Last updated 05:00, July 29 2018
Temuera Morrison is pleased that it’s science-fiction rather than salsa, fantasy rather than the foxtrot, that is putting him back in the limelight. In fact Morrison is just pleased to be back in the limelight – full stop.
The 57-year old Kiwi acting icon is back on screens this weekend in the Aussie low-budget alien invasion actioner Occupation, but that’s just a taster before we see him play Jason Momoa’s Dad and Nicole Kidman’s lover in the DC Extended Universe Blockbuster Aquaman in the summer.
Speaking to me while in the middle of a gym workout (“It’s chest and back day,” he proudly announces), the offbeat and upbeat Morrison, who also achieved Hollywood fame by starring in the likes of Barb Wire, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Green Lantern, says he really enjoys both genres because “there are no rules”.
“You can push the parameters a little bit.”
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He admits though he was initially a little unsure about Occupation and writer/director Luke Sparke.
“I was in Australia promoting another sci-fi movie that nobody saw called The Osiris Project [when Morrison met with Sparke]. He was a huge Star Wars nut, one of those guys that collects Star Wars stuff. My character Jango was one of his favourites growing up. I even thought this was a distraction while he was trying to make something else.
“However, it was at this time last year and pretty chilly here, but the Gold Coast [where it was going to be filmed] has such a nice climate, plus I got to have a bit of a runaround as well. And I’m always just trying to make the most of these opportunities – and keep away from Dancing With the Stars.
“Just joking,” he laughs, before launching off on the first of many tangents. “Some time ago, back in the original days, I was approached [about being on the reality competition]. I did say that I would do the show, ‘if you can guarantee I win’. ‘No, we can’t do that,’ they said. I said, ‘what kind of TV show is this? I can’t bribe everybody!’ It’s all good -–it was ages ago and I’m just joking – it gets huge ratings.”
As Morrison has shown throughout more than three decades on movie and television screens, he’s never been afraid of mixing it up. There was his frightening and inspiring turn as Jake “the Muss” Heke in Once Were Warriors, the memorable Dr Hone Ropata in the initial years of Shortland Street, 2005 talk show The Tem Show, short-lived variety programme Happy Hour and even a 2013 reality series ambitiously titled The Life and Times of Temuera Morrison.
“I figured I had a bit of a colourful background to portray,” he told me back at the time of it’s 2013 release (while he was waiting to pick up his kids from school), admitting that sometimes having the cameras around for the best part of a year was challenging.
“You do feel quite vulnerable and sometimes I cringed a little bit when I watched the footage because it’s kind of warts-and-all.”
Morrison admitted then that he had a few arguments with his good friend Michael Jonathan while filming that show and confesses that he and Sparks also crossed swords briefly on the set of Occupation.
Clearly inspired by 1996 US alien invasion favourite Independence Day, there’s a scene in the movie where Morrison’s ex-con attempts to advance interplanetary relations by punching his newly arrived foe. However, he recounts that he wanted it to be more than a display of Earth’s muscle power.
“I was interested in the emotion and heart of the thing, but that all got cut out, so I had an argument about it.”
That said, he was impressed with Sparks and the rest of the crew, describing them as nice people who wanted to make a film that was “as good as possible” with limited resources. “Some of the effects are very good,” he adds.
In truth though, Occupation was simply an “ideal warm up” for playing lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry in Aquaman, especially since the latter was also going to be filmed on the Gold Coast.
“There were big scenes I knew I had to do in Aquaman and it was either do this [Occupation] or go and do a theatre play. I can come to the gym and do some benchwork that will fix my chest up, but we actors also have to tune our emotional things up.”
While the two shoots didn’t overlap, Morrison says he did have to go into the Warner Bros’ Studios in the shadow of the Movieworld theme park [Aquaman‘s base of operations] for one day which really highlighted the differences in scale.
“It was huge over there, whereas here [on Occupation], we had to share a lot of the facilities and pitch in – 20 actors all in the same room fighting over the banana.”
Morrison also says that there was one name he kept hearing while he was in the Aquaman van – his old Green Lantern co-star Taika Waititi.
“He was in the Studios before us and all the talk was of Taika and how beautiful a shoot it was [on Thor: Ragnarok], how happy it was and all the music that was blaring during it. It’s wonderful, wonderful that he’s doing very well. And you know, you’ve got to take your hat off to him. These guys make bloody vampire movies and they get noticed. They have tenacity – that’s what it takes.”
Admitting he hasn’t seen Waititi in ages, Morrison also confesses he’s a little hurt that another of Green Lantern‘s stars Ryan Reynolds made fun of the already much-maligned blockbuster in Deadpool 2 earlier this year.
