Former Shortland Street actor Quinton Hita lives the rural idyll – but his gritty new television drama is anything but. Kim Knight reports.

Bunny ears back, three dogs in pursuit.

"Get 'em boy!"

Bloodlust to the finish line. Oma rapeti.

Rabbits are fair game at Quinton Hita's farm in the Far North. The plaid boardshorts are pure Grey Lynn but that's Kaikohe mud on his gumboots. There are six kids in the house across the horse paddock and chickens in the driveway. You're not on Shortland Street now, Quinton Hita.

Advertisement

What did he want to be when he grew up?

"Prime Minister."

Will he go into politics?

"Hmmm. I'll pass on that question."

It's 14 years since Hita quit playing ambulance driver Nelson Copeland. Today, he heads Kura Productions, a joint venture with South Pacific Pictures. Early successes included bilingual game show Kupuhuna and educational children's programme Pukoro. His CV runs to short films, documentaries, and the feature-length Mt Zion. They are a means to an end.

"Some people are in this industry because they live and breathe film and television, but that's not my motivation. My motivation is Maori development. I see this as a burgeoning industry and it has really positive benefits for the reo."

Coming up next: Ahikaroa. Maori Television calls Hita's newest project "audacious and taboo-breaking". It's a drama, following three 20-something flatmates. It may be the first time "fleek" has been scripted in te reo; it is definitely the first time a character has put his head between someone's knees and said, "Is your watercress wet? 'Cos I'm starving, baby."

Ahikaroa hit the internet two weeks before Christmas. Another 25 bite-sized episodes drop this month. In April, they'll be bundled into five week's worth of half-hour shows to screen on Maori Television, with accompanying language extension programming and a website. On screen, the characters move easily between te reo and english. They drive fast, slam tequila and owe money for drug debts. They also have pet goats, social media followings — and each other's backs.

Would Hita have auditioned if the show had been around way back when?

"I think, maybe, where I was at culturally and mentally, I'm not sure I would have embraced something like this."

It's not the answer the public relations machine might hope for, but it is an absolute measure of this man.

Hita playing Nelson Copeland on Shortland Street.
Hita playing Nelson Copeland on Shortland Street.

Hita, 45, is Ngapuhi. Canvas meets him first on a couch in the staff cafeteria at South Pacific Pictures' Henderson studios; again, a few weeks later, on the farm outside of Kaikohe, where he's just accidentally punched through the roof of his septic tank with a tractor. His voice is quiet and calm. He's a bit hard to read. Perhaps you shouldn't try. Perhaps what you see is what you get.

"He was thoughtful," remembers John Barnett, mentor and former head of South Pacific Pictures. "You could see that he was considered about all the things that he did. He had quite a well-developed sense of where he saw his place in Maoridom."

Barnett points to Kowhao Rau, the Kura Production project in which Hita interviewed kaumatua about their lives.

"When you look at how people view television as entertainment or a machine that just consumes time, and then people hear something like this that is going to be around for a long, long time ... the way in which he conducted those interviews was full of respect. You could sense the building of a relationship."

Hita is proud of that work: "There have been higher-budget projects and more prestigious projects, but in my own heart, that defines my career ... that is a storehouse of language models and cultural knowledge that has been recorded forever."

Those quiet conversations at kitchen tables could not be further from the world inhabited by the characters in Ahikaroa.

Hita says Maoridom is conservative by nature.

"And Maori broadcasting, throughout its history, has been conservative because that reflects the character of the culture. That's not where our kids are at.

"It's not surprising that our kids aren't attracted to the Maori language stuff we've made traditionally. Ahikaroa, in part, is about trying to capture that audience and break down that barrier. So there's sex in this drama. And that sounds so passe in 2017. Actually, in Maori broadcasting, it's revolutionary.

"Ten or 20 years ago, there was a real protectionist mindset around the language. Maori wanted to hold on to traditional values and there was a lot of angst around how the language was changing. Because I spent all that time with my old people in my younger days, I took that on board."

