The publicist thought I might like an interview with the actor John Leigh. I would.
I've always liked him as an actor and the idea of him playing Ronald Hugh Morrieson - opposite Tim Balme's James K. Baxter and a dead horse in Ken Duncum's Horseplay - sounds like casting genius.
From the director's notes: "Ron Morrison enters. He is a big, rounded, bullet-headed man. The ravages of booze ... become obvious if you observe him for any length of time ... He wears an old overcoat which he doesn't take off throughout the play."
One wouldn't want to stereotype an actor. I suggested we meet at the pub. We have met, in passing, at the pub, the Shakespeare Tavern, over the years.
I can't remember anything about our conversations except that they are not what you would call linear.
I suspect that had I ever recorded any of those conversations, they would have been much the same as this one - and he was drinking cranberry juice and soda. From the publicist's note: "An interview with him might be like trying to herd a cat."
He turned up wearing a long, scruffy scarf and a khaki jacket that looked as though it had been lurking in the back of a wardrobe for the past 30 years. He said, helpfully, "I've got my scarf on. I don't know why. It's not cold."
He contemplated the scarf. He held the scarf at arms' length, and threw his head back. "I'm going for the Kiwi Dr Who look. Ha, ha! I saw a documentary on Dr Who the other night, talking about how much running went on.
Not so keen on that running stuff. What about Dr Who without the running? A golf cart would be nice. A wheelchair! Like Ironside!" It wasn't a bad Kiwi Dr Who impersonation - once you knew.
He was drinking cranberry juice because he was going to rehearsals after the interview. I said, "What a girly-looking drink." He said, pompously, "It is unfortunate." I don't know who he was impersonating there.
Why, I asked, thinking of the director's notes, did he think he'd been cast as Morrieson? There was a, ha, digressive answer which tackled that question not at all.
Anyway, he likes the idea of a character who "was from the wrong side of the tracks ... He didn't go to varsity, he didn't have any qualifications, he was considered a failure". (Morrieson achieved literary acclaim only after his death.)
Leigh grew up in a state house in Porirua. That is one of the few bits of what you might call biographical information I managed to get out of him. He said, "We didn't have a car. Neither of my parents drives. I don't drive either. It's genetic, obviously."
But why doesn't he drive? "I've given it a red-hot go. I suppose it's like piano, isn't it? You have to persist. It's hand to eye." Perhaps, I suggested, he was a bit unco-ordinated, which might be another way of saying that, the way his mind wanders, he'd be a danger on the roads. He thanked me for that kind thought but was saved from pursuing it by the arrival of lunch. "And I've got two plates. Oh. One's for Mr Doubleina." Who? "Mr Bob Doubleina. Mr Spirulina. Mr Green Spirulina." He means the photographer. Why is he calling him that? "I don't know! Why do I do anything?"
Did I mention that the best word to describe him would be digressive? He had another very important thought about driving: "It really cuts down on your drinking, too, you know."
I wondered about that cranberry juice. How much does he drink? "Oh, not that much, not these days." He's got better things to do. What things? "Learning my lines." He takes work seriously. "Well, you've got to take a job seriously, don't you?"
Does he not drink when he's working? This was beginning to look boringly like a linear line of questioning. He said, grandly, "I don't have any rules." He said, loopily,"I just do what I do, man. That's how John Ruuules. To quote one of our more famous luminaries."
He is a very good mimic (although perhaps his John Rowles needs a little finessing.) He does a terrific Sir Ian McKellen. "I did not travel 4000 miles to trade words with a witless worm!"
He did an exchange with Christopher Lee on a The Lord of the Rings set. "I said, 'I used to watch all your films'. And he said, 'Oh yes. And who are you playing?' I said, 'I'm playing Hama, he's a Rohan ...' And he said, 'I'm sorry to have to tell you that your character dies.' And I said, 'A lot of my characters seem to die.' He said, 'That happens to me, too - but what can you do?' and swept away."
That's a good story. You might have noticed it's not a story about him. I did try.
A sample attempt: Where did the idea of wanting to be an actor come from? He said, "Well, it wasn't really my idea!" He blames the actor and comedian Alan Brough, who told him he should come along to a capping revue at Victoria University. His family's idea of live performance was rugby league.
He talks about acting as though it still isn't really his idea, as if he has no idea how he ended up being an actor and that it has, just this minute, occurred to him that he is one. Being an actor is a strange job. "Tell me about it. It's a psychiatrist's field day, this profession." He put on a little play.
Actor: "I'm an actor."
Psychiatrist: "Oh, and why do you do that?"
Actor: "I like being other people."
Psychiatrist: "What's wrong with you?"
He lives on his own because, at 45 (he thinks, but is not entirely sure that he's 45) he's outgrown flatting - and you can see that the house might get rather full with all of those other people he likes being.
"You know, people's dreadful partners and their animals and leaving the top off the toothpaste. Well, I can do without that. I do enough of that myself. I have to leave notes to myself: 'You were very noisy last night. Keep it down. People are trying to sleep. Listen to me!' I don't listen to me."
I tried again about the acting. Why did he want to be an actor? "If I knew that, I wouldn't be one. I'd be cured."
He doesn't make enough money. "Don't be ridiculous. Look at me. I look like a homeless person." Perhaps his greatest claim to any degree of fame he'd be comfortable with was making the 2008 Metro Worst Dressed List.
"I came equal with Jonah Lomu, and that's the only time Jonah and I are going to be on a list together." He claims his mother "charitably" says he has a face like "a sack of spanners".
He says it's better to "look like a potato than Brad Pitt. That's good, because you can stick things on it. A moustache. A psychic third eye". I wasn't going to ask.
He was, of course, Lionel Skeggins, famed for his muffins, on Shortland Street. That was a long time ago but this I did have to ask: did playing Lionel make it easier or more difficult to get girls? "Ha, ha. Yes, and no. Once when you get them, they realise you're not the character."
I imagine that girls might have wanted to mother the character because he was a bit drippy. "I seemed to be more popular with older women."
I once wrote that Lionel had the sex appeal of a bran muffin. "Some people might have a thing for that." Not that I am mistaking him for Lionel. "But of course. I was merely the unfortunate vessel who contained him."
He said, "I don't want to be noticed, really. That cult of personality thing, I'm not that interested." He had other, more interesting things on his mind: the photographer's phone rang. "Ha, ha. The Imperial Death March from Star Wars!"
He pushed randomly at a few buttons on his phone. He was going to demonstrate his ring tone. "I don't know how it works really. I don't even own a computer. I'm pretty much a Luddite. I'm old! What am I looking for?" He was making an infernal racket.
To make him stop, I asked if he had a photo on his phone. (And, the mind boggles at what it could possibly be of.) "I've got one of those things they give you." It's a picture of a wheel. "I thought it was a piece of alien technology. But apparently it's just a hubcap. That's how my mind works, you see. I don't see what's in front of me. I see something else, that I want to see."
He said, "I've not told you anything, have I? Is there anything you can vaguely use? Just make up some good stuff!"
At the end of our hour (10 minutes or 10 hours with him would have provided pretty much the same result, I suspect), I asked a redundant question: Why might the publicist have pitched him with such a warning, did he think?
He said, "Well, you can't herd a cat. I think you can herd cats. It is true that my mind sort of hops around the place, looking for bright shiny things, like a magpie."
He said, "Thank you, my love. Always a pleasure." As an attempt to herd a menagerie it was always going to be a failure, but it was certainly a pleasure.
Horseplay is at the Maidment Theatre from next Thursday.
The publicist thought I might like an interview with the actor John Leigh. I would.