Michele Hewitson Interview: George Henare

By Michele Hewitson

George Henare is as loveable as ever. Photo / Natalie Slade
George Henare is as loveable as ever. Photo / Natalie Slade

The last time I saw George Henare, in 1998, he was playing, and playing at being, Caesar. He gave me a private performance while perched on a velvet chair in a hotel lobby.

He was, I remind him, hamming it up rather grandly then. "Was I? As was my station in life, at that time. Soon to be deposed. Now I'm being ... What am I being? I'm being a very entrepreneurial Maori elder in the south of New Zealand who is always on the phone chatting in Japanese, Chinese, German ... Sell, sell, sell. 'You want a ceremony? Oh, that will cost you. You want a waiata, a song? A karakia, a prayer? It's going to cost you. Koha, of course."'

He whips out an imaginary calculator and does the sums.

He is "kaumata for hire" in Le Sud, a farce by Dave Armstrong set in a French-speaking South Island run by socialists. What fun. "Yes. It's all part of the game of life. It's good fun."

Yes, and what a very well-placed plug (Le Sud is at the Maidment from February 11), but, as it saves me having to ask the obligatory, token few questions, and for him to have to offer the obligatory, token few answers, who could mind? And I got another free performance.

I never know about actors, though. It's sometimes difficult to know who you're interviewing. Last time I got Caesar; today the kaumatua for hire. Does he act when he's not on a stage?

"Probably not. I don't know." It might be difficult for him to know. "It's hard to know whether I am what I am, or what I have become. It's like a freedom, I suppose. You are sort of free to be whatever you want to be."

He is, too, all the characters he's played. "I think what the real person is, is a whole lot of other people. That's what you're capable of, all the possibilities ... Everyone says, 'That's not me,' and I say, 'Yes, it is a part of you. That is you. All of those characters that you play, they're all a part of you. That's what you're capable of doing and being'."

Whoever he is, on any given day, he is both genial good fun and endearingly, ever so slightly, loopy. I thought we had a very nice, interesting interview, most of which made perfect sense until I came to transcribe it.

What was on the recording was still a very nice, interesting interview; it's just that there are entire passages that make very little sense, at least to me.

This is not his fault, or mine. It's just that I live in a place and speak the language of what he calls "the real world", which is where actors say non-actors reside. And actors, he agrees, are nuts.

"Oh, you have to be. But, well, that's not nuts. I do think we're a lot more free, because we've come out of the strictures of the real world and gone over the boundaries. So we're lost in the real world. We're lost people, we've gone too far, we've dropped out of society and gone into what they used to call the vagabond profession."

Still, as anyone who has travelled to a country where they don't speak the language knows, it is perfectly possible to have a nice and interesting conversation with somebody whose language you don't understand. I'll do my best to translate.

He has never been one of those noisily famous actors. I asked how often he was recognised and he said often, by drunks, and the other day, by some road workers. He is sometimes mistaken for Winston Peters or Witi Ihimaera.

He makes a moue of distaste when I ask why he's never associated with those high- profile causes some actors are attracted to.

He was asked to be part of an anti-violence campaign but, "I said, 'Well, I don't know what I'm capable of doing if something happened. I've never been attacked ... Why am I saying that? God, I'm inviting it! Maybe there's some anger there that's going to go 'boom'."

This seems unlikely. He is quite New Agey. "I could be!" He was introduced to transcendental meditation many years ago and while he says he doesn't actively meditate now, that sort of focus is a part of him.

"That got me interested in the New Age stuff. I thought there must be some sort of thing that meditators, people who say prayers, are aiming for.

"So I had a little read around and I thought, 'Aah! They're trying to come back to this resting point, which is here and being in the present all the time. If you get the present right, the future and the past sort themselves out, because everything only ever happens in the present'."

I've heard this sentiment before, often from actors, and I've always thought it was twaddle. But it makes, I decided after listening to him, some sort of sense, for actors. I still have no idea how it could work, in the real world. What do you do about past unhappiness, say? "Oh, no. I can't regret anything I've done in the past, because it taught me the mistakes I've made."

He can be as earthy as he can be New Agey. The first thing he told me was about his gout. "The rich man's disease! Ha!" The gout is why he's wearing Crocs. Crocs, George! "But they're the most comfortable and the coolest and that's good when you've got gout."

He is 64 - "this is the year of the Gold Card!" - which is hard to believe because he doesn't seem to age; he just gets more handsome. He told me, in 1998, that he used to worry about his looks. But he says now, "Did I? That was probably just a phase I went through and you realise as you get older that you go through these phases and it's all a part of growing up." He looks pretty good, doesn't he? "I think so!"

Perhaps it was clean living. He says he was never very wild. "I could have been, I suppose!" He tried drugs but they "didn't work on me. I never got hooked, not even smoking. My brother said, 'You're obviously not a smoker. I can tell'." He strikes an offended pose and says, fruitily, "I'm an actor! Do you mind!" He smoked for seven years, just to prove he could be a smoker, I suspect, then gave it up.

Except for his flatting days, he has always lived on his own. He is the third- youngest child in a Gisborne farming family of 10, so you can see why he might have wanted a place he didn't have to share. "When I first lived on my own, I thought, 'This is mine, this is mine, this is mine!' My father used to come and visit and he'd say, 'I'll take that.' It was just to say, 'You're my son. I can take it.' It was a big part of the tatou tatou thing: What's yours is mine; what's mine is yours. I'd see him at the front door and go, 'What's lying around? What can I hide?' He had every right to do so. And after he died of course ... You can take it back. It's yours now."

He has never been in love. (Why did I ask? I'm not sure, it was a funny question. Perhaps because he is so handsome and loveable yet has never lived with anyone.) He said, "Not really." Does he think that's unusual? "Oh, maybe." People must have been in love with him? "Oh. Mmm. Ahem. Yes! It could well have happened. Yes, well, I think on three or four occasions, or five or six!"

He was wriggling, so we moved on. We were talking about how he has always been a happy person when he suddenly pointed his finger at me and said: "I do remember something! I went up to one girl at school, apparently, and told her, 'I love you.' She said, 'Go away, you black nigger.' Didn't deter me. Nope. My father always used to remind me of that when he was alive."

This is an odd story to tell. "Well, that was the game, way back then. Anyone who was really dark was called niggers; we all called each other nigger, before it became un-PC to do so."

But what does he think about that story? He went on to tell another, longer one, about how he didn't think anything of it until he was in Porgy and Bess, with an American cast, and the N word was in a lyric, and an actor was told off for using it. What does he think now? "Well, you say, 'This is what society imposes on people' ... And so marketing departments come and go, 'You won't say this, you won't say that ..."'

This went on for some time, segueing, somehow, into another story about his niece putting a rubber up her nose and how he told her she'd die and be put in a coffin and the worms would eat her. I am completely lost now, but I did promise to attempt to translate. So I think the point is about words in context and how we don't know they're offensive until context is explained, hence explaining to his niece the possible consequences of putting a rubber up your nose.

Anyway, it serves me right for being so nosy and asking whether he'd ever been in love, or whether people had been in love with him.

That really was a silly question.

Even when he's talking in a foreign language, you fall in love with him the minute you meet him. I did, and you would too.

- NZ Herald

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