Michele Hewitson interview: Jesse Peach

Jesse Peach seems frazzled but he will feel much happier if lots of people go to see The Wizard of Oz. Photo / Richard Robinson
Jesse Peach seems frazzled but he will feel much happier if lots of people go to see The Wizard of Oz. Photo / Richard Robinson

What to do about Jesse Peach? He is the TV3 reporter and theatre director always described in terms of his prettiness of face, his extreme youth and his preternatural ability to persuade seasoned actors to work with him.

He is also always described as a sweetheart, a poppet, a thoroughly decent and lovely young man. All of this could make you feel a bit sick.

I imagine it must sometimes make him feel a bit sick, so he might not mind me saying that, although he can be all of those sugary things, what I wanted to do about him was wring his neck.

I mean this absolutely affectionately, but I do mean it. He just about drove me mad during the interview and then he drove me even madder by ringing me that evening.

He was terribly polite and anguished about calling me but he was in a panic over something he'd told me about his personal life and he wasn't going to ask me not to put it in but he was worried about worrying other people and so on.

Of course I didn't want him to worry, and it's his own business ... But - and this is why I want to strangle him - why did he tell me anything in the first place? He is a journalist, after all.

Then he sent a text, the next day: "I wish I didn't call you yesterday. Write what you bloody want!"

I phoned him after the text message arrived, just to make sure he meant it, and he said that he had told his mum that he'd said a terrible thing and she said: "You're the only one who doesn't think you're gay! Get over it."

What? The thing he told me wasn't quite that he was gay! Is he gay now? "I am ... Sometimes!" All of which is so funny, I'm going to have to forgive him almost everything.

I did say almost everything. He said he was terrible at being interviewed (yes), and that this was because he finds it difficult to lie. This was really annoying for two reasons. For one thing, it's not lying to say, "I'd rather not answer that question." or, indeed, "none of your bloody business." It would certainly have saved a lot of time, and mutual angst.

And also, it is an entirely ridiculous thing to say because it suggests that he suspects all of the people he interviews of lying. I know that he doesn't think any such thing because he is possibly the least cynical journalist I've ever met. I did put it to him but he was having one of his moments, so I didn't get a response.

He had a number of moments which involve what I can only describe as fussing. He picks at things: his clothes. Or at himself: was he red in the face? No. Well, he felt flushed and red. He looked fine to me. He was feeling self-conscious. God knows how he goes on TV but, oddly, he says he doesn't feel at all self-conscious then.

He said it was because I was asking him personal questions. I was, but as I say, he didn't need to answer.

In addition to this fussing, huge chunks of our interview time were wasted by his asking if he could show me something on his phone, "off the record". I said, well, show me what it is first, but I should have known better after all these years. I usually just say no, because once you know something you can't unknow it, obviously. He's a journalist; he should have known better too.

Anyway, before we tumbled down the rabbit hole, here's some factual stuff, which you won't get from him, even though he is supposed to be giving himself a good plug, but he's useless at that too so I'll have to do it for him.

So: He started the Peach Theatre Company, when he was 21. His name really is Jesse Peach; it is such a sweet, pretty, acty, right sort of name that you have to ask. He seems to have got stuck being 21, which you'd think would be a drag now that he's 27, but he hasn't aged a bit.

He doesn't admit to taking much notice of being almost always described by a variation of "baby-faced". He can't help that he still looks 21 and that it's hard to imagine him being 31, say.

Yet he has taken such very grown-up chances: The Glass Menagerie (his first production; he persuaded Annie Whittle to star, for no fee), Othello (for which he got Gareth Farr and Douglas Wright to do the score and choreography, respectively), The History Boys (he wrote a letter to George Henare which flattered that great actor into appearing in that production.)

Henare! Othello! And now he's doing The Wizard of Oz. At the Civic. The Civic seats 2350. Really, please go. There are four performances left and his future depends, in some way he can't quite articulate, on how many tickets sell.

He absolutely won't say how much money he owes (last year's Sweeney Todd was less than successful, financially) and he got about as cross as he is capable as getting when I asked. It is no one's business, or problem, but his own, he says. What he would say is the way his future as a director goes depends on whether the Wizard makes $100 or loses $100.

