“Over nearly 25 years of doing this type of mahi, I’ve refined my approach. Now, ko te ao Māori ko taku tūāpapa — my culture is the thing that I stand on,” says Te Kohe Tuhaka. (Photo supplied)

As an on-screen presence, Te Kohe Tuhaka has shown he has versatility in spades. He’s worked as an actor, children’s show presenter, and on Shortland Street and in action movies.

Now he’s shifted behind the scenes on Lee Tamahori’s latest film The Convert. And, as he tells Dale Husband, it was on this project that he got to go about things in a truly Māori way.

 

Kia ora, Te Kohe. I wonder if you might share with us your full name and some of the reasons that you carry it?

Te Kohe Raymond Patrick Louis Tuhaka taku ingoa. That’s my full name.

Te Kohe comes from my grandfather, who served in the Second World War and was also a master carver. His name was Kohe Atarau. He lived in Waiōhau, a small settlement near Te Urewera, and so I have whakapapa roots into Tūhoe and Ngāti Haka Patuheuheu. He was an artist in his own right — an amazing musician and an amazing storyteller. And when I came along, I was named after him. So that’s where my name Te Kohe comes from.

But I also whakapapa to Ngāti Porou. Ko Hikurangi te maunga, Waiapu te awa. That’s in Rangitukia, Gisborne, where I grew up.

That’s neat. There aren’t many people with dual connections to Ngāti Porou and Tūhoe. You mentioned your granddad. Who else is important?

There’s my Mum, she’s the eldest in her whānau, and, on her biological side, we’re from Rūātoki from a marae called Ōwhakatoro.

But Mum was a whāngai. She was raised by the Nuku whānau out in Waiōhau, in one of those settlements where there are more cows than people. I was raised there too, and I’m the mokopuna mātāmua, the eldest moko.

My cousins will dispute this, but I was the apple of the eye of both sets of grandparents, both the Nuku and the other side, my Tihi side. I was raised by the old people. I’d be dragged around to all these hui by my grandfather. One of the things I tell everybody is ko te reo Māori taku reo tuatahi — the reo is my first language. I had to learn how to speak English because I grew up in a little community with whānau where the only thing that was spoken around us was Māori.

Kia ora. Can we go back to the concept of whāngai for a moment? There’s great aroha in that act. It’s very open, and it’s such a beautiful kaupapa. What do you make of whāngai, Te Kohe?

Yeah, tērā tikanga te tikanga o te whānau. It’s something that should be looked at seriously and still practised.

A couple of my cousins were whāngai to other sets of aunties and uncles who were unable to have tamariki. And the whānau took it upon themselves to have a hui and decide who would raise the baby.

When I was born, mum had just moved to the city. She was working and it was normal for us to be left with our grandparents. Ki te ako i te whakapapa, ki te ako i te reo Māori — to learn our whakapapa and language, and also to allow our parents to be able to build a better life for us in the cities.

I know when my mum was whāngai’d, it was to give her a better opportunity. But also, she was requested by the whānau — they asked for her to be given to them. And those whānau remain close. So I think there is rongoā, a healing, in the whole whāngai system, especially if I compare it to the likes of Oranga Tamariki. With whāngai, tamaraki stay connected to their whānau.

It’s a beautiful thing, to whāngai whānau. So tell us about some of the mahi you did before you got into acting? Because when you’re acting, you’re playing out what you understand to be life. So, sometimes it’s beneficial to have done some hard yards, perhaps some less savoury mahi, before moving into that profession, isn’t it?

Te Kohe Tuhaka (Photo supplied)

To be honest, bro, there hasn’t been a job where I’ve gone: “Man, this sucks!” I had my first job at 13. I used to work in the dairy in Gizzy, and I remember I was getting paid $4.60 an hour to work on the weekends — and I thought I was the bee’s knees.

That job came about from an argument I had with my mum one day. She said to me: “The day you can put milk, butter and bread on this table is the day you can tell me what to do.” And that very day, I went out and got a job — and I came home with a milk, a butter and a bread, and I put it on the table. And I said to her: “Yeah, now I can tell you what to do.”

Also, in Gizzy, I worked with Mum planting rock melon and picking oranges — lots of field work. Then I got a job as a manager of a BP station. This was when I was all of 16 years old. So I’m tangata mahi, a working person, because I come from working people.

My mum always had two or three jobs. She’d go away for long periods and be the cook for the shearing gangs up the coast. And I was left to my own devices to look after my sisters. But I grew up in a community where this was the norm, so I didn’t see it as a negative thing.

