When Jason Statham was growing up, he wasn't interested in Transformers, GI Joe or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The young Statham had a different passion: he fell in love with sharks.

"The great white ... is a fascinating creature," Statham tells TimeOut. "[They] have teeth that can replace themselves in 24 hours. They can smell you peeing in the water a mile away."

Shark facts? Statham can reel them off at the same speed as a series of blows to the head, which he does often in his ultra-violent action franchises like The Transporter and The Expendables.

Advertisement

But the 51-year-old is still surprised his childhood passion for sharks has finally come in handy, thanks to his latest film.

Statham, last seen breaking out of prison as Deckard Shaw in last year's The Fate of the Furious, stars in The Meg, Jon Turteltaub's whopper shark movie that was shot in and around Auckland for several months in 2016.

Due to hit theatres next Thursday, it's a big-budget action thriller with b-grade appeal.

The Meg tells the story of a giant great white called a megalodon - The Meg for short - being discovered alive and well, living near the bottom of the ocean.

With the Meg terrorising everything in its path, along with plenty of comical moments and zippy one-liners, the film's been praised for its self-awareness, with many calling it "Jaws on steroids" and "Jurassic Park under the sea".

For Statham, his role in The Meg is a little different than most of his others. Instead of playing gruff gangsters, mafia hitmen or bruising enforcers serving up fistfuls of justice in every scene, Statham's playing against type.

This time, as palaeontologist Jonas Taylor, he's the hero.

"I haven't done a movie without brandishing a gun, or jumping in a car, or hitting someone around the head, for a long, long time," he says.

"[Jonas] has to put himself in harm's way for the greater good of everyone else. It's a really great, heroic role."

That begs the question: can Statham pull it off?

According to Turteltaub, yes, he can.

"I was surprised when I got to know Jason that he wasn't the ultra-serious action star that I was expecting," says the director.

"He's just fun. For me, it's just who I am too. I don't want to make a shark movie that's grouchy and serious. For it to be fun, the characters have to be fun."

Helping raise the lol count is character actor Rainn Wilson. Known for his role as old-school paper salesman Dwight Schrute in The Office, Wilson is also playing against type in The Meg.

But, as billionaire investor Jack Morris, the man funding the deep-sea operation that discovers the shark, he occasionally gets the opportunity to goof around.

"It's a really fun role because I don't have to be an action hero at all. I get some serious stuff, he's a serious man, but he's a little bit goofy, a little bit offbeat," he says.

The Meg might have a b-movie sensibility, but Wilson says there's plenty of action. Or, as he puts it: "Shark shit hits the fan."

"There's one villain in this movie and it's a bloodthirsty shark the size of a 727 aeroplane," he quips.

That means the stars of the film spent plenty of time in the water, with much of the action scenes shot in a specifically built giant water tank north of Auckland on a boat that could be raised or lowered at will. That meant training sessions learning how to fall off a boat, swim in debris, and act while wearing clothes over a wetsuit.

Ruby Rose, who plays engineer Jaxx Herd, experienced some hair-raising moments during those scenes. One, in particular, stands out.

"I did almost drown," she tells Timeout. "Basically I ended up in the water ... and I really needed them to throw something for me to get out of the water. They were going, 'This is fantastic'. I was thinking, 'It's not fantastic'.

"So I screamed, 'Help!', but I did it in my American accent [so] everyone thought I was good ... I was a little bit sick for a couple of hours. We worked it out."

Rose jokingly blames Wilson for leaving her in the water too long - "Rainn has one job to do, and that one job helps me get out of that situation".

But she praises Statham and jokes that if he'd been around, the action hero would have saved the day.

"He's amazing, he's unreal, I do feel much safer in Jason's hands than Rainn's hands. He's a very fit guy. He's always on."

Which leads us to the big question. If Statham's the film's hero, surely that means he gets to punch a shark in the face?

Statham laughs, composes himself, folds his bulging biceps behind his head, and then gets serious.

"There are no fisticuffs with a megalodon," he says.

Shame. He might not get another chance.

How Meg's stars spent their NZ downtime

They were here for months, but the stars of The Meg had very different ways of spending their time off while shooting in New Zealand.

Jason Statham was often spotted around various hotspots in Auckland with his supermodel partner, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The pair snapped selfies at Piha, and Statham's favourite coffee spot was Catroux, a cafe close to his rented Westmere home. He was also seen dining at Ponsonby's Orphans Kitchen.

Rainn Wilson ventured a little further afield, happily tweeting his way around the country on his days off when he visited Tutukaka and Hokianga. He was, he said, hanging out for a Kiwi summer because "it's been cold and rainy the whole time".

Li Bingbing, the Chinese actress, also spent much of her time trying to keep warm. "It's rainy, sunny, rainy, sunny and so windy," she told TimeOut. "The weather here is so interesting."

On set, though, another activity took up several stars' time: competitive chess. The biggest battles were between Wilson and Kiwi star Cliff Curtis, who has a small role in The Meg.

"Rainn was definitely No 1, but I've improved," bragged Curtis. "I crushed him about a week ago."

Wilson told a different story. "I think we're about 50-50 in speed chess, and I've maybe beaten him 10 times out of 11 in regular-paced chess.

"The numbers speak for themselves."

LOWDOWN
Who: Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose and Cliff Curtis
What: The Meg
When: In cinemas next week