He might’ve had you grinning from ear to ear in Boy, but his new performance in The Dark Horse will break your heart. Lydia Jenkin talks to young star James Rolleston.

James Rolleston was just 12 when the accolades began to rain on him for his debut film role in Boy. Five years on, he's become the face of Vodafone, filmed a much-loved short (Frosty Man and the BMX Kid), and bagged himself two more starring roles - he's recently been filming The Dead Lands, a new Maori historical action film directed by Toa Fraser, and tomorrow night, his role as Mana in The Dark Horse will be unveiled.

So those accolades are about to be heaped on him once again - his director and co-stars use phrases like "remarkable young man", "amazing talent", "exceptionally gifted", and "superstar" when discussing his work in The Dark Horse.

But in the same breath, they're also remarking on what a great person he is.

"He's just such a good human being, a lovely kid. With all the success that he's had, he's so unaffected by that, he's so humble and kind," explains producer Tom Hern.


And Curtis is clearly impressed by his nature too.

"He's just got that openness of heart. He's got a beautiful relationship with his grandma, and his family. He knows the other side of tracks, he really does. But he is so luminous and enthusiastic in how he approaches life ... He's just one of those special souls who has somehow figured things out."

It's high praise, but it's all confirmed when the 17-year-old answers the phone from his home in Opotiki. There's no trace of ego, and not even a hint of the nonchalance that often comes with working in showbiz.

He's a charming, genuine, regular dude, who seems remarkably even-keeled and relaxed in the context of his potently emotional performance, talking about hobbies like surfing and hunting with a cheerful "she'll be sweet" attitude.

He first heard about The Dark Horse through his agent - Robertson and Hern were keen on Rolleston for the role of Mana from the beginning and sent him a script early on.

Trailer: The Dark Horse

"I thought the storyline was quite powerful, and I thought playing the role of Mana would be quite a challenge for me, which would be good, if I was to get the part, so I was pretty keen on it. I knew it would be a challenge because there are a few scenes in there that were quite powerful and strong and heavy, and I'd never really done anything that hard before. But I thought that would be good for me."

It was a markedly different experience from filming Boy - not just because he knew his way around a set this time, and had become used to the presence of a large crew and a bunch of cameras, but because the characters were clearly different too.

"Boy was more of a cheeky, mischief-making little guy, whereas Mana is more serious, more interested in the world, wants to get around and check everything out.

"But it was good for me to do something totally different."

Mana is the son of gang kingpin Ariki, Genesis' brother, who agrees to have Gen come to stay with them when he's released from a psychiatric ward. Mana is soon to be patched, but finds himself more drawn to the world of the chess club than the gang, and forges a bond with Gen, though this doesn't sit well with Ariki.

There's some pretty heavy material of course, and a nuanced, vulnerable performance is required, but Rolleston more than holds his own, and had some fairly straightforward methods for getting into the right zone for those scenes.

"Listening to music helped me quite a lot. Off camera I'd put the headphones in and listen to some soft music, and just think about things, and try and think about Mana's situation, what it would be like, how tough it would be.

"I'd listen to some Six60 - I quite like Six60, and a couple of their songs seemed to fit, so I'd just drift out, be in my head, get into the right mode. Try not to get distracted by what everyone else is doing, or start thinking about surfing, which would get me amped up. I'd just think about things that were sad."

James Rolleston as Boy.

He also credits many of the other actors for being hugely helpful, and really inspiring his work.

"I loved working with them. Cliff being the actor he is, he brought so many ideas to me, and I just learned so much, just watching what he does, how he'd get into the right mind set. And all the other actors too, like Xavier Horan and Kirk Torrance, they taught me a lot of things. And Wayne [Hapi, a first time actor playing Ariki], man he did a mean job! I kinda knew where he was coming from, not having done a film before, but he did such a mean job. It was pretty cool watching him."

Seeing the amount of commitment Curtis gave to the role - he spent the entire shoot living as Genesis, playing him permanently - also helped Rolleston really sink into the story, even though he didn't realise Curtis was acting both on and off camera at first.

"It took maybe a week or so until I knew what was going on. He was just Genesis, day and night, from start to finish, which was quite helpful for the rest of us. But it was quite funny 'cos on the last day of shooting, after we'd finished, he turned up as Cliff again - I was expecting Genesis, this funny happy man, and there was Cliff, all humble, and I was blown away how he could switch from a character, right back to Cliff."

One of his favourite aspects of filming though, was learning to play chess - just about everyone involved learned how to play over the course of filming, and things could get pretty competitive.

"We'd go around and battle each other all the time, it was fun. And old Cliff, he's hooked with it now, and he keeps telling me how next time I see him, he reckons, 'game on'. We had quite a few games on set, and he used to beat me and I wouldn't talk to him for an hour, and then we'd have another game, and I'd beat him and he wouldn't talk to me at lunch. It was quite funny."

The experience of filming The Dark Horse has definitely given him the acting bug again ("I'd definitely love to play more roles and explore new places"), but he has no aspirations for a Hollywood life.

"I'm quite comfortable where I'm at right now. I've got my mates right here, and I'm loving the lifestyle. Hunting and a bit of surfing here and there. And I've been doing kapa haka as well, for my school, so that's quite cool. I've been doing kapa haka since I was little, but I've been able to get back into it properly this year."

And he's "excited as" to be coming to Auckland to see the premiere tonight - he hasn't seen the film yet, but he's sure it'll be great. "I've heard a lot of good things about it" he jokes. "And apparently Cliff is going to be bringing his chess board, so I better get practising."

Who: James Rolleston
What: The Dark Horse
When and where: Opening the New Zealand International Film Festival at the Civic tonight; going on general release on July 31.

- TimeOut