I thought, well, that’s the standard. When you’re able to get mahi, you go out and get it. Kia manaaki i te whānau, utu i ngā nama — to look after the family, pay the bills and do all of those things.

And when you did the mahi, you went hard.

So how did you get on at school? Were you confident in kapa haka, in the drama clubs, or anything like that?

I grew up in te ao Māori, and I’d like to say that I was a mean haka person but, to be honest, I’m not a mean haka person.

Whaikōrero, speechmaking, that’s what I loved. I loved manu kōrero. I loved the ability to get up and entertain.

But sports was really my thing. I used to play three games of rugby every Saturday for so many years. Our whānau were big into rugby in those days. I was all of 17 when I was playing in the prems with all my uncles and cousins, who were a lot older, for our club GMC.

You got some mean life lessons at the bottom of a scrum in those days.

Tell me a bit about how you got into the acting world?

I grew up in a community where anything to do with the arts — be it acting, or even something like debating — were seen as things for Pākehā.

I distinctly remember hearing: “Hey, you know we don’t do that stuff.” Meaning acting was only for Pākehā. So I was drawn to that side of things in secret.

But I had a great English teacher at the time. Her name was Miss Muir and she asked me if I wanted to do the school Shakespeare play. And I told her, nah. Then she offered to buy me lunch, and I said: “Oh yeah, I’ll do it if you buy me lunch, Miss.” From that, the bug grew. I still had no idea what acting was.

When I went to Toi Whakaari, I had so much to learn about creating characters. Before that, I just mimicked what I saw. I would read the character brief and go: “Oh, it’s like so-and-so from this movie. I’ll just do what he did in the movie for this character.” Even if the actor was a Pākehā person, or from overseas. But that way of doing things can sustain you for only so long. You have to figure out your own style — and what it is that gets you in and out of characters.

Over my nearly 25 years now of doing this type of mahi, I’ve refined my approach. Now, ko te ao Māori ko taku tūāpapa — my culture is the thing that I stand on. I’ll use aspects of te ao Māori to get myself in, and also out, of characters, which is necessary because I’ve played some pretty dark people.

Like, I’ve played a Vietnam veteran who has to make a decision on whether he kills his child because they’re been struck down with Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. I’ve had to play a murderer. And I’ve had to play the love interest, too — all of these types of things.

So getting in and out of character, but knowing who I still am, my foundation and my cultural connections, is what anchors me. I know where Te Kohe starts and where the character starts. When I’m finished playing the character, I know exactly how to get back to who I am. My foundation that I stand on, as a person, is so solid that I tend to never really get lost in the character.

Plus, I’ve gotta go home and look after my kids and my wife — and they don’t want to have to deal with a person that’s not their husband or their father. So I’m really conscious to make sure that I can step in and step out of roles.

Te Kohe Tuhaka playing the character Wirepa in Dead Lands (Photo supplied)

Tēnā koe. One of the pieces that you’ve been really lauded for is Michael James Manaia, a solo show where you play 12 characters. No doubt that’s a piece that will feature for many years yet in your mahi. That sort of live solo theatre must be so challenging.

Michael James Manaia is such an epic piece. It’s like 197 pages of dialogue about those 12 characters. The show is over two hours long, and you’re on stage the whole time.

I love challenges like that. I fall back on the work ethic, back to the idea of having a job where you put in the hard work and grind away at it. I also had an amazing director at the time, Nathaniel Lees. He’s one of the best, and he really guided me.

But I’m process driven, right? I know the end result will be a true representation if I put in the mahi and if I focus on the process.

When you’re on your own on stage for that long, you soon realise all of your shortcomings as well as all of your strengths. If you shy away from those shortcomings and don’t allow yourself to go to the places you need to go to tell the story, then you’re not serving the work.

Being an actor is about bravery. Being brave enough to tell yourself that, even though that thing over there — that element, that emotion, that piece of script — scares the bejesus out of you, you’re still gonna go in and see how to best tell that aspect with love, life and safety. And so these are the things you learn as you go along.

I toured with Michael James Manaia for two and a half years. I did more than 100 shows back to back and carried that character for a long time. And what that taught me is that, if I can do that, then I can do anything. There isn’t a character that I can’t play because I know exactly how much of myself I was prepared to open up.

So acting is for Māori, not just for Pākehā, from the sounds of things. You’ll have to go back the cuzzies and remind them of that one. You’ve had such a range of roles over 25 years or so. Some stand out for their physicality — The Dead Lands, for instance. But then you’ve done kids’ television, Shortland Street, and pieces with Taika and the likes. What stands out for you when you look back at your career? Some highs and lows?

