Interview: Julian Dennison on connecting to his culture in Uproar, working with his family and the difficulty of executing comedy

After breaking out as a talent to watch from his performance in Taika Waititi’s acclaimed comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, New Zealand-born actor Julian Dennison quickly took the international film scene by storm with roles in such hits as Deadpool 2, The Christmas Chronicles 2 and Godzilla vs. Kong.

Returning to his homeland, Dennison’s latest turn in Uproar, a moving and heartwarming comedy about connection and finding your place in the world, is one that hones its own personal connection to the actor.  Starring as 17-year-old Josh Waaka, Uproar sets itself in 1981 New Zealand, where the rugby-obsessed country is divided over the arrival of the South African Springboks team, sparking nationwide protests. Josh, who has never felt like he fits in anywhere, is inspired by the protests and by a newfound passion for performing to find his own voice. After embracing his community and his Māori heritage, Josh and his family set out on a journey towards healing.

As the film arrives in Australian cinemas this week (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with Dennison about connecting to the material, working with his own mother, and honing his comedic craft after working with the likes of Ryan Reynolds.

Congratulations on the film.  I spoke to one of your directors, Paul Middleditch, at the film’s Brisbane premiere, and he said that Uproar‘s story, which was based on his own experiences growing up, shared a lot of similarities to your own.  Were you always interested in the arts in a rugby dominated environment?

Yeah, I think that’s how I related to (the character of) Josh a lot, because I went to an all boys school.  Paul actually went to St. Pat’s in Wellington, and I went to another school about 40 minutes drive from him, so we actually both grew up in Wellington.  I went to a school that was predominantly European, quite prestigious, and, surprisingly, white.  So I related to Josh in that way.  I played rugby through primary school and then intermediate, and then you get to years nine and ten, started high school, and the First 15 is all anyone can talk about.

Your audition scene in the film was so incredibly powerful.  Were you drawing on any real life experiences in that? Or are you just that good an actor?

(Laughs) Yeah, I tapped into a lot of personal stuff.  Growing up, as I said, in a predominantly European school, not feeling connected to who I am or my Māori tongue, which is what makes me me.  It all kind of bubbled up to the surface in that scene.  Paul and Hamish Bennett, the other director, they were so good, and all the producers, (as) it was a closed set, so it was just me, the camera and a few other crew, and we just kind of did it.  Just really had to feel it.  It’s such an important scene, so I always had to be honest.  I had to learn and draw from things that were uncomfortable for me, and that’s what makes (that scene) so genuine and so special.

Did you have to do that scene multiple times? Is it a case of making that first take the best?

Yeah, we kind of had to make sure the first one was the one that we could feel.  The next (take) would be about making sure I was pronouncing the words the right way and doing the proper actions.  The dialects are different from the North to the South Island, so had to make sure we got that stuff correct.

And I understand your mother went to some of the marches depicted in the film.  How was it to get a personal perspective of such an event?

It was really, really special.  Before filming I was talking to my mum about some of the marches and looking through that time with (her) and my older aunties and uncles.  At the screening for my family, they all came out and my cousins were all saying how it all happened.  People don’t talk about it, and we need to talk about it.  It was just a really special thing.

I don’t know if you know, the woman who plays Tui is actually my mother (Mabelle Dennison).  So there was even more of a connection being able to sit across from her.

Oh wow.  Did she have to go through the audition process? Or was it a case of “My son is the star of the film, so…”

No, she had to audition and she went through callbacks and all that.  I think it was two weeks away from filming and they still hadn’t found (the character of) Tui, and my mother rang me and asked if it would be okay to audition.  I told her to go for it, and Paul and Hamish were like, “Hey bro, we saw your mum’s tape and we really liked her.  We still need to do callbacks, but she has the part.”  I had to keep my lips shut for about two weeks before they told her.  I was so glad.

