Michele Hewitson interview: Temuera Morrison

By Michele Hewitson

The Kiwi actor is set to make a very physical comeback next week as Jake the Muss ... in the boxing ring

After starring in Shortland Street, Tem Morrison got to Hollywood, saw the way studios were run, the money involved and the stories about the stars and thought, "This is serious!''  Photo / Greg Bowker
After starring in Shortland Street, Tem Morrison got to Hollywood, saw the way studios were run, the money involved and the stories about the stars and thought, "This is serious!'' Photo / Greg Bowker

Good old Tem, is what you tend to think about Temuera Morrison. He's only 53, actually, but haven't we known him for a long time? Hence that name "Tem", which is how everyone thinks of him, because we do think we know him. This would be a good trick, if he was the tiniest bit tricky, which he isn't. Still, it lets him get on with being good old Tem, who everyone loves (except for at least one ex; he's never been that flash at relationships). He's a top bloke; easy-going; no airs and graces; a good teller of yarns - about other people mostly; he has walk-on parts in his own stories.

The trouble with Tem, from the interviewer's point of view, is that you sit down with him, and he is easy-going, no airs and graces, a bit of a clown, he tells you his yarns while you look at his nice and interesting face and off you go, happy. Then you transcribe your interview and you realise how good he is at not telling you anything very much about anyone but good old Tem, that guy we all think we know.

I have interviewed him before, in 1998, and he was just the same then - engaging and wholly amiable but somehow elusive, I thought.

Now I think he simply isn't - unusually for an actor - much given to self-examination. Also, he can give the impression of not exactly exerting himself. He doesn't have to; he has a natural and easy charm, the curse of which can be that it looks as though you're not trying hard enough. He is an unusual actor. I had an idea about him which was that perhaps people think he doesn't take acting seriously enough; that it's a bit of a lark; that he's always just playing good old Tem. That's a funny thing to put to an actor and more precious ones would have got the pip. But he said: "There was a lot of that." He once talked about "hands in pockets" acting, on Shortland Street. But then he got to Hollywood and saw the ways the studios were run, and the money involved and "trucks for five miles down the road" and the stories about the stars and he realised, "this is serious!"

Trust him to be struck by lines of trucks! He has said that he's been naive, in some of his work choices (we won't mention Barb Wire - because what red-blooded male wouldn't have leapt at the chance to be in a movie with Pamela Anderson?). There is still a wide-eyed naivety about him which is attractive, but does make you despair rather on his behalf. I spent quite a bit of the interview coming up with ideas for what he could do next. He can sing. A record? "Yeah! An LP!" A one-man stage show? "I could do that!"

He was indulging me. But he is attempting to reinvent himself. That bloody Jake Heke. He was still, just a few years ago, talking about being haunted by Jake; he said he might have to have some sort of spiritual cleansing to get rid of him. But now he just brushes this off: "I've been over him for years. I'm way over him." It's possible he was just indulging his interviewer then. He does that sort of thing. He says what he thinks people want to hear. He just says things and then gets in trouble for "shooting my mouth off". Well, to a point. He never says anything particularly revealing but he does say some daft things - which is perhaps revealing in itself.

"I've gone and said yes to this boxing!" He really didn't think that one through. If you can believe him, he failed to realise that boxing means getting punched. "Where's my stunt guy?" He also failed to realise that saying yes to being one of the celebrity boxers on the undercard of the Joseph Parker versus Afa Tatupu title fight on October 10 meant that he'd be fighting as Jake the Muss. "I opened the Sunday News and ... oh, no! It's Jake the Muss!"

Tem, Tem, Tem! I said Tem, Tem, Tem! a number of times over an hour. He's trying to reinvent himself and he signs up for a boxing match. What was he thinking? "I shoot myself in the foot all the time."

He does. He was supposed to be fighting radio personality Mike Puru and went on the radio and sprouted a load of nonsense about fighting a gay guy. "Oh, I say some stupid things sometimes." Was he trying to be blokey? "Just clowning around. I dread it when I hear it back. I'm too honest and I'm too spontaneous."

