Michele Hewitson Interview: Simon Prast

By Michele Hewitson

Former theatre company director and would-be mayor now 'making new memories' as actor for hire and part-time family nurse

Prast plays Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's hatchet-man, in the Auckland Theatre Company's production of Anne Boleyn, which opens next week. Photo / Richard Robinson
Prast plays Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's hatchet-man, in the Auckland Theatre Company's production of Anne Boleyn, which opens next week. Photo / Richard Robinson

In the 10 years since I last saw Simon Prast, his life has changed so much that I thought seeing him again would almost be like meeting a different person.

Then he was the very important director of the Auckland Theatre Company, which he founded. He was an always lively, sometimes charming, often combative leading light in the creative life of the city. He was rather formidable and could be endearingly silly. He has lived since then what could be called an interesting life. So he must have changed rather a lot, or at least a bit, you'd think. He has and he hasn't.

He is playing Cromwell in the ATC production of Anne Boleyn (at Q Theatre from June 13), his first stage role since 2004. He is now "a jobbing actor". When we last met he was that very important director and I was a theatre critic - so we had a (usually) mutually respectful and (always) wary relationship. We also had a running gag (or I did) about a hideous pair of black hairy boots he always wore on opening nights and was inordinately fond of.

He strolled out to greet me - and to have a fag - in the carpark of the ATC rehearsal rooms and lifted a trouser leg to reveal: "Look! The hairy boots!" I couldn't believe he still had them. He bought them in London in 1996. Imagine remembering such a thing. He says he remembers because he'd been given a study grant to go to London but I think he remembers the date because of the boots.

He has taken very good care of them; they look as good (or bad) as they ever did.

He has always been a contrarian. Of course he "loves" Cromwell. "I'm head-to-toe in black and I wear black gloves and I just smile." And wears the boots like the devil's hooves? "Exactly! They're my own feet."

Has he taken such good care of himself? He has an autobiographical sort of face on which you fancy you can trace some of what's happened to its wearer over the years. So of course he looks older and perhaps a bit sadder. But he also looks somehow happier too, or at least less burdened.

He was so young when he set up the ATC, from the ashes of the Mercury Theatre, and he ran it for 11 years - with iron hand in velvet glove, I always thought; he always said he was just a "ticket seller". Next year work will begin on a permanent home for the ATC in the Wynyard Quarter.

Is he going to run it? "No. I don't think so. Ha, ha." Would he want to? "Well, I'm still young. I'm 51 ... and this is the 21st birthday of this theatre company. If I'd had a child instead of a theatre company, I'd be forking out a lot of money for the little sprog's 21st birthday!"

This year also marked the 10th anniversary of the Auckland Arts Festival. He was its first director, an unhappy position from which he was dumped. So, this year: "It's a bit of an odometer for me. I can't believe how quickly time goes. In this particular production I'm directed by Colin (McColl) and Raymond (Hawthorne), Paul (Minifie) and George (Henare) are in the cast. But also in the cast is a young actor called Jordan Mooney, who was 3 years old when we set up the company, and he's making his professional debut ... And that, to my mind, means that the thing we set up 21 years ago ... has not only survived its creator, it's just continued on doing exactly and more than we'd ever hoped for. So I feel a great sense of pride and coming home, you know.

"It seems very elegant. It seems right. Raymond and Paul taught me at Theatre Corporate drama school in 1984. And we've gone from where they taught me, to a period at ATC where I could employ them. And now we're all working together as actors. And I look around the cast and you know I try and soak it all up. Get your money's worth, because you're making memories now. I think it's something you take for granted when you're younger."

That is, yes, elegantly and graciously put, but where is the thrusting ambition of the younger Prast in all of this? Unless he has utterly changed, I can't imagine that there aren't a few pangs of ... I don't know, nostalgia, perhaps? "Nostalgia is not the right word."

He's quite right. What I really meant was: Doesn't he want it back? "No! No. I mean, I don't have the Richard the Third ambition, if that's what you're asking!" Yes, that is exactly what I'm asking. Did he ever? "Well, I never wanted to be a theatre director in the first place. It was just something that happened and I had to learn how to do it and make it up as we went along."

Now he doesn't have to schmooze sponsors and play nicely with arts councils and city councils. "So you know it's a relief. You don't get any praise or glory."

