Tim Balme: taking the lead

By Rebecca Barry Hill

From zombie killer to Norse god, Tim Balme has had a busy career, on both sides of the television camera. He tells Rebecca Barry about juggling these roles.

Multi-talented actor, director, and head of development at South Pacific Pictures, Tim Balme. Photo / Greg Bowker
Multi-talented actor, director, and head of development at South Pacific Pictures, Tim Balme. Photo / Greg Bowker

Tim Balme has an unusual vice.

"I swear, it's good. I've got shitloads of it," he enthuses. "Because I don't smoke and I don't particularly drink, so I needed to find some substance that keeps me ... calm."

The actor, writer and bigwig at South Pacific Pictures, the same guy who straddled a motorbike in his leather jacket in Shortland Street and who said out loud the lines he'd written for himself as the dodgy Quentin Bates on Outrageous Fortune, gets high on choral music.

We're at his Pt Chevalier home and harmonised voices singing angelic hymns by Italian composer de Morales fill the room. It the kind of thing you'd expect to hear at a Norse god's house, which makes sense as Balme is returning to the screen after a four-year hiatus, to play such a deity on the upcoming TV3 show, The Almighty Johnsons. He discovered the music last year during a stressful time at work. A friend had it on and he became hooked.

Still, it seems a bit of an oxymoron. Balme is naturally calm, padding around the living room in bare feet as a storm rages outside.

"I don't subscribe to stressing out. It doesn't tend to help."

Two of his three kids, Edie, 9, and Nikau, 5, were meant to fly south to stay with their grandparents but the weather meant their flights were cancelled (Sam, 23, is on his OE). So today Balme is playing dad and boss, and dealing with a constantly ringing cellphone. Someone needs him in the studio urgently (he's a sought-after voiceover artist and narrator). Twice, it's his wife, director Katie Wolfe, calling from the Sundance film festival in Utah.

"I had my day all planned," he tells her, sounding not in the least rattled, "then everything changed."

You could say the same about his career. Much of it took even Balme by surprise, from his early days at acting school to where he is now, involved in almost every facet of the TV business. As Head of Development at SPP, the production company behind (among other shows) Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls and Shortland Street, he's in a powerful position, in charge with keeping ideas bustling through from conception to screen. This on top of making The Almighty Johnsons, his almightiest undertaking yet. It's the first time he's had a lead role both behind and in front of the camera. Balme plays Mike, the eldest of four "ordinary" Kiwi brothers who just happen to be descended from Norse gods. With a messy past involving the abuse of his powers, it's up to him to keep his younger brothers in check.

The show comes from the reliable Outrageous Fortune creative team of Rachel Lang and James Griffin. Balme had worked as a writer on Outrageous so it was a "no-brainer", says Lang, that he'd also work as a storyliner and scriptwriter on this too.

Fans of the down-to-earth West family might wonder just how ordinary these blokes really are but Balme isn't letting fear of the unknown unnerve him.

"It's a risky premise," he says. "It's hard to get your head around: how is that going to be funny and entertaining?"

The key similarity, he says, is that the story revolves around family. Once we've warmed to this new brood of outsiders, including Mike the married builder, (and also the brother who gets all the swear words, at least in the first episode) Balme is hopeful New Zealand audiences will embrace it as "something fresh".

"There's no point trying to make something the same or even similar [to Outrageous]. That way lies madness."

What wasn't such a no-brainer was casting Balme in the show. Having helped to write the characters, he'd come to know Mike better than anyone. After a fruitless search to find an actor capable of inhabiting the guy he'd nicknamed "Cheer-up-Mike", Balme took on the role.

"For me to go back to acting, I wasn't going to take on something I didn't really want to do. I wasn't going to do it for the hell of it. But I really liked the story."

Lang and Griffin had to persuade the powers that be at SPP that Balme, who already had a lot on his plate, was the best choice.

"He's an incredibly hard worker," says Lang. "He's multi-talented. He doesn't just play a god, he is a god."

Balme's rise to power started out in an ungodly fashion, with the lead part as a zombie killer in Peter Jackson's splatstick horror, Braindead. Not your typical leading man role, it nonetheless catapulted him from Toi Whakaari drama graduate to international cult star, particularly in Germany where the fans were almost as fervent as the zombies.

"He was a brilliant young actor," says SPP producer Simon Bennett, who has known Balme since they went to drama school together in the mid-80s. He remembers Balme as a confident young student, equally at home as frontman of the band Toys in the Attic as he was on stage. "He was always head and shoulders above everyone else as a performer. Everyone knew he'd go a long way."

This, despite some of his peers thinking the Tauranga teen was "delusional" for choosing acting. New Zealand in the 80s had little in the way of a television industry. Until Shortland Street. In 1994 Balme landed a part as the lanky-haired, kinda sleazy Greg Feeney, often seen straddling a motorbike. The five-year gig gave him experience and confidence and helped to validate the work he and his peers were doing.

"When he was playing Greg Feeney, I was at the bank and there was this guy over at the counter and I thought, 'ooh he looks dodgy', he had that kind of look about him," says Lang. "He's quite a chameleon."

He progressed from dodgy guy to cop, as Ken Wilder in Mercy Peak, winning Best Supporting Actor for the role at the TV Awards in 2002. Then he returned to the dark side, playing a convicted murderer in Stuart McKenzie's 2003 movie For Good.

But Balme has never been content just to rest on acting. In the mid-90s he decided to take control of his career by creating roles for himself and setting up a production company with Wolfe.