I said I was terribly worried about this and he said: "That's so lovely of you!" But also that he'd really hate people to feel sorry for him, or for them to go to the Wizard for that reason.

So, don't feel a bit sorry for him, but please go. I'm sick of worrying about him, especially when he manages to be such a pain and be entirely charming so that you really do want to strangle him and make him eat something nice.

I made him eat a Neenish tart and kept trying to force more food down his throat. Did I really say: "You've got to keep your strength up!" and then on the phone, "you must get some rest!" Well, you meet him and I tell you, you'll be trying to mother him within minutes, at the same time as ticking him off for fidgeting.

When you read about him, you think: What nerve he's got. What absurd self-confidence he must have.

Does he? I haven't got a clue. He says he's simple and possibly - what did I think? - naive. That sounds nuts. He ought to be brash and a bit awful. A combination of ex-Shortland St actor, telly journo, and theatre darling should be fatal.

But he seems genuinely lovely and if he does have a huge ego, he's a better actor than the one he admitted to being: "Hopeless". So I did ask some other people and they seem to think he probably is naive. Perhaps a dollop of naivety is a helpful quality when one embarks on the career equivalent of leaping off the Sky Tower without one of those very big elastic bands.

What do I think? That he's shy. He was nervy and his hands shook a bit. He said, "You've caught me at a really bad time." He was exhausted, and he seemed frazzled. He said, "I'm not usually like this."

He was truly terrible to interview because of all of those things and he wouldn't talk about his reasons for being exhausted and nervy and frazzled because he's all of these things because of money worries and ticket sale worries, and these are the things he won't talk about.

I will. Somebody should give him lots of money so that he can pay his debts, which are probably substantial. He doesn't want to worry his actors. Or his mum, I bet.

He will really hate me writing that somebody should give him money, but too bad. I'll write what I bloody want and what I want is for him to be able to afford to stick around and direct theatre. He says he isn't at all interested in the "power" side of directing (quite a few directors are), and I believe him.

He puts on theatre because he thinks there isn't enough of it and he loves it and actors and wants to give actors work. That might be naive and if it is, then thank goodness for it.

But he is also terrible to interview for another reason. He can barely answer even a simple question like: When did he think: I want to be a director? Because, "I've told this story to a journalist before and I don't want to seem like I'm regurgitating shitty old anecdotes to you."

I said he could hardly be expected to rewrite his life every time he spoke to a journalist and he said, "I know! But it's just such a boring and stupid thing to say." He does make life difficult for himself. Anyway, I think it's a sweet little story, and it is that he knew he somehow knew what he wanted to be when he was 5, and his nice dad put up a curtain to make a stage: "In a little downstairs area and I used to direct my brothers and sisters."

He has five siblings and is the second eldest child, and is the only arty one. He told me a very funny story about how he took his older brother, a plumber and boxer, to see Toa Fraser's Bare at the Silo and how his brother said: "Who the f*** is that?" and it was Sam Neill.

He can be very funny but he doesn't understand sarcasm so I shouldn't have said "really well", when he asked: "How do you think this interview's gone?"

And bits of it had. We did have a wonderful, if strange, conversation about a pig. There is a very large pig in his Wizard. I was pretty sure there wasn't one in the original stage version. And, the pig peed, on stage. "It did once!"

So: why is there a pig?

JP: "Well, there used to be a wagon ... So in just a little tweak, I changed it to a pig."

MH: "So, the pig is the wagon?"

JP: "Yeah, I hate props and I hate wagons."

MH: "Um, so the pig as metaphor for the wagon?"

JP: "No, no! It is slightly adjusted to the pig."

MH: "Jesse, wouldn't it have been easier to have a wagon?"

JP: "No! It needs to be magical. Wagons are awful."

This somehow made perfect sense, at the time. Strange things do with Jesse Peach, who, yes strangely, manages to be both maddening, and magical, at the same time. That's one definition of charm.

- NZ Herald

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