Steve Braunias profiles actor/writer Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
A shadow suddenly darkened the doorway of a home in Auckland. It belonged to a tall man dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He was 40 years old and things were really working out for his career as a writer and performer. He was about to play a stand-up comedy set in Whitianga, and another, longer set in Dunedin. Plus, Hollywood: US film company FX (American Horror Story, Fargo) are paying him good money to co-write a comedy pilot with his friends Jonny Brugh and Louis Mendiola. As for his personal life, he's crazy about his adorable daughter, Freddie, 6. Life is good; but the shadow of Cori Gonzalez-Macuer swayed in the doorway, trembling.
Mendiola got to know him because he was writing a character based on himself and needed another Latin American to play the role – he's from Colombia, and Gonzalez-Macuer moved from Chile to New Zealand with his family when he was 6. As well, Mendiola was a fan of the way Gonzalez-Macuer had played the role of Nick, a vampire in What We Do in the Shadows.
They bounced ideas off each other – Mendiola particularly liked his gift for "taking in the moment" - and started writing together in 2017. They successfully pitched an idea for a comedy called Ass to FX. The bottom fell out of Ass but FX asked what else they had, and that led to working on the pilot for a comedy with the working title of "Shell". It may be filmed in New Zealand next year.
What was their dynamic, pitching ideas to executives? Mendiola said, "It's the quiet guy and the guy who won't shut up. It's perfect. I'm like talking a million miles an hour and then he'll chime in, and every time he chimes in it's brilliant, he just knows comedy so well. He knows when to break in and say something intentionally …"
Mendiola searched for the right word, and found it in about 0.7 seconds: "awkward".
He walked inside the house and took a seat at the dining room table and sat there rigidly with his hands on his knees and looked straight ahead at a blank wall while his host made instant coffee, and was asked, "How do you take it, Cori?"
He turned around very abruptly in his chair and answered the question, then turned around again and stared once more at the blank wall.
There was conversation about his stand-up act later on in the interview.
Does he practise any kind of stagecraft?
"I stand still. I don't know if that's stagecraft."
What does he do with his hands?
"They're everywhere. I talk a lot with my hands. But yeah. I like do very minimal movement. When I started, that's just how I did it. I never, like, practised it. I just got up there and that's how I was doing it. People were like, 'That's a good style you have.' So I kept doing it."
Would he describe it as contained?
Is he a contained person?
"Yep. Always nervous."
He had seemed very nervous ever since he turned up in the doorway.
"Really?" he said. "I actually thought I was doing fine." Few people manage to make laughter sound sad, but he has that rare quality.
He recently posted a photo on Twitter of himself and his younger brother Pablo with their mum at Santiago airport in 1988, about to leave Chile for New Zealand. A sister, Alex, was born after the family settled in Wellington.
His mother, Alex Macuer, said, "We're very close. I'm probably the first person who he calls with good news and bad news. He calls me at least twice a day. Every day. In the morning, and when he picks up Freddie from school.
"And if anything happens, like 'Oh Mum, I got this job', or 'Oh Mum, I feel really bad.' Anything, you know. And in-between there's text messages. We're always in contact. We have this thing in our family, if we don't hear from someone for a couple of hours, we're like, 'Oh my God, how are you? Are you okay?'"
At home with Gonzalez-Macuer, in his Eden Terrace apartment: he never misses an episode of quiz show The Chase, and he loves to cook. The other night he and Freddie made a ragout - half pork, half beef, with vegetable stock, balsamic vinegar, spices, a tin of tomatoes, and pickled garlic. They talk in Spanish sometimes and he's very proud that she's started playing soccer.
He played too, passionately, as a centre-forward for Wellington first division team Olympic, and dreamed of making it big, but he went to Chile and knew the standard over there was out of reach. That was okay. He was sick of football anyway and got into stand-up, winning the Billy T Award for best comedian in 2006. His writing-acting gigs since then include What We Do in the Shadows and Wellington Paranormal. He's about to take a week-long retreat with Brugh and Mendiola to work on Shell. The dream is that FX will commit to a series.
Yes, he said, things were going well, and counted the ways.
"Work. Family. Food. Good relationships with people. My car got a warrant."
He mused on his good fortune, and then he said, "I'm definitely happier these days. I've definitely been low before."
His close friend Josh Milan said, "I was with Cori the night it happened.
"We pulled up outside his house. Not many people know this and I'll give you the raw what happened.
"Cori and I had been partying together in Wellington and he said, 'I've got to go, something's wrong with Dad,' so we drove to his dad's house.
"Cori said, 'Just wait. I'll go and talk to him.' And he went in, came back to the car and we left. Cori was really upset. I was like, 'What's wrong, brother? Are you okay?'
"And he goes, 'Nah.'
"But he wouldn't talk about it. That's the thing about Cori. He wouldn't talk about his feelings back then, he'd bottle them up. He had a creative outlet for it. A lot of his comedy is very dark. He'd bottle that s*** up, all that sadness, and whatever was going on in his life, and he'd make fun of it in his comedy.
"So that night he came back out to the car I said, 'Something's not right, brother. Let's go back in, I'll come in with you.'
"He goes 'Nah nah nah nah. I don't want you to come into the house.'
"We started driving back to Wellington and then he said, 'Pull the car over.' I pulled over twice and turned around to drive back to the house where his dad was and he was still alive then.
"The first time was about 100m up the road and the second was about a kilometre. And he goes, 'We've got to go back.' And then he goes, 'Nah let's go to town. I need to get away from this. I need to have some fun.'
"So we went out and had fun. We partied on Courtenay Place all night. He stayed at my house. I wasn't very far from his place. What happened the next day was a police officer called me on Cori's phone. He said, 'Can you come and get Cori? Cori's dad just committed suicide.'
