Francis Kora has spent more than a decade in the unstoppable band of brothers that takes his family name - the mighty Kora. In that time, he has toured the world, headlined some of the country's biggest music festivals and notched up two top-selling albums, including 2012's Light Years, which debuted in the charts at number two.
But it's his starring role in his first feature film, The Pa Boys, that Kora counts as one of his most significant achievements. "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I've done some pretty cool things but this was one of the highlights," he says.
The film is the brainchild of writer, musician and filmmaker Himiona Grace, the son of novelist Patricia Grace, and enlists the help of acclaimed producer Ainsley Gardiner, the driving force behind Boy and Eagle vs Shark.
The spiritually powerful tale follows the fictional reggae band The Pa Boys on a North Island tour. As their journey unfolds, so do the complex issues of identity and belonging; life and death, all threaded together with stunning cinematography and heart-warming stopovers in small towns and pubs, in which locals blend in seamlessly with the cast and their raw tunes.
Kora plays band member Danny, a character many New Zealanders will identify with, he says. "He's from Wellington but he's originally from somewhere else and he doesn't know anything about those sides of himself; the Maori sides. Along the way, he discovers there is more to him than meets the eye," he explains.
Kora studied drama at Toi Whakaari after leaving high school, but he has only acted in a handful of roles since. He had always been fussy about storylines but says the message in The Pa Boys' script motivated him to get in touch with Grace. "It spoke to me. It had a strong wairua."
He doesn't recall auditioning, only doing a couple of read-throughs. A big risk, you'd think, casting a musician who's barely acted before, but Grace must have seen something special in Kora. And it's that special something; perhaps the energy and effortless ease in which he takes to the role of Danny, which will also strike viewers.
Kora wasn't nervous; nor did he have a grand plan as to how he'd approach the part. As soon as the cameras started rolling, he just went with the flow. "I've constantly thought about the process of creating. It's easy to do."
Plus, there's also a little bit of him - Fran Kora, the member of one of New Zealand's most-loved live musical acts - in Danny. "You kind of got the sense that Himiona wrote the parts for each one of us, which was special. Well, it felt like that in the end, how it adapted itself and gave us the freedom to be ourselves."
In fact, he says very little acting was required in the scenes where he and his band members, played by actors Matariki Whatarau and Tola Newbery, are performing to those who just happen to be in the pubs at the time.
"It was a pretty free-flow process. You had to catch it before they [the locals] got too drunk," he laughs. "And as soon as we cut, we'd start drinking with them. It wasn't like working at all, to be honest. It's a very human film, and that's why I enjoyed it. This is small town New Zealand. It's as real as it gets."
The journey takes the viewer from Wellington to Cape Reinga, taking in small settlements like Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay on the East Coast, Te Teko near Kora's hometown Whakatane and Ahipara in the Far North. But it's at Tuparoa, near Ruatoria, that Kora remembers with the greatest fondness. "That place is magic," he says. "We went up Mt Hikurangi and did some filming there too, which was pretty special."
Like the fictional band, the film's cast and crew travelled together, writing songs as they went, many of which made the final cut and the movie soundtrack under the guidance of Grace and TrinityRoots' front man Warren Maxwell.
"We wrote a couple of songs on the road because we felt that there was such a wairua about the whole thing. We all did everything together like a family," says Kora.
And true to the ethos of community spirit that runs through The Pa Boys, and as a way of giving back to those small-town New Zealanders who supported the cast and crew, the public was invited to enter an online competition for the chance to host the film's world premiere - an honour won by Te Poho-o-Rawiri Marae in Gisborne. For the rest of New Zealand, it will open on Waitangi Day.
Kora is pretty relaxed about how he will be perceived on the big screen. Some people might find it hard to see him as the "grump" he plays for much of the film but he can live with that.
He is unsure what lies ahead in his acting career. "I just want to tell more of our stories.
It's the stuff I want to put into my own solo work. Just playing it raw," he says.
The Pa Boys opens nationwide on February 6.