His first shows were uncompromising in their te reo content.

"But at the same time, of course, I had kids who were growing up, going to kohanga reo, kura kaupapa. And it was kind of a transformational period for me ... that's the wonderful thing about kids, eh? They can transform you. By the time my oldest boy was going to school, I realised that with this purist philosophy, he was starting to be ostracised. How does he create his own sense of identity and self-esteem within his own peer group, to grow and hopefully flourish into the man that I hope he will be, when he's got this big monkey on his back?

Te reo is a taonga. "And the image I always had in my head was kind of like, we had all these taonga in our house, we're so scared that somebody is going to touch them, that we locked all the doors and all the windows. We barricaded the whole house and lived in that environment for a long time. And I think that's unhealthy."

Right now, says Hita, Maori culture is convulsing. "And Ahikaroa, this drama series, is a very much a byproduct of all those cultural convulsions ... if you take into account that 50 per cent of our population is under the age of 25, and the language is in decline — we have to try something new.

"It's all very well to sit in a chair and theorise and all the rest of it about the language, when you get out there on the ground, at the coalface, and see what those kids are doing ... the priority is kids actually having good values installed in them — having lunch. You know, suddenly te reo Maori is not the priority you necessarily fooled yourself into thinking it was. So then we have to be more clever about how we make the language attractive to our kids. Ahikaroa is part of that challenge."

The show is hoop earrings and denim cut-offs contemporary, but its publicity shots draw on classical Maori portraiture.

"These characters live in an urban world that has drugs and sex and all the rest of it, but they're still Maori at the core. They still descend from these tipuna. They still carry that seed."

Hita and his wife, Makereta Jahnke, a weaver and former secondary school art teacher, have raised their family in fluent te reo. Their house is soft vowel sounds and melodic piano chords (10-year-old Mikara is practising in the next room); there is kids' art on the walls, the teenage boys are playing video games and, in the corner where Jahnke's loom holds an exquisite work in progress, the sweet, earthy smell of harakeke that has been worked to fine fibre strands. Hita and Jahnke's families live close by; Kaikohe is a kia ora of cousins. Champagne and Shortland Street celebrity? Not so much now.

Contemporary drama versus traditional values - the cast of Ahikaroa.
Contemporary drama versus traditional values - the cast of Ahikaroa.

"I'm a total persona non grata these days, and I like it."

Television was an accident, says Hita. He was in Auckland, en route to labouring work in Los Angeles and having lunch with a friend who worked at TVNZ. They were speaking te reo, someone in programming noticed and asked him to audition as a presenter for Maori youth show Mai Time. He remembers a whiteboard ranking candidates according to music knowledge, fashion sense and the like.

"You can imagine how demoralising it was — I look across and see I had the lowest mark of eight people in every single category ..."

Except for te reo Maori. He was at the top of that list. #LetsShareGoodTeReoStories
His acting debut was in the film Crooked Earth. In 2002, he joined Shortland Street.

"I felt like a fake. You had people in there who were just so committed to the craft ... and then you've got someone like me who wasn't interested or passionate and was just taking a seat."

He remembers telling long-term cast member Michael Galvin that he didn't want to be pigeon-holed as an actor. In hindsight, says Hita, it was a naive and offensive comment.

"Michael's response, and I'm paraphrasing, was something like, 'Q, I'd give anything to be pigeon-holed as an actor in New Zealand'. And that was a dawning moment for me. I went home, and I think I probably chewed over that for quite some time."

And then he went to the producer and asked for 10 times more money or he wasn't coming back. Her response: What was his real reason for wanting to quit?

"I love having honest conversations like that. I think it actually builds character."

Timing is everything. Hita came back as a Maori language script consultant and was planning his move north, when he had a conversation with Barnett in a queue for coffee. It led to a formal meeting and, ultimately, Kura Productions.

