Julian Dennison talks working with Taika Waititi

By Helen Barlow

The young star of Taika Waititi's latest is ready for his close-up.

Julian Dennison is about to become world famous in New Zealand. This week, the outgoing Wellington 13-year-old, who stars in Taika Waititi's latest offering, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, was at the Sundance Film Festival world premiere of the film alongside the director and co-stars Sam Neill and Rhys Darby.

Waititi's adaptation of the Barry Crump story is Dennison's third feature after his debut in Shopping, and a role in Australian film Paper Planes. TimeOut caught up with him after the big night ...

After Shopping, you were in Paper Planes and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople. How did that happen?

Taika asked me to do Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2014 and I was like, "Yeah I am keen, I'd really enjoy it". I didn't have to audition. It was quite cool. He saw me in Paper Planes and we'd also done a commercial quite a while ago for drug driving.

Did you know about Barry Crump?

I knew he was a New Zealander. My dad reads his books and he was a very cool man, apparently. He was into hunting and the outdoors. We met his son on set and he talked about all of the adventures his dad had.

Read any of the books?

No, I was going to read Wild Pork and Watercress, the book that this film is based on, but I got the script and couldn't at the time so my dad read it and told me about it. He said it was a really good book, he said I would enjoy making the film and that he has quite a lot of different sorts of books.

Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker and Sam Neill as Uncle Hec in a scene from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Photo / Kane Skennar
Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker and Sam Neill as Uncle Hec in a scene from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Photo / Kane Skennar

Making the film was the acting like work or was it more like playing?

I feel like I am acting but Taika really made it feel like we weren't working, we were having fun. He was really good at doing that and at helping me focus because it's only my first lead in a film. Sam, who's a big Hollywood actor, really helped me focus on what I was doing and helped me with acting skills. He once told me that "acting is pretending to be someone else but really meaning it". That really stuck with me and I was like "wow, this actually meant something". It was great working with Sam and just being around him, seeing how he adapts to the character and how he finds his inner Uncle Hec and how I found my inner Ricky.

This is going to be your big movie, your Boy in a way.

Yeah, this is one of my biggest commitments to film work.

How did that make it different?

It was a lot more time on set and a lot more practising lines but it was also cool being more involved with the film and meeting everyone, the cast and crew and just having fun.

There must have been a responsibility given that you are the lead. Was that scary?

Yeah I sort of felt like I had a responsibility that I had to be there for Taika and also for the cast. I was 12 when we filmed it and I am 13 now. We were in the snow and in the rain, we were out in the elements so it was sort of hard for me at times but yeah, we had some hot food in the wet and we just got into it.

Actor Julian Dennison and writer/director Taika Waititi from the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Photo / WireImage
Actor Julian Dennison and writer/director Taika Waititi from the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Photo / WireImage

What do you think about Taika directing Thor? Is he going to be good at it?

Yeah, I actually enjoyed the Marvel series. I watch it with my mate so I hope it's good. I feel like Taika will do a good job. He is in the big Hollywood movies now.

Would you like to be in big Hollywood movies too?

I sort of want to. I would like to be an actor but I really would like to be a director of feature films. That's what I want to be when I grow up. I want to make films.

What tips are you getting from Taika?

I haven't really gotten tips but I've seen how he's handled it. You've got to be able to stay awake for a long time.

Dennison's face may look familiar for another reason, the young actor also appeared in a New Zealand television advert about drug driving.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens in New Zealand on March 31.

Helen Barlow

- TimeOut

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