Two of Temuera Morrison’s most noteworthy career milestones have truly come from opposite ends of the galaxy. 1994’s Once Were Warriors was a painfully truthful examination of urban Maori life that continues to cast a long shadow across New Zealand film and culture. And his first Star Wars appearance in 2002 sparked a unique character arc that will place him at the centre of his own Disney+ series in 2021, as Boba Fett.
Always a multi-faceted entertainer, Temuera has long been something of a national cultural icon. Not only as one of New Zealand’s foremost actors, with his international film and television career, but as a leading proponent of Maori culture and performance.
As he soon arrives in Sydney for this year’s Supanova Comic Con & Gaming convention, Peter Gray spoke with the actor from the set of his latest series, Jason Momoa’s Chief Of War, currently filming in New Zealand, about the cultural importance of Once Were Warriors, the generational impact of Star Wars, and what his career prospects look like moving forward.
I remember seeing Once Were Warriors at far too young an age, but it’s one of those movies that stays with you. It’s probably considered your breakout role, but you’d been acting for 20-odd years up to that point. Did you have any inclination that that film was going to alter the course of your career?
Not really. We were dealing with a very low budget. I had trouble because I was playing Doctor Ropata (on Shortland Street) at the same time in New Zealand. It was the first ever soap on Monday to Friday, so it was groundbreaking stuff being in that soap and then having to transform. I think I had a weekend really to get my head around (Once Were Warriors) because I’d finish Shortland Street…they’d doubled up on filming. I broke the record of (shooting) the most Shortland Street scenes in one day. I went straight into Warriors on the Monday.
I’d been preparing with a couple of good actors who were in Shortland Street with me. He was my boss on the show, and I was working with him about Warriors. The casting agent was very much involved with that film (too) and getting the performances to the right place. At the end of the day I think it was a matter of all of us having to lift the power of that wife of mine, Rena Owen. She was quite dynamic. She had a well of emotion to draw on. We were really nervous standing around her. Her presence was quite powerful. She always had us on edge, and we had to turn up with the goods, otherwise she’d let you have it.
Working with Lee Tamahori, he was our breakout director, it was a timely thing that he decided to make his first feature after many, many commercials, and put that Alan Duff book in front of the camera. A lot of talented people worked on (that movie). There was a spirit, a camaraderie, that was reverberating. At the end of the run I was actually wondering, “Who the hell was gonna watch this?” Who was going to sit in a theatre and eat popcorn and ice cream? (laughs). This animal was about to be unleashed. But that was one of the big things working with the director, (that) we really had to work on Jake “The Muss”, that he was charismatic at the same time. I think that’s why I got cast as Jake because you had to like this guy. It was transcendent all around the world.
I was going to ask you about that. Obviously at conventions like Supanova, Star Wars is the draw for a lot of people. Do you find any other roles, like Once Were Warriors, garner attention as well?
Star Wars. Nothing like Star Wars. It’s just ingrained. It’s generational now. But I got involved (as) Jango (Fett) in Sydney back in the year 2000, so it was amazing for me to get the call from Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni to come and do this show The Mandalorian. I had heard about the show, but I wasn’t keeping up with it, but I thought if they were a doing a bounty hunter show, surely I’m going to be in there somewhere. It didn’t take long for me to figure it out. I think the timing was right.
With all the international success you’ve had, you’ve maintained that connection to New Zealand cinema. I imagine that’s been quite intentional on your end?
Yeah, it was. I was working on a movie called The Piano (and) I was kind of like one of the coordinators. There’s a big Maori cast in The Piano. That’s where I got a hold of Sam Neill, and he became a friend of mine. That’s where the whole thing of going to Hollywood came about. I thought, “Well, if Sam was over there anyways, I’ll go have a look.” I think it was just tenaciousness and a bit of cheekiness to go out there and have a look.
I was doing a weird thing on Shortland Street. I think Warriors had finished and I was back on the street again, and I went back as the swearing doctor now. Swearing at all the patients, at all the nurses, wanting to punch everyone if they came into my hospital (laughs). It took me a while to calm down. I was told I had to “come back”, so that was weird.
I remember a journalist was looking to do a story on us for a weekend (publication), and I usually don’t do thing like that, but I said yes. The journalist happened to be a lovely woman, and her husband was a photographer, Richard McLaren. He was world class. He knew of an agent, and he was taking photos for his wife and asked to have some of my stuff so he could give it to his friend, the agent. I didn’t think too much of it, but it was kind of timely that Warriors was coming out, and then six months later I get a call from an agent, an LA agent, who had met Richard, and we got to talking and he started sending me auditions to see what I could do. I managed to get one, but I couldn’t get off Shortland, so I used that as a springboard moment. I thought if I could get one (audition) I’ll be able to do it again.
It was a crossover point where I decided to have a go, and it was cheek and tenacity, and just having the confidence of friends, like Sam Neill, and seeing what they were doing. It’s been lacking here and there, but, you know, Cliff (Curtis) ended up with the same agent, and some actors from here, we’re all with the same agent in LA. It was kind of like we were the forerunners just to give everybody a little hope. I was like the Nicole Kidman moving from Australia Hollywood. You know what I mean?
I think we can all say that Temuera Morrison is the Nicole Kidman of New Zealand…
Well, she was my wife in Aquaman (laughs).
With everything that you’ve done, is there any genre you wish to dabble in that you haven’t yet?
Probably to do more of the stuff we’re doing here (in New Zealand), telling specific tribal stories. We can surround ourselves with our own people now, and I’m witnessing this on Jason’s (Momoa) project, Chief Of War. He’s wanted to do something about his culture, his Hawaiian history, and the timing is right now to utilise what’s going on with him and his viability. These dream projects can cost a lot of money, but down here in New Zealand we are managing to produce our own stuff.
You got guys like Taika (Waititi) making vampire movies about two vampires living in Wellington (laughs). These guys are probably mortgaging aunties’ homes to make these movies, (but) blow me down, they get noticed. Next minute (Taika’s) making Thor movies and he’s putting himself in the bloody movies! Next minute, he’s married to Rita Ora! Oh my god.
We’re in a revival state now. I noticed cultural things happening in Australia (too). I think they looked over the ditch here in New Zealand and saw the haka, for example. Now I can watch a league game in Australia and there’s talk about Aboriginal people and bringing indigenous stories to the fore.
Working with Jason on Aquaman, is that where this connection between you started and conversations started regarding this Chief Of War?
He loved Warriors. Warriors really imprinted on him in an artistic and cultural way. He loved the character that I worked with. I overheard him telling his son that I was the reason he got into acting. Yeah, he loves me. I love him. I trust him and he trusts me. He offers me parts and I always say, “Start with Cliff (Curtis), he’ll get you awards, and he’ll talk Hawaiian” (laughs). But this one, there’s just a good vibe. The producers and writers all know what they’re doing.
Temuera Morrison will be appearing as a guest at this year’s Supanova Comic Con & Gaming convention in Sydney (June 17th – 18th, 2023) on Sunday the 18th ONLY. For more information on each event, head to the official Supanova website.