Actor Peter Elliott tells GILBERT WONG that his career future is in the lap of the gods - an uncomfortable place for it to be.

Weird celebrity anecdote No 1: Actor Peter Elliott was hired at the height of 1980s Glossmania, in which he played that inimitable bastard Rex Fairbairn to open a supermarket.

Let Elliott tell the rest:" So I'm about to cut the ribbon when this old dear, she yelled, 'Oh, you're that horrible, horrible Rex,' then she picked up a frozen chicken and chucked it at me."

The story arises after a tangential question on the issue of the week, the fees commanded by newsreaders. One part of the defence mounted by broadcaster Paul Holmes was the utter loss of privacy. To enjoy being recognised instantly in a small country like New Zealand must require an ego bigger than most of us have.


Elliott, who last year ended a run incarnating the rather nicer Dr David Kearney, medical director in Shortland Street (star sign is Pisces, reveals the soap's Website), knows what Holmes is talking about - the way people pointedly ignore you, or whisper behind your back.

"It drives you nuts, but you develop a skin, you really have to," he says.

In a canny piece of casting that has a definite eye for marquee value, director Simon Prast chose Elliott as the lead, Serge, in the Auckland Theatre Company production of Art that premieres this week.

On Broadway and the West End, Art, by Frenchwoman Yazmina Reza, has won a slew of awards, not least because of judicious use of star power. Names like Albert Finney, Alan Alda and Tom Conti have appeared. Sir Sean Connery, who owns the rights, plans to take a role in the film version once he has secured a high enough return from the theatrical rights.

Last week Elliott was rehearsing with a badly bruised left eye socket after a tumble from a car (he was perched on the boot) while he was heading down a Waiuku beach for one of his favourite pastimes, paragliding. Prast was reportedly bemused but not ruffled, while Elliott hoped Dr Panadol would continue to look after him, despite the concussion and ugly bruises.

The timing was right for Elliott, whose contract with Shortland Street ended in November last year, a decision he is clearly not entirely happy about. "It wasn't me shedding telly, " he explains later while refusing to clarify what he means," it was telly shedding me."

But it has been seven years since he has faced a live audience and that was in the genteel Noel Coward work Private Lives at the Court Theatre in Christchurch. Art will be an entirely different challenge - wordy, intense and intellectual.

"Oh yes, being on stage is mostly nerve-racking. But once under way it's also joyous working with someone else. It's like playing music in a band or orchestra. We're learning the notes and by opening night we can hopefully play the music."

Elliott's character buys a piece of modern painting, much to the consternation of his two oldest male friends. Sure, he says, the play is about the nature of art, but at heart it is more about men of a certain age.

"This woman has got a staggering insight into how men are in the late 1990s. It's about men having relationships with each other, without the sexual connotation we tend to put on the word. If you said a Kiwi bloke was having a relationship with another guy, he'd probably deck you. But that's what is happening. Sure they're mates, but they're more than that and the nature of those relationships is the slide down which we travel to get to the play."

So Art marks a transformation. Telly celebrity Peter Elliott wants to be an actor again. While not disparaging the work on Shortland Street and other productions, he says:" It's largely fast turnaround acting by numbers."

With theatre, he says, actors have a certain luxury - time for rehearsal, time to sit down and dig through the meat of the script and fill in the details. He grins, the short, neat beard wiggles and he looks like he's having fun.

Elliott, despite his admittedly good looks which have seen him work as a model, was an unlikely actor. His father, Mac, from Howard Harvey McLaren, had a business in Christchurch selling car batteries. When Elliott arrived in 1956, the youngest of three children (Michael and Phillippa are the others) his parents Mac and Zoe Osler faced a crumbling relationship.

His father played golf and belonged to the Canterbury Officer's Club but was poor. His mother played classical music on the record player, loud enough to shake the windows.

After a period in which Elliott says he mainly played in bands and no doubt inhaled drugs, he decided at 22 that he wanted to become an actor. The National Drama School in Wellington turned him down. At the Court Theatre, artistic director Elric Hooper at first told him to go away but eventually auditioned Elliott and took him on as a theatre apprentice.

"It was my father's great fear. He said, 'Well, it's your life son,' with disappointment. He thought I was heading for a life of severe homosexuality. His terror was that his youngest son had gone peculiar."

But with tutors like Stuart Devenie, Elliot enjoyed a traditional theatre education, working behind stage, taking on bit parts, watching and learning from the more experienced actors.

Eventually he had to learn to live down his on-screen personas as bad boy Rex. Elliott holds his hands up disarmingly. He has owned up to his bad boyness. He delights in the fact that with not much effort he can become very weasely and nasty.

"Actors have that. They can let out the black, vicious streak. Look, I was a later bloomer, always the smallest guy who was a bit of a victim at school."

Weird celebrity anecdote No 2: Again it's the 80s. Elliott is having a drink in the Puhoi pub. A gang of bikies walk in. They come up to him. One says, "You're that guy, Rex, ain'tcha?"

Elliott: "I'm petrified and mutter something about how it's only telly when they start slapping me on the back. 'Way to go, man,' they're saying. They admired Rex ..."

The actor Peter Elliott prefers theatre, but the family man he has become - married to former Limbs dancer Susan Trainor for seven years, with two daughters, Grace, 7, and Lucy, 5 - chose a less penurious living on television. From Marlin Bay to Cover Story and Give Us a Clue, Elliott has popped up as part of the light entertainment landscape.

Which is why the steps he takes now are uncertain. After leaving Shortland Street he went to Australia and learned that he was a man of a "useful age" for television drama, largely because men of his age tend to have the families and mortgages that force them to seek regular employment that acting never is.

So after Art what is there? Elliott doesn't know.

"The issue is to maintain my life as an actor. In the late 80s and 90s I didn't work in the theatre because there was no money in it. It is now possible for actors to live on what the theatre pays them.

"It's quite possible for us to stay where we are, providing we can find ways of working. But my life is very much in the lap of the gods, which is a slightly uncomfortable place to be."

* Art, by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Simon Prast, Maidment Theatre, February 18 to March 18.