Spiderweb of fame

Kiwi actor Daniel Gillies left New Zealand three years ago, frustrated at the lack of a star system. He ended up scoring a major role in 'Spider-Man 2', playing opposite Kirsten Dunst. REBECCA BARRY reports


Daniel Gillies is pretty proud of his flower arrangement, a vase of roses sitting on the table of his LA home, just north of the Sunset Strip. The place, with its flourishing garden and equally beautiful housemate - Gillies' fiancee, American actress Rachael Leigh Cook - is luxury compared with the homes, couches and floors he has dossed on in the past few years.

The 28-year-old former Hamiltonian plays astronaut John Jameson, Tobey Maguire's nemesis and Kirsten Dunst's new love interest in Spider-Man 2. The first of Sam Raimi's comic action blockbusters took more than US$800 million at the international box office, making it the 10th-highest grossing movie of all time. It turned indie actor Maguire into a star.

Filming finished a year ago but now the former bit-playing actor in New Zealand television drama Street Legal is working his way through a swag of promotional phone interviews, trying to rustle up the enthusiasm he felt when he was cast in his first major film role.

He is a hard nut to crack. One minute he is friendly and charming, discussing his friendship with fellow Kiwi expat Martin Henderson, his co-star in the upcoming Bollywood-influenced Bride & Prejudice.

"Yeah, he's having a house warming and he wants me to come over but the son-of-a-bitch never leaves his number and so I've got his old number of his ex-girlfriend so it's awkward."

The next, he is fiery and blunt. "I've had about 20 interviews with Australian magazines in the last two days," he says. "And they're like, 'You realise we're going to claim you as an Aussie?' And I'm like, 'Well, [expletive] don't'."

Gillies prides himself on being Kiwi, he says, despite leaving New Zealand in 2001, frustrated, to pursue his acting dream elsewhere. Just two years later he found himself on the enormous Spider-Man 2 set, kissing Kirsten Dunst.

"Oh man, she's a sweetheart," he sighs. "Like, really mellow and really easy and uncomplicated and disciplined without being boring. A really amazing work ethic and she's someone who stood by you, too.

"There were days when there were questions I wasn't sure I was permitted to ask and obviously she has a hell of a lot more status and punch on a set like Spider-Man. She would just ask them, sometimes on my behalf, which was really flattering and helpful and wonderful."

What sort of questions? I inquire, surprised when I am shot down.

"I'd rather not talk about those," he says abruptly, then goes on to answer me anyway. "In something of this magnitude, now and again you'll turn up to a set and everything you worked for, everything you believe the scene is, is gone. It's just gone. And then they'll be like, 'We're actually filming this now'. And it's an entirely different scene. You might have had a page of dialogue and now you don't have a line. And Kirsten would ask those questions."

Gillies still is not convinced he should have answered that one: "That's not necessarily strictly true so I don't want you to quote me verbatim on that."

Okay. Perhaps it's easier to get to grips with Gillies by studying his resume. He was acclaimed in numerous Auckland Theatre Company productions and played the third wheel on Street Legal. The guy doesn't just have good looks, he has presence, even from on the other side of the world.

Which might have something to do with why he left. He says New Zealand has no "star system", New Zealanders "disrespect" his craft.

"You could tell someone you're an actor in New Zealand and, chances are, you'll be laughed at," he says. "People would want to challenge you and would be cynical about the fact that you were successful, especially once I was on television.

"That's what I like about the States - they actually give respect. Sometimes there's too much given to the actors and it's kind of embarrassing when you suddenly have this tide of attention and adulation here. But at home, even if you are a 'star' [Gillies' speech marks], you're sharing your trailer with four other people, you're in the back of a makeup truck, changing your pants with Jay Laga'aia, trying to get ready for the next scene."

If an artist survives in New Zealand, says Gillies, it's because they are "tough as shit". Ask him about his trials in LA, struggling to make it in a place known for shattering thousands of dreams, and he calls it a "cakewalk" compared with his time at home.

He says he spent $25,000 training as an actor, only to be fobbed off by casting directors who refused to see him. In 2001, he moved to Sydney and experienced the same thing. Gillies is riled by this, swearing darkly. "I've devoted my whole life to doing this. See me, look at me, because I'm actually an actor. I'm not a model who opens his mouth."

After six weeks, he became disillusioned and moved to Canada, his birthplace. The first couple of months he waited tables and washed dishes before he ran out of money. "I lived on floors of ... You don't want to know where I lived."

Eventually, the work came - a pilot, a two-part mini-series, a small indie film. Then, in February, 2002, he took what little money he had and made the 28-hour drive to LA from Vancouver, "through the sleet and snow". After about a month he made a decision that could have wiped out his chances of ever meeting Dunst, and signed up to a role in a seven-year series with NBC, to be shot in South Africa.

"You can imagine I'm kind of relieved that didn't take off," he laughs. "And you know what the big joke was? I was playing an Aussie, this real Ocker bloke. I couldn't get a [expletive] interview in Australia."

When that fell through, Gillies wasn't too worried. "I thought, 'I got that in four, five weeks - how hard could it be?' And I spent the next 12 months in LA right through into last year getting my ass kicked."

During that time he wound up in the office of producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, ER), auditioned six times for a part in Crossing Jordan and was offered a part as a cockney sailor in Pirates of the Caribbean. But even that opportunity collapsed because he couldn't get the paperwork done in time.

"It was a frustrating year, 2002," he says. "But in 2003, I got two phone calls. I ran into another New Zealand actor just before it happened - Karl Urban - at an audition. And he said, 'How's it all going for you?' and I said, 'In all honesty, Karl? Shit.' I walked away, my phone went about half an hour later and I got one movie, my phone went another half an hour after that and I got another one."

The first was the lead role in Trespassing, a psychological thriller shot in New Orleans. The second was as Charlize Theron's lover in Head in the Clouds, a period film also with Penelope Cruz and Stuart Townsend.

After shooting Trespassing, Gillies auditioned and got the part in Spider-Man 2. There was just one problem. They were shooting at the same time. "To be perfectly frank I made a business decision," he says. "Because the doors I knew would open."

A woman's voice interrupts in the background and he pulls away from the phone for a moment. "You going out, baby? Okay, bye sweetheart."

"That's my girl," he says, proudly. Like the flowers in his LA garden, Gillies is just starting to bloom.

* Spider-Man 2 opens July 3.

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