They successfully toured the theatre productions Blue Sky Boys, in which he and Michael Galvin (Shortland Street) played the Everly Brothers, a chance to show off his musical talent. He also wrote and starred in the one-man show The Ballad of Jimmy Costello, which toured the country and was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival.

"I don't think I'm a control freak," he says, adding that he would've had to direct it as well to fit that bill. "I just had a desire to tell the story and generate some work."

He and Wolfe later co-founded the New Zealand Actors' Company with Simon Bennett and Robyn Malcolm. The company put on several high-profile productions that toured the country. Midsummer Night's Dream and Roger Hall's A Way of Life were successes. But their third production, Leah - a feminine adaptation of King Lear - bombed. It turned out to be a "life-changing wake-up call", says Bennett, that would eventually lead them in separate directions. Only Malcolm stuck with acting. Wolfe moved into directing, Bennett to directing and producing and Balme looked to writing. By the time he'd wrapped filming episodes of Mataku and Maddigan's Quest, he was ready for a change anyway.

"I used to find it quite frustrating that large parts of your day as an actor is sitting around on your arse, waiting. That's just the reality of how you make film and TV. I felt like my life's kind of ticking away here. I was hitting 40, thinking, 'do I really want to be mincing around the dressing room, waiting to go on set?"'

Writing, on the other hand, felt proactive and exciting. He'd already dabbled a bit, having written a screenplay based on Jimmy Costello that Lang and Griffin had read and liked. Balme was first invited to join the writing team on the crime series Interrogation. Deciding he had the right "Westie sensibility" that would allow him to slot in as a writer on Outrageous Fortune, they took a punt and employed him as a storyliner on the show in Season 2, just as it was beginning to take off as a viewer favourite.

"I was just an apprentice and it was fantastic, what a great opportunity, what a gift," says Balme. "I went in with eyes and ears wide open and drank it up."

When he wasn't storylining with Lang and Griffin, he spent the best part of four years locked away in a little office on K. Rd, writing.

"I'm quite good at being on my own. My brothers had all left home, so I grew up on my own a lot and I got used to that. I quite liked the autonomy of running my own day, I'm disciplined like that. If you can't get your arse in the chair it never gets done. I did realise I'd been living a slightly reclusive existence for a while. Maybe it's quite a healthy option to come out."

"Tim has a great sense of comedy," says Bennett. "He's very good at setting up and delivering the gag from a technical point of view. But because he's such a good character actor, he can get under the skin of the characters he writes. And he can articulate very distinctive character voices. All of his characters sound like themselves, not like him or anyone else. They're very clear and vivid."

Around the time he discovered the calming properties of Morales, Balme was also working on the screenplay for the telemovie Stolen: The Baby Kahu Story. He'd also agreed to star in the Auckland Theatre Company production of Horseplay, (directed by Bennett) in which he would play James K. Baxter, and was co-writing episodes of Diplomatic Immunity with Griffin. With Wolfe busy too, working on the short film This is Her (the one that sent her to Sundance), the couple were grateful they had their long-term nanny, Mandy, to rely on.

"It was insane," says Balme. "I was the Norse god of juggling."

On top of his creative exploits, in February last year Balme took on his first office job after Chris Grist stepped down as SPP's head of development. "I had to learn about things like holiday pay, and taking leave and things like that. I'd never had personal experience of it. What I love most is they pay the ACC bill. That's a huge deal."

The job means he's in the curious position of being on several sides of the creative process, simultaneously keeping an eye out for potential new series, while working on new shows - the latest include new series of Go Girls and the upcoming TV One comedy-drama, Nothing Trivial.

All of which means there's the potential for a conflict of interest in that projects Balme is directly involved with might end up competing to get the go-ahead. It also means the dynamic with his former mentors Lang and Griffin has changed. He is now their boss.

"I made a conscious choice that I didn't want to divvy up anything on my own because that would be difficult and potentially problematic," says Balme of the pitches that come his way.

It might seem like a move away from what he does best, a position that offers security rather than creativity, but Balme says the opportunity knocked and he took it.

"Local television has never been better. The local drama scene has never been so fully embraced by the public. From a development point of view, we're really lucky to be at a time where the networks aren't freaked out about local content, they know it's not a waste of money. Now it's a case of, 'hey what's the next best local show we can get from you guys?' because people are watching."

Those who know him say Balme is diplomatic and level-headed. And with so much experience in the industry, it's not such a surprise he should end up in the role.

"He's modest, believe it or not. If there's an ego there it never rears its ugly head," says Bennett.

However, Balme found himself in a unique position when Actors Equity, the union he had been a part of throughout his career, got into the centre of an industrial relations spat with Peter Jackson over The Hobbit. As a producer and an actor, Balme was an employee and an independent contractor at the same time. He says he has "huge respect" for Jackson, having worked with him on Braindead.

"I don't think it was a very well considered plan at all," he says, keen to distance himself from the union.

The spat hasn't affected his friendship with the likes of Robyn Malcolm, he says - they've agreed to disagree. But he elected not to speak out, as he felt no good would come of someone in his position adding his bit.

Perhaps he could've calmed stress levels by playing a bit of choral music? Or amped things up with something else?

"I could very well be playing The Clash," he laughs of today's choice of soundtrack. "I like to orchestrate the mood."

The Almighty Johnsons shows on Mondays at 9.30pm, on TV3.

- NZ Herald

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