"I got there straightaway. The police were there. They hadn't taken him out of the house or moved him. His mum was standing there. Cori was standing there and he was shell-shocked. He was cold. There was nothing behind Cori's eyes. There's always life and love and a witty, dark humour. But there was just nothing. He was frozen, and he literally looked like a vampire.
"Funnily enough he was filming What We Do in the Shadows at that time. But he really did look like a vampire."
His father, Enrique, died on August 2, 2013. He talked openly about that in the interview, and has also given a Ted talk on the subject and was filmed in a documentary about youth suicide. He stood outside his dad's house in the Hutt Valley on a cold, bleak day, pointing to the window where he broke in and found Enrique's body in the living room.
He said he carried a lot of anger about it and that it was still with him, was only ever a split-second away, but he was calmer now. He takes medication for anxiety and depression, and that stabilises his mood, it definitely works.
"He's my brother," said Josh Milan. "I love him. I adore him. But I know he's not without fault. He's reactive. He's a defender. He's a protector. He's full of love and that love is light and dark … He's a hot mess. He's passionate about hate and love, but he knows what's right and what's wrong."
"Everything," said Gonzalez-Macuer, when asked to name his dad's good qualities. "Heaps. He was funny, he was caring, he was the best dad ever."
His mum mentioned that Cori wasn't his real name. She said, "When he was little, maybe two, he got sick with a really bad cold and we got these medicine drops, called Cori drops, and he loved them so much that as a joke we called him Cori."
His real first name is Enrique.
About six months after his father's death, he met and fell in love with Anna Lawson, and about three months later she was pregnant with Freddie.
She said, "We're an unusual couple of exes. He's still a pain in the arse but he's one of my best friends. A lot of people find it quite strange how close we are. Because the norm is that you hate your ex. Right? Both of us are really lucky to have the friendship that we have. He's one of the people I get in touch with if I need to work something out or find a recipe – we share lots of recipes. Probably the only thing I miss about him is his cooking actually." Her laugh was the total opposite of his: only ever totally happy.
She said he told he loved her on their first date. He said to his interviewer that he had put her through a lot. Lawson said, "Did he? Oh that's good that he acknowledges that. Yeah. He did. We hadn't been together very long and then we had another little person to learn about and he doesn't mind a big night at the pub and that doesn't always go hand-in-hand with a newborn baby.
"But yeah. We fell in love, we sure did, but we fell out of it pretty quickly too. By the time Freddie was 1 we realised we weren't going to work as a couple but we stuck at it for another year and did therapy together and then the therapist said to us, 'I think this is more about you co-parenting rather than continuing as a couple.' That ended up being great for us, because it gave us a framework to begin our co-parenting journey together and so we actually lived together an extra five or six months after we had broken up. We had a three-bedroom house and Cori would go out on Tinder dates and I'd be sitting at home wishing him good luck.
"His love life is something that I always quiz him on. It's funny, because people always ask me, 'Is Cori seeing somebody, is he going to settle down?' and, in a strange way, I guess our friendship kind of ticks some of those boxes for him, in terms of being there for support and having time together. He's great friends with my partner, Jack.
"But yeah. He'll meet a girl and he'll think she's just the bee's knees without really knowing too much about them and then he'll find out something like they're a vegetarian, or they take their cat on a walk on a leash and he'll suddenly go off them. And they are two actual examples."
That happy laugh, again; there was so much warmth in her voice, and just as there was with his mum, with his friend Milan, and his writing partner Mendiola, there was so much love for him.
Lawson said, "Cori is a really deeply sentimental and emotional person. He's so, so loving. However I call his apartment the black hole because things do seem to go missing. Drink bottles, school hats …"
He had declined the request to be interviewed at his apartment and instead went to the journalist's house. "Well," she laughed, "I think that's probably a better location."
Sometimes he drank his coffee like a normal person and a couple of times he took long, thirsty draughts of it, which was a bit strange on account of the fact that by then the cup was empty.
He was very pleasant, an affable fellow, but it was kind of hard to tell that he was a comedian and even harder to tell that he was funny. "Oh he's hilarious," said Lawson. "But he's so low-key funny that it takes a while to figure out that he's being funny. His stage delivery - being deadpan and quite low energy, and seeming like he almost doesn't want to be there - is kind of how he is all the time, everywhere."
Anyway, neither daytime nor Nescafe were his favourite things. "One of New Zealand's most infamous party boys," laughed Milan. "We've known each other since we cruised the mean streets of Courtenay Place. We had a hell of a lot of fun. Cori's the bad boy of comedy. Or he was, anyway."
Was? Lawson said, "He doesn't really have an off switch. If he doesn't put himself in those situations, then it's under control. But when there's something going on, he never wants to go home. And that can be on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night. It's a lifestyle most of us couldn't maintain. He always has a fun crew around him."
He said that he never drank until he was 22, after he stopped playing football and moved to England to work as a stand-up comic. He drank a lot; he liked cocaine, a lot.
"Apparently I had a great time," he said. "I've seen photos of it."
"Awkward," said Louis Mendiola.
"Stand-offish," said Josh Milan.
"Awkward to a tee," said Anna Lawson.
I liked him a lot. He had something about him – a dangerous temperament, a sincerity, not a trace of meanness, a lively intelligence – that made you want to get to know him. But yeah. Awkward. I said, kind of exasperated at my nice, strange guest clutching at the handle of his empty coffee cup like it connected him to the world, "Do you like awkwardness?"
"I don't know if I like it," he said, with a sad little smile. "It just happens a lot."
WHERE TO GET HELP
If it is an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
For counselling and support
Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Need to talk? Call or text 1737
Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202
For children and young people
Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234
What's Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)
The Lowdown: Text 5626 or webchat
For help with specific issues
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797