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Kiwi treasure wins acting award

George Henare wins Ryman-backed lifetime achievement award

Ryman LifetimeAchievementAward Oct18 lrg

Actor George Henare, the Kiwi legend of stage, screen, television and radio, has been presented with the 2018 Equity New Zealand Lifetime Achievement Award by Ryman Healthcare.

With a 50-year acting career under his belt, George's fellow thespians nominated him as the most worthy recipient for the award, which is sponsored by Ryman, and the board of Equity New Zealand agreed.

On learning he was to be presented with the award, George said: "It was a bit of a surprise actually. It came out of the blue!"

Over 40 of his extended family were joining him at the ceremony at the Civic Theatre in Auckland on Friday to see him receive his award.

The biggest challenge, he said, was finding the time to come back to New Zealand from his current base in Australia to receive it!

Fortunately, he managed to squeeze in a few days following the end of his two-year run as the Sultan in Disney's Aladdin over in Perth and the start of rehearsals playing both Albus Dumbledore and Amos Diggory in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Melbourne.

"They asked me to audition but I said I'm in a show at the moment so I got a friend of mine to film me doing a couple of scenes and thought that was the end of that.

"But they came back and decided they wanted me for the roles so I thought 'good grief, now what, so it was goodbye Disney!'"

Not being fully immersed in the world of Harry Potter, George only gauged it was a fairly big deal from the reactions of his friends, colleagues and very supportive extended family.

"I had no idea and someone said 'goodness me, you're playing Dumboldore, he's the chief wizard!

"The bookings here have gone mad and I think it's booked up to next August!

"All the young ones in the family are very excited about it."

Funnily enough, when he was young, he was often cast to play old men.

"I played King Lear when I was aged 28 and that shocked all the older actors, but I said 'I didn't choose me!'

"I think because I'd been brought up amongst old men and old people I knew how their minds worked and in that family situation I just understood it," he says.

George was the youngest of 10 and grew up on a farm in Gisborne where he would have to help his siblings with all the chores including chopping wood, killing sheep, cooking and cleaning.

He would walk to school barefoot in the frost jumping from cowpat to cowpat just to keep his toes warm.

"Now I think how on earth did we do that? I never would have thought about having the career I have now back then."

George said his family was a very musical bunch with everyone 'singing all the time' and while at boarding school he saw a production of the Pirates of Penzance and was 'absolutely knocked out' by the transformation of his schoolmates in costume.

From there he went to teacher training college where he specialised in music and took singing lessons and before long he was singing The Messiah on stage.

"I think it was that whole feeling of an audience watching and that feeling of 'look at me, look at me' and I think that's maybe where it all started," he laughs.

George was drawn to the character roles in the opera and acting was the natural next step.

And while the business is notoriously hit and miss, George has had a full schedule since the day he said goodbye to teaching for good, 53 years ago.

This he puts down to two things – being open to opportunities and being versatile.

"I realised that to actually survive in the business you have to be able to do a lot of other things.

"I was doing radio drama, tv, film and then recording books for the blind and voicing docos so there was always work all the time."

George is not the sort of person who has a list of characters he wants to play. Indeed, he is so open to opportunities he gave away all his belongings when he left New Zealand for Australia in 2016 to enjoy a more minimalist lifestyle.

"No, I've always been open to anything and I get surprised by the roles that turn up. I've played Scotsmen, black South Africans, black Americans, I've done them all!

"I've played lots of English roles as well. If you're convincing enough in the role and you've got the essence of that person and it works, then it works."

Memorable roles include playing an 80-year-old black man alongside Warren Mitchell who was an 80-year-old Jewish man in I'm Not Rappaport in Melbourne and then Sydney.

"We were two grumpy old fogies bleating on and on in Central Park.

"After we had done the Melbourne one he was asked to do it with the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney and he said 'I want that George Henare, bring him back here, I want 'im! I thought 'Now, that's a recommendation!'"

This is the message that George passes on to his younger acting colleagues.

"Remember there are eyes on you all the time. Most of the work I've got has come through references from other people who are producers looking for talent and they'll always ask around to see what that person's like backstage and put two and two together!"

And while he has 'no plans whatever' to retire, he does admit watching the younger ones makes him aware of his age.

"All that leaping around and doing the splits, I think 'Oh my goodness, I can't do that anymore. Okay George, realise you're in your 70s and you play old gentlemen from now on!"

One role that George is remembered for was the role of Bennett in Once Were Warriors, a mentor figure in a film full of rather unpleasant characters.

Interestingly, it was the bad guys George had usually been drawn to, to the point where his family started asking him the hard questions.

He puts the bad guy streak down to his interest in, of all things, transcendental meditation!

"I'd been exploring that and thought this is fascinating, who am I? Who are we?

"We're brought up in a certain environment and we can either stay in that and obey all the rules in that or you can go out and discover yourself and find out what you're actually capable of being, and that's what fascinated me.

"I thought I could be anything, playing so many different characters, and it got to the stage where my family were getting worried because I was playing so many villains! They said 'Can't you play somebody nice? You're always killing people!'

"I said 'We baddies make people feel good because we get our comeuppance in the end and the hero wins.' But they said 'Please can you play somebody nice?'" he laughs.

Equity NZ President Jennifer Ward-Lealand said George was a pure delight to watch and work with: "As a performer, he leads by example; hard-working, diligent, consistent, imaginative and versatile. As a member of the community George is engaged, passionate and principled.

"This is a very well-deserved accolade for a leading light of our industry."

The Lifetime Achievement Award was set up three years ago to acknowledge the contribution of New Zealand's long-serving actors to the industry and to mentoring generations of younger actors.

Previous winners include Dame Kate Harcourt and Elizabeth McRae.

Ryman Corporate Affairs Manager David King said the award was also intended as a big thank you from the New Zealand public for all the hours of entertainment George had brought to so many people.

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