He’s best known for Outrageous Fortune but Antony Starr hopes to bust preconceptions with new projects.
A hint of a blush colours Antony Starr's face when I mention his well-deserved trophies for best actor and TV's sexiest man.
"To a certain extent it's flattering, but you can't put too much weight on it," he says of his sex-symbol status, distinctly awkward and a little abrupt for the first time during our interview at a Ponsonby cafe, where two ladies who lunch are trying (and failing) not to stare. It's not just Outrageous Fortune viewers whose pulses race when they see him.
The spotlight-shy Starr remains tight-lipped about adulation from female fans. One set up a Facebook page called "Antony Starr Rocks" ("For all of us who think he is wicked, would love to hang out with him, and have his babies"). Another baked a ginormous OF cake complete with a bed, figurines, Van's chain, tools and a Tool Guys van, and hand-delivered it to the set. He didn't know until now that it was especially for his birthday. "Really? That's more effort than anyone's ever gone to for my birthday!"
He lets slip that he has a partner, but no more probing, please. He's here to promote his latest projects, not his personal life. "I keep myself to myself pretty much. I'm not someone who gallivants around town looking for attention."
That's not to say he's anything but a model interviewee. Grounded and genial, articulate and cerebral, confident but in no way arrogant, this self-confessed geek takes his work seriously but not himself, as those who saw his hilarious cameo on The Jaquie Brown Diaries will know. He pauses to consider each question, not thinking of the most PC thing to say but the best way to say what he thinks. A bit of a philosopher at 34, he's nothing like the twins he plays on Outrageous - gormless stoner Van and ruthless cynic Jethro.
The final season is still screening - only three episodes to go - but filming wrapped in February, so Outrageous Fortune is long gone for Starr. And yes, it was time to call it quits. "Inevitably any series that goes on too long will reach a point where it starts struggling for ideas, so I've always been really aware of getting out while the going's good. I don't really want to be associated with something that you put your heart, your soul, your energy, your love into - and everyone loves what you've done - and suddenly it flips and they turn on you ... It's the last thing you want to happen. So I think it'll go out as it should. On a high."
After six seasons in the Wests' bosom, Starr has relished playing against type in recent projects. In upcoming TV One telefeature Spies and Lies, he plays charming conman Syd Ross who, in a little-known true story, pulled off the cheekiest of hoaxes in New Zealand history. In 1942, the government swallowed the ex-jailbird's tall tale about a Nazi plot to take over New Zealand. "He said there was a Nazi spy ring and he could infiltrate it if they gave him wads of cash and a really nice car," says Starr. Sending him to "spy central" Rotorua, the state effectively paid Ross to impersonate a captain, drink beer, stay at a flash hotel and romance a local lady while gathering "intelligence" for a paranoid major (played by Scottish actor John Sessions). Eventually, of course, the jig was up. "The whole fiasco made the government look so inept that they basically just hushed it up."
The part was a bit of fun after filming a heavy role in local drama After the Waterfall, which pulled full houses at the New Zealand International Film Festival. It will be released nationwide on November 4. In his first film lead, Starr plays John, a park ranger whose world and relationships collapse after the disappearance of his 4-year-old daughter, Pearl.
Watching the first few scenes, it's hard not to see Starr as Van or Jethro. "Yeah, I've got to get over the block around that. People do pigeonhole, so this film will remind the public there's more, not just to me - to any actor - than just one part." Indeed, 10 minutes in and you're only seeing John in a subtle but gut-wrenching portrayal of a grieving father stuck in a hellish limbo. "The film's a testament to the strength of the human spirit. How do you survive? How do you get through? How do you move forward? How do you live again without that eating you day and night?"
All were meaty questions that appealed to Starr. As did the question of why men (particularly Kiwi blokes) find it harder than women to express themselves and emotionally support each other - like John and his father, who inhabit separate bubbles in the same house. "Rather than tying everything up and putting a little ribbon on it, the film asks questions. It makes [the viewer] ask the question, makes you judge, and then examine your own judgment. I think that's one of the most important things films can do, and it's why I steer clear of popcorn films. I'm not really attracted to big, glossy, high-budget, style-over-content, meaningless shit."
During the film's genesis in 2004 - when Outrageous Fortune had not yet premiered and Starr was a lesser-known supporting actor - he couldn't understand why he scored the lead.
But award-winning writer/director Simone Horrocks knows why. "It was obvious that Antony had potential and x-factor to burn and, after meeting him once, we never looked at anyone else. As an actor, and as a person, Antony is generous, intuitive and demanding, both of the material, and of himself. Antony brought passion and dignity to a role that required him to take a deep dive into some very dark emotions then lead us back towards the light. The depth of his commitment raised the bar for everyone, myself included."
He wasn't involved just from action through to cut but swapped ideas and drafts with Horrocks over a five-year "slow burn". You could almost call him a creative consultant; Horrocks calls him a key collaborator.
"Collaboration is the best way to work. It's only way to work really," Starr says. "Everyone's there because they have a set of skills to offer across the board."
To get into John's headspace, Starr drew on the bond with his four nieces, and immersed himself in research about coping with a missing child. He admits he put a lot of pressure on himself to nail it.
"The pressure wasn't so much my ego - it was from dealing with very sensitive material. Missing kids. Unfortunately, it's much more common than you'd think."
It's not just the trickle of cases you see on the news: around 4000 children under 18 are reported missing each year. "During filming I kept thinking 'people who have lost kids will be watching this' and thank God some of the feedback from them has been really positive.
"These people never let go. It stays with them and they never get over it," says Starr. "They learn to live with it: it's the backpack of stones they carry round forever, but you learn to carry it alongside you as opposed to in front of you. You have to be able to live, and live with it, rather than it screwing up the rest of your life."
Most of what John feels is conveyed through expression, very little through words. "I'm a big fan of not wasting words," says Starr, who helped snip back the dialogue. "A lot of telly is verbal diarrhoea. I think I grunt out about six words in the whole film."
Not that he watched it for some time. "I get quite judgmental of myself, so I put it off for quite a while. Because we had such a short time to film it - five weeks - the temptation and the trap is to sit there and hammer yourself: 'I should have done this and that'. I don't know any people that like watching themselves. I prefer not to."
The process took its toll, and not just because John's beard three years on meant the scenes were shot in reverse order. "Being around that study of missing kids and broken families, people being lost and destroyed emotionally - it's pretty grim territory. You're constantly thinking about it. It was only afterwards that you actually look back and go 'aw, that was kind of excruciating'."
He burned himself out by sandwiching filming of Waterfall and Spies And Lies in the gap between seasons five and six of Outrageous Fortune. "It wasn't 'til well after that that the cracks started showing and I deflated a bit."
Re-energised now, he's been "sniffing round overseas" for work. This month, he slipped to the States, though he's staying mum on any specifics. "I don't have my crystal ball on me today. Na, I like not knowing, not trying to forecast it too much, 'cause there's that saying: 'How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.' I'm just trying to keep my little self to myself."
After The Waterfall is in cinemas from November 4. Spies and Lies is scheduled for TV One mid-November. The final episode of Outrageous Fortune airs on TV3 November 9.By Sarah Lang