Michele Hewitson interview: Mick Innes

He fell into acting and is seldom out of work and now the actor is taking his helter-skelter life on to the stage.

Funny things seem to happen to the actor Mick Innes and a funny thing happened on his way to meet me. The minute I arrived, he said: "I don't mind if you put this in. It's funny!"

The funny thing was that, as he was walking along Queen St: "Twing! And I thought: 'What's wrong?"' The elastic of his boxer shorts had snapped, just like that: Twing! He said: "'And I thought: 'Oh, this is not fair!"' He said, merrily: "My life has been a series of mishaps."

I thought that those boxers might not have owed him anything; he was wearing a shirt which plainly didn't. Those boxers were quite new! he said. I'll take his word for it.

He will turn 60 on the 28th of this month and as a sort of birthday gift he is giving himself a play. It is called Zen Dog: Hazy Recollections from the Life of Mick Innes, and it is about his life and his 30-year career as an actor.

He is the sort of actor whose face you almost recognise but can't quite place, which is the ideal degree of recognition for an actor, he reckons.

Unlike most actors, he doesn't and never has craved fame nor, particularly, fortune - although his can be a hard-scrabble life at times. On Thursday he figured he had 14 cents in his bank account, a discovery which distressed me much more than it did him. He'd come in on the bus to meet me. How would he get home? I had a fiver. Would he like it? Oh, no, he said, he had a fiver of his own in his pocket and he said, kindly, to make me feel better, he'd likely have some money by the weekend. He was owed some for bits of work. He wasn't worried; he'd paid the rent; he always manages to pay the rent. He went on the dole, briefly, earlier in the year but he didn't like it so he told Winz to take him off. It's more exciting, he said, not having money.

He has the sort of face invariably described as lived-in - it owes him a bit more than that shirt - but with amazingly clear and clever hazel eyes. He says he used to be 1.7m, but, hmm. I'll have to take his word for that too. He says he got his mother's genes, in the height department. She is 1.4m and is 81, and is, I'll bet, the only person who ever calls him Michael.

"Whenever I swear, she says: 'Michael'." She must have spent the better part of 60 years saying "Michael".

He was waiting for me on Queen St and he was wearing sunglasses with bright blue frames (he got them for two bucks and loves them), that shirt, and a jacket which might have been black had it not been covered in a fine greyish fluff. There were balls of this fluff in his beard. This was intriguing, but how to bring it up? He said, indicating the jacket and, actually, the rest of him: "I've got a cat. As you can tell." I said: "Is that cat hair in your beard? I thought it was dust balls!"

Really, don't make him laugh. He has to give up the fags. When he'd stopped coughing he said: "I wake up sometimes and he's sleeping on my head! He's a Maine Coon. Nine kilos. He's a small one."

The cat's name is Chips Rafferty, (never shortened to Chips) after the Australian actor, which must be entertaining for the neighbours when he's being called for his breakfast. The cat and the actor live together in Birkenhead, in "a cave", or granny flat attached to a mate's house. It goes without saying, really, that he doesn't own a house. "I don't own a door knob!" His cave is full of stuff he finds on the sides of roads and falls in love with. He used to have a lovely couch (until you-know-who scratched it up.) He saw it sitting in the sun, on the side of a road, with a sign on it saying: Take Me! So of course he did.

He believes in, if not signs exactly, then things happening at the right times. Chips Rafferty turned up at his door a little over five years ago, starving, and stayed. He is about 16 and the vet told him that he would have been worth thousands, as a kitten. Innes had never had an animal before, but he adores Chips Rafferty and thinks he's "made me a better person. Just by having to look after him".

He doesn't quite believe in spirits either, but: "I love the spiritual life. I'll tell you something interesting, and I don't mind if you print this! One of the last things, Jedda, my wife, said to me, she said: 'When I die, a wild cat will turn up at your place.' She had this thing about wild cats. Aboriginal people have a thing about animals." Chips Rafferty turned up two days after she died, although Innes didn't learn of her death until two weeks later. He had fled Australia and the marriage and was hiding out in New Zealand. "Well, one of us would have killed the other and I think it might have been her that killed me. She had more guts than me." As it, tragically, turned out, she killed herself.

He couldn't talk about any of this for a long time but now he has the cat, and has visited her grave and he feels he's made the peace with her that he didn't get to make with her while she was alive.

