Tim Balme tells Dionne Christian about playing a revered poet

Given actor/writer Tim Balme's workload, it's amazing he answers interview questions so coherently and affably.

Long-time friend and collaborator Simon Bennett last year asked Balme to emerge from a self-imposed theatre hiatus to play New Zealand poet James K. Baxter.

About the same time, Balme got a seriously good job offer to become head of development at South Pacific Pictures, the television and film production company behind Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls and Whale Rider.

He decided, why pick one if you want to do both? It means Balme now spends mornings in the West Auckland studios reading, assessing and piloting ideas for new TV programmes and films then heads to the Auckland Theatre Company's downtown rehearsal rooms.

He joins John Leigh, Toni Potter and Elizabeth McRae to work late into the evening on Horseplay, award-winning playwright Ken Duncum's ode to literary luminaries Baxter and Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

Although the two writers never met, Duncum's script brings them together in Hawera in 1972 with a dotty aunt (McRae) and would-be girlfriend (Potter). Balme describes the script as one full of pathos and drama juxtaposed with more than a few moments of high comedy.

Duncum, a fan of both writers, wanted to pen a script that paid homage to the two men he has described as "verbal thoroughbreds".

Balme, also a Baxter admirer, has long wanted to play the prodigious man of letters known as much for his unconventional lifestyle as his writing.

In the late 1960s, Baxter founded a community on the banks of the Whanganui River at the remote settlement of Jerusalem. He wanted followers to live according to the spiritual aspects of Maori communal life.

"James K. Baxter is an iconic, indelible New Zealand character that most people of my age [early 40s] and above have an image [of] in their minds," says Balme. "It is from Baxter's Jerusalem period with his long hair and beard, his dark suit.

"Considering he was a poet - not an All Black, not Ed Hillary, not a television personality - I think that's pretty remarkable. Sam Hunt is the only other local poet people recognise as readily.

"Everyone knows what Sean Fitzpatrick looks like but I'm never going to play him so at least I get a shot at James K. Baxter. I have deep affection for his work and find him intriguing."

It is Balme's second shot at playing Baxter. In 1996 he appeared as the poet in the short film based on his poem The Lament for Barney Flanagan. Back then, he watched a rare recording of Baxter reading his poetry.

The paucity of moving images and sound recordings of Baxter is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows a greater freedom for an actor to bring his own interpretation to the character; on the other, it makes getting a sense of what he may have been like trickier.

In any event, Balme says the archives of Baxter photographs means he can try to look as close as possible in appearance - which may make him quite a sight round the SPP offices once he has extensions to his hair and beard, covering the blonde highlights he acquired for a recently filmed guest appearance in Outrageous Fortune.

Apart from three performances filling in on a 2005 production of Gliding On, Balme hasn't been on stage since 2003 in the doomed production of Leah, produced and performed by the New Zealand Actors Company which Balme co-founded.

Before that, the company had been busy with successful tours of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Roger Hall's A Way of Life. Balme was also juggling high-profile television roles in Shortland Street and Mercy Peak and starred in the film For Good.

"I made a conscious choice to stop acting," he says. "I was burned out and I had lost the joy of it, partly because I had become involved in all the backstage dramas and lost thousands and thousands of dollars. It was a series of calamities and I needed a break."

Given that he'd been acting since his teens, making a name for himself in the Peter Jackson splatter classic Braindead, Balme couldn't walk away from the industry altogether.

He started storylining and writing for SPP five years ago and worked on TV3 hit Outrageous Fortune and a one-off telefeature Stolen. Now he is writing a series about super-heroes called The Almighty Johnson. He reckons being an actor made him a better scriptwriter, eventually.

"I would write a line of dialogue and the others would say, 'Honestly Tim, would you act that?' and I would have to acknowledge that I most certainly wouldn't want to. As an actor, you approach a script from a very specific point of view: what's my character, what's his journey, what's his motivation, how does he interact with others?

"As a writer, you have a far more holistic view and think about all the characters, their interactions and motivations."

But Balme says returning to the stage hasn't been hard, maybe because he's done so much theatre before.

Much of his early work involved touring the country with fellow actor-turned-writer Michael Galvin in Duncum's play about the Everley Brothers, Blue Sky Boys. Simon Bennett directed that, too.

What: Horseplay

Where and when: Maidment Theatre, May 6-29