Michele Hewitson Interview: Ian Mune

By Michele Hewitson

Ian Mune says he waded into the Hobbit row because he felt it needed clarity among all the hysteria. Photo / Richard Robinson
Ian Mune says he waded into the Hobbit row because he felt it needed clarity among all the hysteria. Photo / Richard Robinson

Ian Mune has written his autobiography - called Mune: An Autobiography - and he suggested we meet at a cafe in Grey Lynn.

I couldn't miss it: "It sticks out like a dog's balls." He does enjoy a robust turn of phrase. He writes about the critical response to a production of Comedy of Errors: "The reviews are determinedly judicious, as if the reviewer has half a lemon inextricably caught in his dentures and the other half jammed firmly up his arse." This is from a chapter titled: My Arse in the Wind.

He said, magnanimously, "You can frame the questions." I said I'd give it a go. Both of us knew that I was doomed to failure. He chortled away, wheezily, at the prospect.

He once played Muldoon and it wasn't much of a stretch for him to reproduce that famous, sardonic laugh, although his own is kinder, more impish. He laughs, often - and this is something worth seeing because his face collapses in on itself, like watching a rockslide - usually at himself.

This laughing is a great relief. I have been worrying about him since I read the preface to his book. He was, he writes, "desperate for a buck from something, anything".

He proposed, to the publisher (Craig Potton Publishing), a calendar of photographs of ... gannets. Gannets? He saw people photographing the bird colony at Muriwai, and he thought: "'You've got it wrong, pal.' So I'd go down every dawn and I shot something like three and a half thousand photographs of gannets." You have to ask: What for? "Oh, they're just so beautiful and every now and then you get one and it's perfectly in focus ... and the colour on the dawn is wonderful. So I just thought I might be able to do a calendar of gannets."

He looked at my face, which I imagine must have looked pretty much like the publisher's face when he proposed the idea. He said, "well, I had to find something!"

That went down like a cup of cold (as he might say), so, perhaps a calendar of flowers? He takes thousands of photographs of flowers too. He walks every morning in the wonderful garden his wife, Jo, has made, with his mother - who died in 2006. They have a good chat and the telling of this is a lovely moment in his book.

Anyway, what about doing your autobiography? said the publisher. To which Mune said, or shouted, I bet: "I can't write my f***ing autobiography!" But why was that his response? "What do you say?" he said. He'd written 300 pages when the publisher dared to ask where he was up to.

The author said: "About halfway." After that initial reaction, of course, he couldn't shut up. "That's exactly right! That's the story of my life. Can't shut up."

I'm not about to argue with him. He was (another reason I was worrying about him) on Breakfast recently where Pippa Wetzell valiantly attempted to ask him questions about the Hobbit row and where he resolutely ignored the questions and launched into a bizarre retelling of the Henny Penny story: "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

This was, I said carefully, an interesting performance. Had he watched it? I wondered. He had, and when he got home, his wife said: "'Ian, you insulted that woman.'

I said, 'What woman? I didn't talk to her'." That might have been the point. "I just didn't want to answer her questions because a journalist, as you know ... they have a lot of questions." He was looking accusingly at my notebook. Well, yes Ian, we do have questions, I said.

"They address the story from the angle which interests them!" he said, shouting just a bit. Why the hell did he go on the show then? He says there was hysteria about the story and clarity was required. Somebody wondered, on the TVNZ website, whether he was drunk. He wasn't; it was in the morning but still ...

He doesn't care, and, really, why should he? "I've been in the business for 50 years and what's happening to these actors is appalling and it's been going on since day one and I'm sick of it. I'm too f***ing old to worry about [what people think of him]."

He'll be 70 next year. This thought seemed to cheer him up. He said, "Strangely, I've been offered more small parts in the last two years than in the last bloody 10 or 15. Oh, every now and then they want a senior player with authority or a senior player eccentric. And I can do both of those."