He is now not fighting Mike Puru, who ended up with two black eyes after a training session. He said: "Did you see Puru?" He looked appalled and terrified. I don't think he was acting.

He says yes to things all the time and they are sometimes things which make you go: Tem, Tem, Tem! He must drive his agent insane. He likes to be liked and so he says yes. He is not really supposed to be talking to me, at least not on his own - because of his tendency to go shooting his mouth off, presumably. I'm pretty sure he hasn't cleared this interview with TVNZ who will be screening his reality show at a date I am not allowed to reveal. I did ask and they did tell but I am not allowed to tell. I told him this and he said: "What did they say?" Well, I'm not allowed to tell. "Just so I know!" It's confidential! "I won't tell anyone!" It is his show, so I wrote it on a piece of paper and now he'll probably go and tell everyone and we'll both be in trouble for shooting our mouths off.

But how could I not tell him? He had driven all the way from Rotorua (he got changed into a not very macho boxer's shirt - it has flowers embroidered all over it - on the side of the road: "Five minutes ago I had my Rotorua rags on."). We met for lunch but he had a stomach ache and was training later but: "You have a glass of wine." He is sweet and generous and he didn't want to be having lunch with me at all. He wanted to be at home with his mum who is 81 and who had a stroke on Sunday. It was a small stroke but, obviously, a big worry. So it was kind of him to keep our lunch date. He said: "I remember speaking to a minister, Canon Wi Huata, he spent a lot of time in World War II, and a lot of the dying soldiers said: 'Say goodbye to Mum.' We're all mummy's boys."

He said, three minutes after sitting down: "I'm just a simple man trying to make his way in the universe." That, of course, is his famous line from Star Wars, Attack of the Clones, and a much tittered at line it is too. I wasn't going to use it, but see how obliging he is? He gets in first so that you don't have to. But he actually likes the line. "I love that line!" Does he really? "You're just a simple journalist trying to make your way in the universe! It's that simple."

I was just a simple journalist trying to ask him some questions. He has an interesting way of answering questions which makes you think he has answered until, much later, you realise he answered ... something which bore little resemblance to whatever it was you asked.

God knows what his reality show will be like. Pretty funny, I hope. He is funny, in his laid-back way. He says it is about his life, day to day, and that he is "vulnerable" in it. A vulnerable clown, then. I hope it is an enormous success because enormous success has somehow eluded him. He went to Hollywood after Warriors. "It opened doors in Hollywood and when the doors opened and I came through, they were always looking up ... And then they'd look down!" They were expecting Jake who was 6ft 2in (he wore stacked boots and couldn't get into character without them) and puffed up with beer and rage; he is 5ft 8in and lean. I'm sure he told me the last time I saw him that he was 5ft 7in! "I grew. An inch."

He is just back from L.A. where he did some auditions and waited for his agent to call. "And then you see your agent's called and you get excited and he's talking about his car! 'Do I want to go for a drive on the weekend in his new Porsche?"'

That's a funny story but what a dispiriting career acting can be. "Yes, it's a strange life. And sometimes I think: 'Oh, I wish I just had a nice job where you're getting a salary.' Just sometimes. But it's the career I've chosen." He had the big flash place in Rotorua but he had to sell it. Did he mind much? He just shrugged. These things happen. I wondered if he worried about money: Was he a worrier? That was an irresistible cue. "Once were worriers!"

What you see probably really is what you get. He says he's still the guy on the end of the tea towel in the kitchen of his marae in Rotorua. Don't they know he's a famous actor? They do, of course, but the kuia are not impressed. "Nah! Not at all." He told me a funny story about popping in to a tangi to pay his respects, on his way to catch a flight to L.A. None of the elders had yet arrived so he was ordered to sit on the paepae, and Stay There, until they arrived. Bugger his flight to L.A. He did as he was told. He usually does, because he's good old Tem, still the same, after all these years of making his precarious way - and that is somehow a heartening thing to know.

• The Hydr8 ZERO Explosion Parker vs Tatupu title fight is at the Trusts Stadium, Auckland, on Thursday, October 10.

- NZ Herald

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