We encounter Rawiri Paratene just after the fourth time he's seen Whale Rider. Which means it's the fourth time he's cried.

This time, however, he says it was for another reason - the music. He's been listening to a CD of the soundtrack (by Australian composer Lisa Gerrard whose ethereal touch has graced Gladiator, The Insider and Ali) and seeing it with the pictures: "It just took me away."

So did the making of the film for which the stage and screen veteran had to age 20 or so years in the pivotal role of Koro, the stern grandfather to Pai and the wise elder looking for a new tribal leader from the younger generations.

"The role was so scary for me not because of the age but because of the depth and because of who Koro is and what he has to do.

"It's a beautiful role - I wanted to do so well at it. But it is a role that is really demanding as well."

Paratene says he blew his first audition because he so badly wanted the part. After reading the book and Niki Caro's script he tried too hard and he "waffled on for half an hour".

But he had a second chance and landed the role.

Like Cliff Curtis, who plays his son, Paratene (Ngapuhi) had initial concerns about telling a story that is the cornerstone of another tribe.

However, his elders told him that the legend of Paikea and the whale figures in his Northland tribe's whakapapa, too. And it was, after all, acting.

"I was a bit worried about how I would be received. But I didn't let that get on top of me. I've played Australians. I've played Noel Coward ... it was an acting role. I'm certainly not going to play him as a Ngapuhi because he ain't. This man is Ngati Konohi and he's from Whangara and so that is what I am going to play."

Paratene's Koro is a grey-haired sleeping volcano of a man steeped in his ancestry and who, despite his years, still a deft hand at the taiaha.

Paratene says there's quite a bit of his own late grandfather in the character.

"We are talking about a generation of men who were leaders through the sixties when communities were breaking up and so the dead were starting to be buried away from the homeland and they had to fight to take them back. Just to try and keep those principles meaningful was suddenly virtually impossible.

"I grew up seeing those men having to deal with that - and those women of my grandmother's generation. We're talking about Whina Cooper and all of them."

Playing a figure like Koro, whose years and mana command respect, says Paratene, meant he had to be a solitary, somewhat aloof figure during the shoot, and restrain from his usual clowning around between takes. In front of the camera, it was also an exercise in restraint.

"The most constant direction I got from Niki was 'Rawiri keep it down in here'," he says patting his stomach.

"This was his centre. He was a gutsy, staunch, stubborn, blind, frustrating, pig-headed, honest, beautiful man. I love him. I find him really likeable."

Herald feature: Whale Rider