He may have come across as mildly eccentric on Breakfast. "I don't know. I got some wonderful emails and things on Facebook saying, 'go for it, Ian.' And one or two saying, not directly to me, but, 'mad old bastard.' Ha, ha, ha."

I was a bit surprised to hear he was on Facebook. I wasn't a bit surprised to hear that the first thing he posted was: "I do not want to know what you had for breakfast or what bar you're going to tonight. If you've got something interesting to talk about, let's hear from you. Otherwise, please don't bother."

I'd been living up to his idea about journalists by asking about his uncertain temper. This is all rot, according to him. According to him, he's "a pussycat".

Except, according to me, when he's being bad-tempered. "I'm not bad-tempered," he shouted. He said, glaring, "Have I been awful to you?" No, of course not, he was an absolute darling. The shouting's pure entertainment, like watching a sky rocket: all bang, whoosh and sparkles.

Still, I don't have to live with him. He has written about being "an arsehole" to his wife. They've been married for 50 years. He left her once, when he was about 30, for an English actress, whose name he won't reveal, but not a famous one. He was lucky his wife took him back.

"Oh, yeah. Utterly. Mind you, she's a hurter!" What does he mean? "I guess I was treating her like shit for a long time and she got sick of it and treated me like shit." Serves him right. "Totally!" Was that the only time he played up? "You do ask ..." Questions? Well, yes. He looked, desperately, to the photographer: "Can I ask her questions like that? I was fairly ... active."

I did wonder what his wife made of him putting this in the book. He hadn't, originally, but when he showed her an early draft, she said: "'Is that all your wife meant to you?' And I said, 'What?' because I thought I'd given her a good press, you know. But at that stage the book was very much about career things. And I said, 'You realise if I address this issue, I'm going to have to say things?' So that sort of opened the door, really, and gave me permission."

He writes too about going nuts, in 2006. His mother died and he couldn't get any of his film projects financed. One night he started banging his head against a wall (a literal reaction to the figurative banging against the wall of the Film Commission.)

He woke up the next morning to find his wife wasn't speaking to him and that he'd destroyed one of his paintings, her favourite, and smashed glass and ripped up books and broken chairs.

He was drunk. "Of course. I was an arsehole. I was putting things through windows." He and Jo went to therapy, where he addressed his self-destructiveness and he says he is now happy. He still drinks. "Far too much." He has cut down the fags though, to between 15 and 20 a day. You don't get any of that nonsense with him about not taking pictures while he's drinking and fagging.

Another glass of wine then? "You betcha." He winked and shouted at the photographer: "You cannot photograph a wink! A wink moves too quickly!" No. It would be like trying to photograph the way his mind works.

Reading the book is like hearing him speak, so of course it's funny. But I was still worrying about the money. I said it didn't seem right that he hasn't got any money. I meant because he's such a good actor and has done so much for film and TV.

But he said, "You mean I should have done something sensible with my money?" I didn't. But they did invest in goats - and then the bottom dropped out of goat farming.

"Well, it's my own fault all right." Oh, he doesn't care about money. "No, no, no." But he was so broke the year he proposed the gannet calendar that he'd made 30 per cent of what he needs to live on. He assured me he was all right, for the moment - he's making a film doco about Billy T. James.

I asked who his book was for and he said, "I suspect the book is for people who come up and say hello. They regard me as a piece of the landscape, a piece of their landscape." That must be lovely.

"It's wonderful. Not in the sense of being a famous person, but in the sense of being a New Zealand person."

Of course - because he has a horror of being thought up himself - he also told a story about a mad bag lady in Gisborne who insisted that he was "that Ian Munge". He said, "No, I'm not actually. I know I look like him. Other people have mistaken me for him.' And she said, 'That's all right then because he's a useless bugger, that Ian Munge."'

He may well be a grumpy bugger too, that Munge character, for all I know.

As for Ian Mune, he is a piece of our landscape: A craggy, wonderful, occasionally explosive, endearingly eccentric one.

- NZ Herald

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