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Hambleton-edit-4I met Peter Hamb­leton about 25 years ago. We can’t agree on the year. He and I were stu­dents at an ‘advert­ising ideas school’, where aspir­ing advert­ising ‘cre­at­ives’ could learn the trade, and hope­fully make the acquaint­ances they needed to launch a career. I was young and daft, and wanted to work in the industry. Hamb­leton was older, and slightly dis­con­sol­ately hop­ing to find some­thing more stable than what he had been doing, so that he would know from one week to the next where his young family’s next meal might be com­ing from.

It says a lot about the life of a pro­fes­sion­al act­or, that work­ing in advert­ising looked stable by comparison.

Hamb­leton got the work he was hop­ing for, and stuck it out for a few years. I went back to pre­tend­ing to repair cars, and leav­ing an occa­sion­al graf­fito on the walls of Mid­night Espresso, by way of being ‘cre­at­ive’.

That course is the first thing Hamb­leton brings up when we meet. It’s a glor­i­ous Wel­ling­ton morn­ing in the first days of autumn. Hamb­leton has a new play to talk about; this magazine has a capa­cious maw for inter­views with com­mit­ted Wel­ling­to­ni­ans. And I couldn’t be hap­pi­er to have been giv­en the job of sit­ting and chat­ting, and then writ­ing up some of the res­ults. Hamb­leton is, truly, an abso­lutely delight­ful bloke. I was dimly aware of this 25 years ago, but we’ve crossed paths a few more times since then, and I’ve always been struck by his ser­i­ous­ness, by his great humour, by his utter com­mit­ment to the task at hand.

It was an inter­est­ing time, I guess, in hind­sight. I was a happy young act­or, and I was get­ting some inter­est­ing roles, and lov­ing the life to a point. But then there’s what I call the dark peri­od, when I didn’t believe — rightly or wrongly — that act­ing was ever going to be able to pay the bills, the mort­gage… and you feel a respons­ib­il­ity to get out there and join the race. I was a postie for a while. I had the South Karori route, and then I picked up some gigs with some of Wellington’s less glam­or­ous ad agen­cies. I had a rare tal­ent for get­ting pos­i­tions under cre­at­ive dir­ect­ors I didn’t get on with. And, of course, I was miser­able. But in that pos­i­tion, with a fam­ily, your misery feels like selfish­ness, and per­haps it is, so you keep at it. But I was lucky, I got some calls from people who wanted to cast me in pay­ing roles, and even­tu­ally I made it back.”

It’s an actor’s life, and we talk about that. Hamb­leton reels off the names of sev­er­al col­leagues, any of whom you could have seen on TV in the last year or to. Each of them has their own stor­ies — often very recent — about work­ing on build­ing sites, in post offices, in call centres. We joke about how easy it is to find a land­scape garden­er in Wel­ling­ton between the Hob­bits and the Avatars. But there’s no bit­ter­ness, or any sense of relief evid­ent. I’d expec­ted him to say “Thank Gawd, that’s not my lot any more” — more about that later — or to express some out­rage that pro­fes­sion­al theatre and film work­ers should still accept such instabil­ity in their lives. But, in the next breath he’s remind­ing me that it is the same all over the world. Lon­don and Los Angeles are no dif­fer­ent for the great major­ity. No sym­pathy is asked for or expected.

I went to Naenae Col­lege, and theatre was sur­pris­ingly strong there. Graeme Tet­ley [who before he passed away in 2011 was per­haps New Zealand’s greatest screen­writer, with Vigil, Out of The Blue, Mr Wrong and dozens of hours of prime-time tele­vi­sion to his name] was teach­ing Eng­lish. He was the one who first really got me to read Shakespeare. I mean, I’d read him before, but it was Graeme who lit that par­tic­u­lar fire. People like Graeme, and [fel­low teach­ers] Les­ley Edgley and Peter Browne, they were inspir­ing, and they made sure that our school pro­duc­tions were quite incredible.”

There’s a clat­ter on my record­er here. The Fish­Head pho­to­graph­er has arrived. I’m struck by how quickly Hamb­leton trans­forms into — well, into someone who is utterly used by now to hav­ing his photo taken. The chin lifts, the fea­tures split into a quite infec­tious grin. For a few moments our pho­to­graph­er is the centre of his atten­tion. It’s a lovely demon­stra­tion of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, and of sheer unfake­able affabil­ity. I’m reminded, quite force­fully, that this friendly, blokey, avun­cu­lar chap has spent the last few years car­ry­ing a star­ring role in three of the biggest films ever made, and that his face is recog­nised in pretty much every coun­try in the world. He makes sure that our pho­to­graph­er has everything she needs, and then picks up the thread immediately.

