Actor Byron Coll, best known as All Black super-fan Tim in the Mastercard ads, is about to perform in his first opera but says his most challenging role was playing a penguin naked and covered in body paint. He also helped Dan Carter pull an epic prank on the All Blacks.

1 Making those Mastercard ads, did you find it hard to be a total dick in front of your childhood heroes?

No, Tim might be annoying as hell but he's such a positive character. And to make someone like Richie McCaw laugh at you is pretty awesome. After we made the first ad Dan Carter phoned me and said, "Some of the guys have been giving me shit about being your roommate. Could you help me get them back by busting into our team meeting and embarrassing the crap out of them?" I couldn't turn Dan Carter down so I turned up at the Heritage Hotel where a huge security guard took me through all these corridors and then pushed me into a room and shut the door. I found myself staring at all the All Blacks, the coaches, the medical staff. I shat myself. I had no idea what to do so I just yelled, "Fellas!" at the top of my voice. They all turned round and gave this massive cheer. I went round hugging everyone.

Byron Coll loves character roles where he can explore the flaws in people.
Byron Coll loves character roles where he can explore the flaws in people.

2 Did you manage to embarrass any All Blacks?

Dan told me to ask for Shag which is apparently the nickname for Steve Hansen. I don't know why, I think it's a little bit dodgy because not many people are allowed to call him that so I yelled out, "Where's Shag?" He stands up at the back of the room and goes, "I'm Shag." I sprinted up and jumped on him from about 2m away. He gave me a huge bear hug, carried me on stage and thanked me for supporting the team. Everyone was going nuts. They gave me a signed World Cup jersey and pint of beer to skull. I couldn't stick around because the joke wouldn't last so I pretended I was drunk and staggered off. The whole thing took about 15 minutes. It was such a great feeling.

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3 Do you think the All Blacks liked your character?

They did on the first ad. By the third and fourth he probably got a bit annoying. Too upbeat, a little bit crazy. It's such fast work, it's hard to pick at the time. It's not until it's up and running and people are responding that you think, "Maybe that was a bit too full on."


4 Have you ever played rugby?

Yes I went to a very rugby orientated school, St Bedes in Christchurch. I actually played for the Canterbury Under 13s as a hooker. I was small then too. Then I shifted to halfback until it got too dangerous. I loved music and drama but you couldn't take them as a subject at St Bedes. I had to do 7th form music by correspondence. The Sheilagh Winn Shakespeare Festival changed my path in life. I found out about it and with no formal training somehow got selected to go to The Globe in London.

5 You're 32 and have worked fulltime as an actor since graduating from Toi Whakaari. Has it been hard?

At times. I found more work since shifting up to Auckland. There's more TV being made here than Wellington. I do a lot of commercials.

6 What has being short taught you?

I survived childhood by being the cheeky bugger that avoids conflict. I had a complex about my strawberry blonde hair as well but then I started going bald at 20. I didn't suit a lot of roles because I looked either too old or too young.

7 Do you often find yourself typecast as the funny guy?

Luckily no. The last three TV shows I've done were dead serious. I was a conscientious objector in Field Punishment No.1, an engineer on Bombshell - The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and a petro-chemical mogul in Jean, the story of Jean Batten. I love character roles because I enjoy exploring the flaws in people.

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8 You appeared naked and covered in paint to play a penguin in the play Heat. Why didn't you at least wear some underpants?

I questioned that as well but the director said, "You're playing an animal and when you see a horse or a dog or whatever, you see the bits." I went, "Okay that scares me but I'll see it as a challenge." We performed it to a couple of schools, just drama students, and there were sniggers at first but a lot of people told me that within 10 minutes they completely forgot I was naked. They saw me as a penguin which was awesome because it's hard to play an animal convincingly.

9 Did it take long to apply all that body paint?

I got it down to 1.5 hours. The stage manager did my back and I did the rest. I had to crouch over a hair dryer to dry my genital area because what would happen as I warmed up was the sweat would wipe the paint off so when I turned around the audience would see this big white line between my cheeks. Getting it all off again took half an hour. It gets into every nook and cranny, inside your ears, under your fingernails. My girlfriend Kate Prior, who was in the play too, helped me remove the paint in the shower sometimes because I literally couldn't get to some bits.

10 Did you have a moment of thinking, "What the hell am I doing?"

There were many times. It was the most physically demanding role I've played. I had to move like a penguin so I spent the entire time waddling on my knees. The only thing I wore were knee pads and socks to stop the tops of my feet getting callused. There was a lot of falling down but penguins can't put their hands out to stop a fall so I was covered in bruises. By the end of the seven month tour I was down to 64kg and absolutely stuffed.

11 You're about to appear in the NZ Opera's The Mikado. Have you done opera before?

No, this will be my first. I can hold a note but I probably can't sing real opera. Luckily it's a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which is a lot easier. I've done a couple of musicals lately. A Little Shop of Horrors was a heck of a lot of fun. We had the old 1960s film up on screen, muted, while four of us played an original score live on stage and did the dialogue at the same time. My girlfriend and I both got Best Actor nominations for our roles in Midsummer: A Play with Songs in Wellington, but I won which was a bit sad for her.

12 This month you're in the Basement Theatre's annual Christmas show. What's it about?

It's a show about an amateur dramatic society putting on a Christmas show in Levin. Like Waiting for Guffman, they're waiting for a celebrity to arrive from Auckland. In the meantime the director tries to shake things up with a high concept, Santa-free drama that the actors aren't very comfortable with. Every night we'll have a different celebrity guest - Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Louise Wallace, Kimberley Crossman, Madeleine Sami, Dave Fane, Claire Chitham, Jaquie Brown, Robbie Magasiva and more - arrive on stage knowing nothing about their role. It's going to be very loose and fun.

The Opening Night Before Christmas, Basement Theatre, 6 to 22 December, basementtheatre.co.nz
The Mikado, NZ Opera, ASB Waterfront Theatre, 14 February to 11 March New Zealand Opera