Kiwi actor Mark Mitchinson plays a Danish gang boss in Straight Forward, a Scandi crime thriller filmed in Queenstown. The 52-year-old began acting late, after a life lived by the seat of his pants.
1 This is the first Danish-New Zealand co-production. What does that involve?
It's made with Danish money and Danish stars, but shot in New Zealand by Kiwi crew. It was lovely to have Danish actors come over and mix it up with us. It was interesting to watch how differently they do things, more subtle, quiet and intense — very filmic. My character, Ravn, is a property tycoon and crime syndicate boss. He has a stylish charm and a sense of cheekiness but if push comes to shove he has no qualms about using violence to get things done. The great thing about making TV for On Demand is we're not so reliant on hitting the right time slot and ratings demographics.
2 Are you English or a New Zealander?
I'm English. Dad was an Anglican priest and we moved to Rotorua when I was 6, which was brilliant. You'd go to school in bare feet, ride your bike around — the freedom was magic. I was the only white kid in the kapa haka group. Going back to England when I was 16, I never really fitted back in. I went to the Guildhall school of drama but English film was going through a Merchant Ivory phase and I wasn't the right fit. Grittier stuff like Trainspotting came a few years later. I got fed up and went off to America to write a book.
3 What was the book about?
I interviewed actors involved with politics; Ed Asner, the head of the union, was in a big stoush with Charlton Heston, the head of the NRA; Martin Sheen was part of the Californian grape boycott — migrant workers were getting cancers and respiratory diseases from being sprayed while they worked. Martin introduced me to Susan Sarandon who was working for refugee women's rights — lots of really interesting people. I sent the book to lots of agents but the problem was I was a 23-year-old nobody, so it languishes in a drawer at home.
4 What did you do next?
I opened a vodka bar in Covent Garden called The Mars Bar with a crazy Dutch guy I knew. We became the coolest little place in town. Blur were recording their album down the road — they used to come in all the time. Oasis rang us up wanting to have their No.1 party at our bar. Damon was like, "We'll pay you double what they're offering to close so we can sit in the bar and give them the fingers." In the end Oasis had their party and Blur came and it was all great. That rivalry was made up by the record companies. It was a brilliant time. When David Bowie walked in with Lou Reed I knew we'd totally made it.
5 Did you open more vodka bars?
What's the hardest thing about growing old? 'Losing all your friends'
Well, the Poetry Society were around the corner, so I opened a Poetry Café for them. I'd seen this cool poetry slam thing happening in New York — you'd have a restaurant upstairs and performance space downstairs. All of a sudden I was in this world of poets and writers. Ted Hughes came in. I met Emma Thompson and her actor-y mates; Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Alan Rickman. An oil trader offered to bankroll me to open more but that sounded like a nightmare. I was done.
6 How did you reinvent yourself?
A mate from drama school had learned to programme HTML. This was 1995 — right at the beginning of the internet. I said to him, "This is amazing, why don't I go and get clients?" We set up a business called Motion Pixels creating websites for the music industry. It took off — we went from two staff to 20. We did the first live online music broadcast with Simple Minds.
7 Did you see what was coming for the music industry?
We did. We were all using Napster. In 1998 we presented a digital strategy to EMI saying, "Digitise your music and sell it". The boss threw our report into the middle of the table and said, "That will never happen". It was like watching a supertanker heading for an iceberg. So we got a contract to do the government's Millenium Bug campaign.
8 Was the Y2K Bug real?
Totally, without a shadow of a doubt. If we hadn't got out there and done the campaign to get businesses prepared it could have been a catastrophe. But then of course the dot com bubble burst and companies like ours were decimated. The money dried up overnight. We had to let all our staff go. It was so painful. I came back to New Zealand and bought a house at Piha.
9 That must've been a change of pace?
It was lovely, actually. I met my wife Tina at a party. In six weeks we were pregnant and life changed. Tina's a TV producer, so I stayed home and looked after our daughter. A friend who was casting Amazing Extraordinary Friends suggested I audition. I hadn't acted in 20 years but I got the part; my first professional acting job. It's so much easier when the pressure's off. I thought, "Why don't I just give it a good nudge?" Getting the lead role in the film Bloodlines was a game changer. I played a South African psychiatrist who poisoned his wife.
10 Are you able to work full-time as a TV and film actor in West Auckland?
Pretty much. A lot of overseas productions come here. I'm doing more work in Australia — season five of Rake and Mystery Road, an Aboriginal cop drama. In my downtime I do voiceovers.
11 What are your thoughts on New Zealand at the moment?
Thank God we're here. I like the way Jacinda's moved away from that combative style of politics — New Zealanders just don't like that. I'd like to see more radical change in education. My son's dyslexic; watching kids with learning difficulties try to fit into the education system is like square pegs in round holes. Teachers know what they need but the ministry's too slow to change.
12 Your children are now teenagers. What sort of father are you?
Fatherhood is one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me, and the greatest challenges. Am I any good at it? The jury's out. As my kids get older, I'm trying to be more hands off. If I can just keep calm, I'm going to be more help to them. I go fly fishing with my son, he's much better than me. I find learning together works better than the 'I know best' approach, because I don't know best. I've lived by the seat of my pants for most of my life. If you can be open to opportunities, you can have a really exciting life.
• Straight Forward, full season now on demand at TVNZ