Martin Henderson first made his name on Shortland Street before conquering Australia and then America, starring in everything from Gray's Anatomy to a Britney Spears music video. He can now be seen onscreen with a host of other big names in Lucy Lawless's popular new local show My Life is Murder, Mondays 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ OnDemand.
I started my life as a Westie in Titirangi but, when I was 5, my parents divorced and I moved to the North Shore with mum and my sister. My parents' divorce affected me deeply and I was quietly grieving, so nature became a huge source of comfort for me, and the healing beauty and honesty of nature struck me from a very young age. Being outdoors in the bush or on the water has always offered me a sense of connection to something higher.
My parents didn't have lots of money but my grandfather bought me a little Optimist sailing dinghy and enrolled me at Murrays Bay Boating Club. That was a pivotal moment because he knew I'd love sailing. My parents also had little trailer sailor and my earliest memories are of sailing to Great Barrier Island, and I became a really passionate sailor and still spend time on the water whenever I can.
I was a confident, possibly even precocious, child and I loved to make people laugh. I was quick to get up on stage and tell jokes or enter speech contests so acting came quite naturally to me. In Standard 4, when one of the parents adapted Cinderella to a contemporary comedy, I played the fairy godmother. I thought it'd be hysterical if I came out in a tutu, and when the entire auditorium cracked up, it felt incredible. That's when I first felt that connection with an audience and I realised how good it feels to make people laugh.
When I was 12, TVNZ were casting a Margaret Mahy kiddult thing called Strangers. They came to my school and I put my hand up to audition and I got the role of Zane, my first professional gig. Although because I was at high school, Dad was adamant I focus on my studies so acting was really just a bit of a hobby. Then, after sixth form, I was about to go to university when at the same time I was asked to audition for Shortland Street. I was offered the role of Stuart Neilson on a year's contract, so I thought I'd earn bit of money, then start university at the same time as my mates, and I'd be able to spare my parents the cost. But once I was working, day in, day out, I started thinking that maybe I could do acting for a job.
Mum was always really supportive of me being an actor. The first time I got a job, she said, "you could go to Hollywood one day". Hearing her say that gave me the vision, but it was a dream I kept to myself because most people would laugh if I'd said it out loud. But I held on to that fantasy. And my dad had the grace to allow me to pursue acting without discouraging me. I'm really grateful to both of my parents for allowing me to follow my dreams so that dream became a reality.
Shortland Street was a roller coaster. New Zealand's first foray into a primetime fast-turnaround soap was embraced more passionately than we'd anticipated, which took us by surprise. Frankly, if you look at the first few episodes, it was pretty terrible as we were all learning on the job, but we were all committed to what we were doing. Although no one gave us a rule book on how to handle that kind of attention. It was quite flattering to start with, being a 17-year-old, but very quickly it became a burden and many of us had a hard time dealing with it. I became really uncomfortable with it, and I tried to pretend I was fine but I wasn't.
I was on the show for three years. I don't know if it took guts to leave, but I listened to my inner voice and knew I needed to step away from it. I poured my heart and soul into that role. I did everything that was asked of me, all the press, all the media, until I gave too much of myself. When I started at 17, I didn't know who I was, and I was doing interviews with people asking me about being a role model and I was just trying to do a good job, while figuring out who I was. People wanted answers I didn't always have the answers for. It was a lot of pressure.
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In Australia, I was a little more honest about my ambitions and America started to take focus. But I knew I had to work hard, so I got a coach who became my mentor. When I first went to her, she said "you're a kid with no education but you need to live an interesting life to be an interesting actor. You need to start educating yourself, to learn about art, music, culture, film and literature. To look at the world in more detail." She got me ready psychologically, and with regards to confidence. She was a huge force in my maturing and our friendship endures to this day.
I decided to go to New York to study theatre while working on a show called Big Sky. I was sitting in my dressing room, I had a scene off and was practising guitar thinking of the scene ahead when I got this weird sense that I'd lost my passion. I felt numb and I realised I was in a rut. I wondered if this was something that happened when you became an adult? So I thought about the things I loved and I realised acting was my first love so I made a decision to commit to studying acting for acting's sake. Forget business, forget fame, I wanted to get to the nuts and bolts of it.
There have been times of sacrifice, struggle and poverty. And self-doubt. I've spent many hours questioning whether I'm capable. I've felt confused and thought about packing it all in, but I've also been supported by so many positive things and decided to do whatever it takes. So long as it doesn't kill me, hopefully it's good for me. My personality type also relishes challenge. I've always taken something away from having to dig a little deeper, and if ever someone tells me I can't do something, that's usually when I want to do that thing more.
I'm a huge advocate for therapy because growth doesn't stop and there will always be things to examine, which kind of sucks, but the rewards are so worthwhile. My life has been peppered with many challenges and there have been moments in life I've had more self-destructive tendencies, or I'd sabotage things. I had to take a serious look at myself and choose to grow up and face my past which meant looking at childhood grief and pain and taking responsibility. As an adult, I've looked for ways to move on, and learn to heal. That can be hard on the ego and force you to drop a lot of things, defences you might use to feel more protected and less vulnerable. But it's about having the courage to be vulnerable, and then you have the privilege to meet who really are – but, until you do that, you can't share who you are with loved ones.