"We had no projects up and running, he just backed me as a silent investor." (Barnett won't talk financial specifics but says it was in the "tens of thousands" — he expected it to cost more, but Kura hit the ground running so fast, it wasn't needed.)

"I worked hard," says Hita.

Raised in Palmerston North by a Pakeha mum who cleaned motor camp cabins and a Maori dad who worked for the Justice Department, he was obsessed, he says, "with my old people". And that road leads home. "Science, maths, I may as well slit my throat — but when it came to languages, I could always pick them up relatively quickly."

There was a year at law school (he never finished the degree), his first child (a daughter, grown-up and living in Australia) and the day he met Jahnke and wooed her by pretending he was a radio interviewer. Unbeknown to them, her great-grandfather and his great-grandmother were siblings.

"She walked through the door and — I don't know how you would express it without it being a cliche — our ancestors just, um, forced us to find a way."

Kaikohe is their common ground. They lived in Auckland, but as the family grew, so did the desire to go home.

"We both come from big, traditional Maori families. Population control wasn't something that was discussed a lot around the dining room table to be honest. In fact, it was the opposite. It's an international issue at the moment, eh? Population control. Maori didn't get the memo!"

Hita loves that his kids know how to ride a horse, hunt for food, put up a fence, cook dinner and weave a basket. "If my wife and I disappeared for a week and the kids were left on their own, they'd be fine. They'd survive."

Temepara, 14, and Manuao, 13, ride bareback for the photoshoot. Ngawhakamoemiti, aged 5, rocks gumboots and a neon-pink tutu. The dogs have returned sans rabbit ("no tea then, eh?") and we're off to feed the chickens. Te Rau Kotahi, 6, is still a little shy; 8-year-old Ngataitangirua is not. What does their future look like? What about all those old white men who only want te reo on their terms?

"The community I come from is quite an equal percentage of Maori and Pakeha," says Hita. "And although there are issues around equality and income and opportunities, on the whole, there's an acceptance that Maori culture ain't going anywhere. So that's at a localised level. At a national level, I think it's just the same impulse that's captured America at the moment. It's the last dying ... you know, what's the right word? Attempt. Before the world moves on. When you have that perspective, suddenly things people like Don Brash say just seem very unimportant to me.

"Just take a deep breath, give it 10 years, and we will have moved past that. We've seen it happen so many times in history."

Remember when the Maori Language Act came into force and made te reo Maori an official language? Neither does anybody under the age of 30.

"One good thing about growing up in a Maori mindset is you're taught to take a long view of everything. You're one link in a very long chain. When Maori people make decisions, some people go, 'Oh well, that doesn't make any sense to me because that doesn't produce any immediate benefit.' Um, the Maori I know don't think like that. I'm quite happy to forsake any advantages for me personally now, if they're going to benefit my great-grandchildren.

Quinton Hita and his three youngest children: Ngataitangirua, 8, Ngawhakamoemiti, 5, and Te Rau Kotahi, 6 (obscured). Photo / Greg Bowker
Quinton Hita and his three youngest children: Ngataitangirua, 8, Ngawhakamoemiti, 5, and Te Rau Kotahi, 6 (obscured). Photo / Greg Bowker

"It's not exclusive to Maori, there are lots of individuals from all cultures who see it, but it's baked into our DNA and it's all around our whakapapa stuff and our genealogy. You really do see yourself as part of a continuum."

Hita learned te reo from his old people. He used it when he asked Jahnke's grandfather for his blessing. And again, when the man was in hospital and the nurse needed to tell him to turn over for an injection.

"I've seen a few people die," he says quietly.

What's that like?

"I think there's a transference that happens. A transference of strength. I feel like when my old people passed away, that up until that point, I was just a boy. But in the dying, yeah, a transference takes place, where it makes space for you. And, you know, I'm a fairly diminutive person, but I feel like my soul is huge."

Ahikaroa is playing now on ahikaroa.nz. It is scheduled to screen on Maori Television in April.