Oh, what rot. He got plenty of praise and glory. "Only from you, Michele! Only from you." And he reacted very badly when he didn't get it. "Ha, ha! Those were the days." He had a famous spat over bad reviews with the Listener and refused to provide preview tickets. The Listener's then-editor, Finlay Macdonald, ran a blank space where a review should have run. What few people knew was that they were good mates and remained so. "That was great business for both of us. Nothing personal. It was great good fun."

What great good fun he had. He lived in a warehouse on K Rd filled with what I called junk - Pan Am and JFK memorabilia and old plane seats with ashtrays stuffed with butts in the arm rests and a fridge empty of food but full of booze (for his mates; he hasn't drunk for years). He lived on Burger King and took his laundry home to his mum, a tough bird who used to drive hot rods. He told me then that his great ambition was to earn enough money to keep his parents in high style.

He said: "One of the things that's happened since we last met was that my mother died of emphysema, which is the smoker's disease. She had given up, but not in time." She was only 69. (He tried my e-fag and promises he's going to give them a go.)

He and his brother looked after her in her last year of life. His father - who did time for importing heroin many, many years ago: "He leads a quite life in the suburbs with his partner" - is no longer mobile so he drives him about. He lives with his younger brother, who has "health issues", in One Tree Hill, with his two white cats, Paris and Hilton, and his mother's black cat, Roger, who is now his brother's cat. "So I'm sort of Nurse Simon now, in many ways. I try to be the best son and brother I can be."

He didn't get to keep his parents in the manner he'd have liked to. "It didn't quite work out that way."

No, well, life has a way of not quite working out the way you planned it, if he ever planned anything. He is the actor who has a law degree (the minute he got it he was off to drama school) who accidentally became the director of a theatre company and then took on a fledgling arts festival and then ... Well, what not then?

He took over the family business, a talent agency, and went bust, and at some stage started taking P. Now that is beyond mad for somebody who gave up drinking in 1996 - a big night out with Russell Crowe which resulted in him being two hours late for his gig on Hercules - and never being employed on that show again. So, P? Why didn't he just have a drink? "I know. I know. Well, it was recreational and it was the drug du jour way back in the early 2000s."

This all came out when he decided, in 2010, to run for mayor of the new Super City. I'd say you'd have to be fairly off your rocker to take P - "well, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone" - but running for mayor? Had he gone a bit mad? "No ... I didn't want John Banks to just hose in."

He came last out of five candidates, which might have been a bit humiliating. "Sh** no! God no. I think it was an amazing thing to have been part of the process."

I wondered if he'd had a breakdown along his way, but he says: "I think I needed to leave something behind. The person who set up the theatre company and the festival ... I mean that was a very intense period of my life and I think it took a toll on me in some way. But I don't think of it in terms of a breakdown. [It was] a break."

He hasn't had a partner for a long time - "I have very good friends". His last and longest relationship of four years was an early casualty of the demands of the ATC.

He said about this: "I don't feel sadness in my life. I mean, I've done some stupid things in my life. I have, Michele. I know you find it hard to believe but I have done some stupid things. But I'm very aware that I've had the freedom all my life to do whatever I want - for better or worse. And I feel very lucky to have made it through to 51 and still be in reasonably good shape. And be able to retain a whole script in my head!"

He is, I think, easily bored, which might be the reason for the rocky content of the script that is his life - and also quite possibly the reason he's not a drug addict or a drunk; he'd tire of being either pretty swiftly. Now he too leads a quiet life in the suburbs and has even taken up cooking. "It's wonders with mince!"

And now he's applied to be a celebrant. "I do think that actors can have another role to play and I can talk and I have a sense of occasion, if you like, and perspective. And I promise that I wouldn't always wear my hairy boots!

"Part of the application requires that people have to write in and say: 'I think Simon would be a very good celebrant.' So maybe if people read this, they could write in!"

He's still selling tickets to the Simon Prast show. I'd buy one. I've always enjoyed and admired him, even when he was enjoying a joke at my expense. "How we laughed!" he said, referring to the time I scoffed at his belief in astrology and he picked that I was a Virgo after five minutes. How he laughed, he means, and is laughing still. I'm very glad he is.

- NZ Herald

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