“He just keeps rubbishing it,” Morrison mock fumes, as he sounds like he’s temporarily taking his weights routine up a notch.
Not that he holds a grudge against the Canadian actor. After revealing that Reynolds, “sneaks into New Zealand now and again”, Morrison fondly recalls their big scene where his character Abin Sur passes on the magical ring to Reynolds’ Hal Jordan.
“It was like I was in The Proposal with him – I was Sandra Bullock [who Morrison also co-starred with earlier in the infamous Speed 2: Cruise Control]. [Kiwi director] Martin Campbell put me in that movie and the worst thing for me was they were going to make another one and I was going to get paid a bit more money. But, because the first one didn’t work financially, I guess…”
Morrison’s Hollywood career is laden with those kind of colourful, slightly hard-luck stories and not just involving him.
I mention how his performance in Once Were Warriors has been lauded to me by everyone from his Aquaman co-star Jason Momoa to Winona Ryder and he recalls how Warriors director Lee Tamahori had all sorts of crazy offers in the wake of its release.
“Even Arnold [Schwarzenegger] wanted him for his next action movie. Lee was the talk of the town after Warriors, then he made that Mulholland Falls and then he became not the talk of the town.”
Launching into an anecdote about being picked up in a Green Lantern shuttle bus in New Orleans and having to calm himself when he saw actors Tim Robbins and Mark Strong were already onboard, it’s clear that Morrison never tires of reminiscing about his Hollywood days past.
“All my experiences were a bit different,” he told me back in 2013.
“Barb Wire – that was action and Pamela Anderson dressed in leather. There, I was just amazed at all the trucks and the enormity of the sets for a comic-book film. It was also hard to beat Speed 2, living on a luxury cruise ship and going up to the upper-level to have a little tropical drink and watching the sun go down while cruising on the Caribbean, while beside me Sandra Bullock and all her wardrobe and make-up girls are having a cocktail as well. You have to kind of pinch yourself.”
He also described working with Brando on the ill-fated The Island of Dr Moreau as memorable, as was watching Harrison Ford during the filming of Six Days Seven Nights.
“I was one of the pirates, so I was never working, just sitting under a coconut tree waiting for him and Anne Heche to finish their business. I do quite vividly remember sitting on the beach with Ellen DeGeneres and asking her what she was up to? ‘I’m trying to get my TV show off the ground, but no one wants to know me’, she said. She was dating Anne Heche at the time and now she’s the next big Oprah.”
Now he hopes Occupation and Aquaman might put put him back on Disney’s radar when it comes to casting the proposed Boba Fett-focused standalone Star Wars movie.
“I should be in there,” the former Jango Fett says, “but no-one’s ringing”.
“Disney called me for Moana, but they should be calling me for that stuff. I know all about the Mandalorian history and I reckon the movie needs to get down to the gritty stuff – they need to go the bounty hunter way.”
Morrison has plenty to keep himself occupied in case the Mouse House can’t find his number in the near future though.
There’s the release of the third season of Netflix’s 18th Century set fur trading drama Frontier, which he got a role on thanks to his new best-mate Momoa, plus there’s already talk of an Occupation sequel, which Morrison laughs that he’d do if only because he can then make up for that “punching scene” he was so disappointed about.
Morrison says he’d also love to make a follow up to his 2014 self-titled “covers” album.
“I need to kill some more people with my sultry tones. I enjoyed that process [of making an album] – it was great and I learned a lot too. It was about reinventing the songs, not just singing them like the originals.”
Recalling his early days helping “Uncle Howard” with his stage act, Morrison says he hasn’t ruled out a return to treading the boards himself.
“Funnily enough, someone had just watched me on The Project in Australia the other week – [they] happened to be a producer of one of the Disney theatre shows. It just goes to show how, if you put yourself out there, people notice you again.”
Admitting that this isn’t the first time he’s had a call like that, he says he used to always deflect such offers to his good-mate George Henare [currently playing the Sultan in the Perth production of Disney’s Aladdin].
“He’s a master of that, he enjoys that, that’s his game. We have the same agent, so I always used to say, ‘send George, send George, I think it’s one for George’. He’s a beautiful, talented man.”
As the years advance though, Morrison’s stance may have softened.
“Sometimes, I just don’t take it for granted anymore. Sometimes you get these spurts of work, but then it’s quite easy to be back looking out at the ocean view and thinking, ‘gee, the phone’s not ringing anymore’. Then, it’s about being stimulated and getting out there so people see you. That’s the entertainment industry – you’ve got to keep turning them out.”
Occupation (M) is now screening, Aquaman is due in New Zealand cinemas on Boxing Day.