Hambleton-edit-2

And it was in the blood. My par­ents had met dur­ing a play they were both doing at teacher’s col­lege. My dad went on to radio, and tele­vi­sion. He [Keith Hamb­leton] became a TV news­read­er. So it was always in the house I guess. Dad car­ried on later, doing theatre, and oth­er bits and pieces on the TV. He passed away five years ago, but for a while there my agent Tim Gor­don was very proud of the fact that he had three gen­er­a­tions of Hamb­letons on his books. He had Dad, and my daugh­ter Soph­ie, and me. So with it in the fam­ily, and at school, it made sense to me to fol­low an act­ing career too. There were plays at school, and a few things at uni­ver­sity, and of course there was a real high point in New Zea­l­and theatre and TV then as well — I could walk down the road and see great act­ors, people like Grant Tilly and that crew, all strut­ting their stuff. So that inspired me too, and soon enough I was audi­tion­ing for the New Zea­l­and Drama School.”

Hamb­leton gradu­ated, and launched him­self into the world of Wel­ling­ton theatre and tele­vi­sion. “It was the tail end of an era I guess. Down­stage could still take you on as kind of appren­tice. It was dicey, but if you were lucky you could find a little niche for a while… I had a tiny role in Close to Home, anoth­er one in Coun­try GP, I was in some­thing called Adven­turer. Me and Mar­shall Napi­er were sidekicks to Oliv­er Tobi­as. And his main claim to fame was that he’d been in The Stud with Joan Collins… bloody amazing.”

Hambleton-edit-5        We talk about the state of the film industry today. About how it was that after 30 years of get­ting along just fine, we found ourselves with film crew march­ing down the street protest­ing about what film act­ors were or weren’t ask­ing for. It was a lit­er­ally sur­real time, and Hamb­leton was, unwill­ingly, right in the middle of it.

You know, even before I was cast in The Hob­bit, one of the things I noticed about that time was that whatever opin­ion I expressed… well, I would have been bet­ter nev­er say­ing any­thing, because everything any­one said was being wil­fully mis­in­ter­preted by both sides.”

Hamb­leton — and there can’t be many people who ever trod a board in Wel­ling­ton who can say this — had nev­er been in a Peter Jack­son film before The Hob­bit came along.

When Tim Gor­don rang me, I didn’t believe him. I ser­i­ously thought he was pulling my leg, or had made a mis­take. I mean, I’d been out there and audi­tioned. It was a fireside scene, with a few lines of dia­logue, and I knew I’d audi­tioned well. And I’d done some motion-cap­ture tests against a green screen. But I assumed that it’d be, I dunno, Bob Hoskins… and us loc­als would get a few crumbs. It was amaz­ing. And for three weeks, I couldn’t even tell anyone.”

We talk briefly about the Hob­bit shoot, but as Hamb­leton says, there’s only so much you can even begin to describe. A film set is a stu­pendously busy and invig­or­at­ing place, full of some of the most inter­est­ing and eccent­ric char­ac­ters you will meet in a life­time, but it is also a place of work, and there’s not a lot of fun and glam­our in two — nearly three — years of pre-dawn starts, long days and phys­ic­ally demand­ing roles.

But at the same time, the exper­i­ence, the people I’ve met… it’s utterly unique, and irre­place­able, and I feel fant­ast­ic­ally lucky to have been there.”

It’s enriched my life,” he says, “but not in the way that people assume. For a couple of years we were on a very good salary, but there seems to be an expect­a­tion from people who don’t know any bet­ter that we’re set for life. In real­ity, I’m prob­ably about where I’d be if I’d had a so-called nor­mal job these last 30 years. It’s let me pay off some of the accu­mu­lated debts, but I’m still look­ing for the next gig.”

Which brings us here, to the foy­er of Circa Theatre, and this warm autumn day.

We’d talked about Hambleton’s love of Shakespeare for a while already, and it seems the best of nat­ur­al pro­gres­sions that he should be dir­ect­ing a play not by Shakespeare, but about him. Equi­voc­a­tion is a much-feted script by the Amer­ic­an Jesuit play­wright Bill Cain. Cain has epis­odes of House of Cards on his CV, which seems a great recom­mend­a­tion for the dark polit­ic­al satire of Equi­voc­a­tion. The play is set against a back­drop of the Gun­powder Plot. Shakespeare has been reques­ted — by the king’s own man — to write a ver­sion of the events that will please King James but still be his­tor­ic­ally accurate.

It’s extraordin­ary,” says Hamb­leton. “It’s in mod­ern lan­guage, but Eliza­beth­an cos­tume, which feels right for a play about con­tem­por­ar­ies. It’s a play about mis­in­form­a­tion, about media man­age­ment, about WikiLeaks… it’s the most excit­ing script I’ve seen in years. I stumbled across it a while ago, and I was set to do it in 2011. But the phone rang.”

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Equi­voc­a­tion by Bill Cain opens at Circa Theatre on May 24 and is proudly sup­por­ted by Fish­Head.

Book now on 04 801 7992

circa.co.nz

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About Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writ­ing, broad­cast­ing and busi­ness own­er­ship between his many and var­ied leis­ure activities.

Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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