George Henare is the veteran actor of radio, film and television. Now at the age of 70, he's preparing to leave New Zealand, bound for Sydney, after being hired by Disney to play the Sultan in the Broadway transfer of Aladdin. Not before a final season on the stage - in the Court Theatre's production of Educating Rita, which opens in 2 weeks. He takes a break from rehearsals to talk to Nine to Noon.
Read an edited excerpt from the interview below:
You have done so much radio, we hear your voice a lot on RNZ, but take us back to… radio was huge, wasn’t it? It really was one of the most important working opportunities for a lot of actors in some pretty lean years.
The first time I came across radio was in Wellington when I was in the opera company and in between seasons and starting to do other little bits with a Maori Theatre Trust and television that was just starting out in Warring Taylor street. I think John Selwyn and Josh Gardiner and I used to sing gospel songs for Sunday programmes and then Radio New Zealand got in touch with me and said ‘We need you to do Witi Ihimaera’s short stories’ and I said ‘I’ve never done radio before’ and they sent me the short stories to read and I thought, ‘Goodness me, I know all of these characters, I can play all of these characters.’ I think from a very young age I had a good ear for picking up people’s little accents and I loved imitating. I recorded these short stories and they said, ‘Look, this is great, can you do a lot more radio for us?’, and they said, ‘How do you know these characters?’ and I said, ‘Well I know Witi - Witi and I went to school together at Gisborne Boys High School and all of these characters they’re almost similar to people from my upbringing and I understand these characters very well. From then on I have started playing other characters on the radio and that sort of graduated to playing very upper class English because I had a very good ear for it.
What was interesting when we got to Auckland… there were two of us who played the upper class Englishmen and there were a lot of other English people in the production and they said [adopts northern accent] ‘’ere, ‘ow come you’re playin’ upper crust?’ and apparently they had regional accents and couldn’t hide them. We didn’t have any regional accents and the two of us kept bringing them out.
There is a lot of talk among women, particularly in Hollywood, about a paucity of roles as they get older. Have you’ve found as you’ve improved with age… as we said before, you’ve stayed in work and I wonder if perhaps there are more senior roles for actors as time passes.
I suppose there are. What happened when I was younger, for some reason I was also cast as these old men. I remember I played King Lear at age 28 and it wasn’t until about five or six years afterwards that I asked one of the actors, ‘Why on earth did they cast me as King Lear, instead of all of the other actors that were around?’ And he said, ‘Well, you had that old man thing about you and you had a sort of a majesty there, which a lot of them didn’t have.’ And I thought, ‘Oh really… ’ I mean, I did grow up around a lot of old men around home all of the time, so I knew how they reacted to certain situations, so I was quite happy portraying those sort of things and now that I’m actually that age, the work still seems to be coming in.
It is an emotionally and physically tough life that you lead, even just learning lines… has that gotten any harder for you?
The line learning is getting a little harder now. I used to work with a lot of actors who were well into their 70’s and I thought, ‘My goodness, is that what I have got to look forward to?’ I remember working with an English actor and when I worked with him he was 78 and he was easily distracted and he used to complain. I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and he said, ‘Well, you get to this age and you start to get easily distracted and you lose concentration very quickly. That hasn’t quite hit me yet, I don’t think.
The play I am doing at the moment has got a lot of lines – Educating Rita – and it is all about explaining to Rita the difference between tragic and tragedy and what assonance means and my director, they wonderful Yvonne Martin was saying, ‘You have to explain it to her slowly’ and I said, ‘Good, thank you, I need that space to think about the lines anyway.’ But I think it will all fall into place, we’ve got a week of rehearsal yet.
But back in the ‘70s I had no trouble with lines whatsoever. They just go straight in. I suppose it’s because as you get older you start to see a whole different side to the characters and the people you have been playing. You can bring your life experience into it and you can inject it into it and I think that’s what makes it a little bit harder. It should be easier, but there is a lot more understanding and ways to approach a role.