming our look on French testing, which has nothing to do with the script. He just started making up his own lines. The director starts mumbling, ‘Uh, cut, cut please’ and he starts talking to Marlon, who politely says, ‘Ok, John, let me try another take.’ Then he’d make up something else out of the blue!
And poor Richard Stanley, he got sacked from his own film. After two weeks, he had no dailies to show New Line; he should have just shot the rain and sent that to them, told them ‘We can’t shoot much else.’ Poor guy had been working on this script for seven, eight years, had got Brando involved, but that’s the nature of the business I guess.
I actually got in a lot of trouble because my agent had double-booked me and the shoot went on and on. We were meant to be done in three months and it went on for months, all the time I was putting on this make-up then sitting around on-set and doing nothing. So I just left. I bought a ticket and just flew home. And I got home and there was a lawyer in my driveway with a lawsuit! I had to fly back in a hurry. Those were the days. (pictured, left; Morrison in full make-up on the film's set). 

Did you actively seek out the role of Jango Fett in The Phantom Menace?

Well, I didn’t know too much about all that Star Wars stuff. I just saw it as a great opportunity to work in Sydney, because it was all shot at Fox Studios. I spoke to George Lucas’ casting agent, just a little chat with the video camera on me, very cordial. I’d never had an audition like it. Then I got the phone call, ‘We’d love you to play Jango Fett.’ I remember jumping out of my chair and yelling, then I said ‘Who’s Jango Fett?’ (laughs) I got the videos to see who this Boba Fett fellow was, and here’s hardly in them, though he had already become iconic by then. So I was, ‘Alright, I’m in.’ I remember they had the most amazing caterer, a New Zealander. We had great lunches on that film. (pictured, right; Morrison in full costume with George Lucas)

The Hollywood roles continue to come your way, most recently in Green Lantern…

I swore I’d never do another make-up character, but there you go! That was shot in New Orleans, very nice place, and it was a big make-up job. It can get very claustrophobic and very hot and sticky in that stuff. I got that because I’d worked with the director Martin Campbell on Vertical Limit and had that connection. He just called me up and said, ‘You’d make a great Abin Sur’. I could see (the production) was having their own set of problems, too. The shooting schedule and then the conversion to 3D, a whole set of deadlines to meet. I think the budget just went way out of control. And I was hoping to do another one because they were going to focus on my character!

Finally, how do you feel the New Zealand industry is travelling at present?

Our industry has been quite flat. There is a great void between work on Shortland Street and work on The Hobbit. Vast time and space, the Cosmos, that’s the New Zealand film industry. I was at the Maoriland Film Festival in Otaki last week (pictured, right; Morrison with attending US director, Blackhorse Lowe) and I spoke to a fine young filmmaker and he said that he would have to go and work now for five years to pay off his little film! That is how tough it is for these passionate, talented young filmmakers. But that’s just how Peter Jackson started and now he’s a mogul! I was with Himiona Grace just last week, whose a great guy and just got out there on the road and made his film, The Pa Boys, which is wonderful. That’s what it takes.


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