Dave Fane sits at Q Theatre wearing shorts and a bro'Town T-shirt and eating a packed lunch his partner, actress Bronwyn Bradley, made for him.

He looks every inch, well, Dave Fane: the quick-to-smile, gently spoken and avuncular funny man instantly recognisable from movies like Sione's Wedding, TV's Outrageous Fortune and 800 Words and the comedy troupe The Naked Samoans.

Next week, he swaps the shorts and T-shirt for a sharp suit and a role bigger and more serious than any he's played before. Fane stars in the internationally-acclaimed play The Mountaintop as US civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Judging by his script, with copious numbers of lines highlighted, there's a lot for him to learn but Fane says you don't pass up an opportunity to portray Martin Luther King and he loves American plays.

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"I like their energy and rhythm and the way the characters always seem to be doing something.

"It's fun to play because you're always busy."

He'll certainly be busy given it's just him and co-star Nicole Whippy on stage. Set in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, The Mountaintop is a fictionalised account of King's last night on Earth and uses phrases and parts of the speeches the Baptist minister turned activist gave during his all-too-short life.

On the evening of April 3, 1968, King has just delivered what will be his last speech, "I've been to the Mountaintop". He waits for an aide to bring him some cigarettes but instead he meets Camae, a feisty maid who is not what she seems.

"Each and every word is beautiful," says Fane.

"He smokes a lot; he comes across as a flawed man - because he's human - who's trying to be better. It's trying to look at the person behind the image and what he might have continued to become."

There's also something historic about taking part in this version of The Mountaintop. It is the first time the play, by African American writer Katori Hall, has been performed in New Zealand and the first time King and Camae have been played by Pacific Island actors working with a Samoan director, Fasitua Amosa.

Produced by NZ playwright Victor Rodger's FCC theatre company, special permission was required to cast Pasifika actors in the roles.

Two years ago, Hall, the first black woman to win a London theatre Olivier Award for Best New Play, inserted a clause into licensing agreements: "Both characters are intended to be played by actors who are African-American or Black. Any other casting choice requires the prior approval of the author."

It followed a US university production where a white actor was cast as King; before that it was staged around American including on Broadway in 2011 with Academy Award nominees Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett.

With permission given, FCC was able to produce a theatrical version after readings and workshopping the play. Fane and Amosa believe NZ actors have a different way of approaching plays, saying we tend to take a quieter and more subtle approach.

"I've watched bits of other productions and thought, 'that's way overplayed' but maybe it was directed that way for a bigger theatre," says Fane.

"I think Kiwis love the truth - tell me your truth and I will love you forever! - because we just like to be told the way it is."

LOWDOWN
What: The Mountaintop
Where & when: Basement Theatre, Tuesday - Saturday, November 11