He doesn't believe the cat is her spirit but - "and now, this is no lie!" - after he'd had the cat for three weeks and realised it was his, he asked friends what you do with a cat and they said, well, you'd better worm him. So he went to the supermarket and there was "a wall" of worming pills and he asked a "lovely little elderly lady" he met in the worming aisle for advice, and she said, "is it a big cat or a little cat?" and he said a big cat and she chose an appropriate box and he bought it. At home, he looked at the box. "They came from Australia: Preston, Jedda Rd. Isn't that weird? Now, I could say that's a coincidence but I'd rather say: 'I like that'. If it's a coincidence, it's a lovely coincidence!"

It is, but that is probably enough about the cat (this was my fault, not his, although we could probably both have talked about the cat for much longer - did you know that Maine Coons sing? Well, they do. Operatically, apparently). We had better get to the Zen Dog.

The Zen Dog is him, but it is also a dog on a greetings card, which has the message: He knows not where he's going, for the ocean will decide; it's not the destination, it's the glory of the ride.

He likes that. So the show is about his journey to 60 and having made it.

He just fell into acting; he never went to acting school, and he's seldom been out of work, even if he doesn't get the big parts.

In NZ he's been in Hounds, Sunny Skies, SuperCity and has played three different homeless alkies in Shortland Street. He's the voice of Hammer Hardware and: "I just love it!"

He's never done a day's DIY in his life, a fact which makes him laugh his head off.

He has made it, if not in the way that actors usually measure having made it by. His friends used to bet that he wouldn't make 30, then that he'd never make 40. "Now the bets are off!" he said, in a entirely understandably triumphant way. He tells a story about once going to pick up a cousin from an AA meeting in Rangiora, where his mother's family come from. The meetings were held in a hall which also hosted Narcotics Anonymous, Al-anon, you name it. "It was like going to a family reunion!" He is always getting cast as alkies, although he hasn't had a drink in years. "I think they look at it that I've done a lot of workshopping." You could say that. He's done nine detoxes, mostly involving checking himself into "drunk tanks" in Australia. He thinks his drinking almost certainly hurt his career. He once heard that somebody asked an agent if he'd be available and they asked how long he was wanted for. Three days? He might be all right for a couple, was the answer. He was a wild youth, and has the home-made tats to show it. "I was a rebel without a clue." Still, no regrets. "No. I don't have regrets. I can't afford them!"

In the show he'll tell stories about what happened to him along that way, and also he will "take the piss" out of himself, and other characters, including Martin Henderson. "Just in a lovely way."

He calls him Marty and he is a great friend. He played Marty's father on an Australian series, Echo Point, and everywhere he went in Australia people would point and say: "Oh, look! There's the hunk's dad!" He once picked up his first wife, and her teenage daughters, from the airport in Sydney in Marty's car because he had only a small car and Marty said take mine, it's bigger. He had no idea what a huge star Marty was in New Zealand and when the teenage girls found out whose car they were in, they started squealing: "Oh my God! This is Martin Henderson's car!" So he phoned Marty and said: "'I've got a job for you, brother.' And he came over and took them out for dinner and he was really lovely and charming and that meant a lot to me because I saw what it meant to the two kids."

It says a lot about him that his stories are all about other people. (I told him Chips Rafferty seemed to have taken over this column; he was delighted.) As for the money. Pah. Where is the magic in money? Once he was in Perth, skint, picking butts out of the ashtray and his agent phoned and said: "'There's a car picking you up at 3pm and taking you to the airport. You've got a part in Dingo. Miles Davis was in that film ... So at one o'clock that afternoon I was rolling bumpers out of the ashtray and by 9 o'clock that night I was ... in the outback, sitting outside a motel room, smoking a big joint, listening to Miles Davis playing his trumpet in the motel room. So that's the kind of stuff my life has been made up of. And I remember thinking: 'I love this job'."

So his one-man show will be a love story of sorts. An ode to his funny, sad, mad life doing a job he loves. If it is anything like him - and how could it not be? - it will be well worth 20 bucks, the price of a ticket or entrance to a strangely magical life.

* Zen Dog: Hazy Recollections from the Life of Mick Innes, directed by Roberto Nascimento, is at the Basement Theatre, from November 25 to 30, at 7pm.

- NZ Herald

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