Of your performance, I think there’ll be many people surprised at it, purely because we’ve seen how effortlessly you take on comedy.  Even though there’s comedy here, it’s such an immersive, emotional performance.  Was comedy always the genre you expected to become primarily known for?

To be honest, yeah.  I think coming from Hunt for the Wilderpeople, even though that was a serious kind of character, and Deadpool was so silly, they weren’t shallow.  Yeah they had jokes and they brought humour, but I don’t want to be stuck in that category.  It was really important telling (Uproar‘s) story, not just for its story, but because it was showing people this range.  I’m able to do this and that.  I love doing comedy.  It’s truly such an art.  I think people think it’s easy to just crack a joke and make people laugh, but it’s not.  On camera you’re doing the same thing over and over, and you have to make it funny every time.  That’s why I take my hat off people like Rhys Darby, who plays Madigan, who did something different every single take and it was funny every single time.  I don’t know how he does it.

With that, when he’s doing something different every time, does it give you permission to do the same? Or because your character is essentially “the straight man” in this situation, do you have to stay with the same wording?

A lot of the montage scenes were us just playing a lot and talking.  But when you’re in a room with someone like Ryan Reynolds, or even Taika (Waititi), and you’re doing a comic scene, you just feel intimidated to even try because you want it to be funny, but you want to make them laugh as well.  And that’s true with (Rhys).  We just went back and forth, but with (my character) it was hard because I couldn’t really move a lot from my development through the story.  I couldn’t go too far left or right.  I had to keep it quite centred.  Working with Rhys was the best (though), just watching him at his best.

And after Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you were thrust into the international spotlight with Deadpool 2, Christmas Chronicles, and Godzilla vs. Kong in such quick succession.  Were you expecting such a rapid turnaround?

Oh, not really.  You know, it was like Taika had Eagle vs Shark and What We Do in the Shadows, and I knew he was big in terms of New Zealand, and I knew I was working with Sam Neill, who I knew was big back in the day because my parents liked him (laughs).  I was there and I enjoying it, and when it came out it just got his cult following, and that obviously helped, for sure.  Many blessings came out of that film.

And having experience on those types of sets, how was it returning for Uproar?  I imagine working on such an intimate set keeps you humbled?

Yeah, I think it’s really special.  I think independent film is just a whole other category of itself.  I can see the love for it.  When you look at studios like A24 and how well they’re doing now, you see how hard it is to get people into a cinema.  You have all these big films coming out, (so) you need these types of films to draw people in.  A lot of the actors I’ve met they do a big film and it’s hard to go back to independent work.  I love just being there (on set), sitting on a chair with the other cast because we can’t afford trailers, and we can’t do anything other than make a movie.  I love that about film, and I love that about independent film.  This movie, we were figuring out how things would work, how things would movie, how to make the rugby look good…things like that.

With the rugby scenes, are the extras actors or rugby players themselves? And how involved in those scenes are you? Obviously your safety is key.

Yeah, a lot of the rugby players were, honestly, just like local First 15 teams from the high schools.  It’s all these 17 and 18-year-olds who are just running up and down the field all day.  I’m not allowed to join them because I had to shoot the next day and I couldn’t hurt myself.  We’re doing the tackling and all that, and because the film is set in the 80s, you didn’t have to wear a mouthguard.  It was a choice to wear one or not, and I didn’t have one in, so for the rest of the shoot I just had to make sure my mouth was closed.  Playing rugby was just like playing with my cousins.

And we have the film opening this week here, but it’s already opened in New Zealand.  How have you found the local response?

It’s been great.  I think it’s done really well, especially with the older audience.  I’ve had a lot of older people message me saying it was great.  That (Uproar) captured what it was like, and whether you were Māori or European, it was showing the aspects of both sides and what it was like, and I think that’s super cool.  I love hearing how the movie has spoken to people.  It’s speaking to the individual.  I hope it does more.  I hope more people see it.

Uproar is screening in Australian theatres from November 30th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.