One of the lows is the length of time it’s taken the industry here in Aotearoa to give voice to Māori practitioners and Māori stories, in the right way. So no longer writing to typecast, no longer writing what’s happening in the media. But for the industry to truly understand that, yes, we are Māori, and so we see these stories through a very different lens than someone who’s not Māori.

Early on in my career, I felt like I was constantly being typecast. Right up to the point where I got the opportunity to play Wirepa in The Dead Lands. That was the moment where I felt I had finally arrived at something that allowed me to really showcase who I am.

Over the years, I’ve loved watching that low turn into a high. It’s amazing to see the commitment of Māori practitioners in the industry to making sure that we’re telling our stories, and that we’re able to work in partnership with these big international companies to get our stories up. And to have our voices be like the karanga, the first voices heard in the hui when it comes to making decisions about making our stories. So that’s a real win.

That’s a highlight for me, personally, too. It’s  gotten to a point where I can say: “Look, I’ve played this character before. Can we change it?” Where I can ask the question: “Why can’t I play the cop? I know you’ve written him as Pākehā, but surely, if he’s a New Zealand cop, he could be Māori?”

I got to a point where I was really hōhā with it. I stopped doing mahi here, because I was getting the same brief, the same character, the same typecasting. And so for a while, I just focused on international stuff.

And I found that for us Māori actors and Polynesian actors, our craft and our ability is taken more seriously overseas than it is here at home. Internationally, we’re not judged on the fact that we’re Māori. We’re seen as actors. There’s no questions about what we’re capable of.

Something that made me really sad early on in my career were the notes I’d get back after an audition, saying that I wasn’t Māori enough. I was like: “Wow, how can a Māori not be Māori enough?”

What that told me was that the people putting these projects together had no idea who we are as a people. While I’ve seen a lot of those creases get ironed out over the last five or six years, we’ve still got a way to go.

Tēnā koe. Now, you’re also a proud dad. Are you a better actor because you’re a father?

Absolutely. The greatest role I will ever play is Dad. Nothing will ever come close to it. You know, having the ability to shape young spirits and young minds. And to be taught all of my shortcomings all over again, by my own children. There’s no bigger challenge! I love my three boys. They drive me nuts. But, oh, I love them.

My eldest is 17, going on 18. My baby is about to turn two. And then we’ve got our middle baby who’s five.

Lead actor Guy Pearce with director Lee Tamahori on the set of The Convert, which Te Kohe is helping produce. (Photo: Geoffery H. Short)

Beautiful, bro. That’s good mahi. So you’ve also become a producer for the first time, on Lee Tamahori’s latest film The Convert which is out at the moment here.

It tells the tale of pre-Treaty life in Aotearoa, and it features a lay preacher played by Guy Pearce. Bring us up to speed, please. How did you become a producer? What did you learn from the experience?

I was headhunted for the job by Robin Scholes, and Brad Haami, who is one of the historians for The Convert. And my initial answer was no. We’d just come out of Covid, and I was considering moving overseas. They asked me to think about it at least, so I read the material, and I thought to myself: “Yeah, still maybe a no.”

But then my wife said: “You’re always complaining about producers, why don’t you be one, so you know what’s going on?” I took that great advice from my wife and said yes to the kaupapa.

I’d never produced anything before. But I was brought on as the producer who takes care of all of the ao Māori aspects. Everything from the kākahu to our kaihaka, to our kaihoe, to waiata composition, to the reo. And I said: “Okay, cool. I’ve never done anything like this before. So I’m gonna do it the only way I know how.”

And I ran it the way I was brought up, mā te hui, through hui. I would have face-to-face hui with the hapū, where I would sit and koha the idea — just offer the idea — to say that this is what we would like. Rather than show up and say: “Oh we need to shoot on your land,” which is how it would usually roll out.

I went about it in a very Māori way, because tātou te Māori, me kanohi kitea — we like to see who we’re dealing with in the flesh. So all of my hui were face-to-face, and then I had to allow breathing time. And people told me: “Oh, this is great. This is a great producer style.” And I said: “Well, this is not actually a producer style. This is me being a Māori who’s going about his daily business to get some mahi done.”

There were lots of challenges. Like having to find 200-300 Māori extras who were prepared to shoot in the middle of winter. We were up against the weather, all of these logistical things. But at the heart of it, I knew, mēnā ka noho au ki te ao Māori, me te whakaaro Māori — if I stayed on that track of the things that made me, and are embedded in my skin, then I will find a solution to any challenge.

And, as I went along, I had the likes of Robin Scholes guiding me from a Pākehā perspective. It was a relationship and a partnership we worked on. She allowed me the freedom to be able to do things my way. And then, on top of that, she would teach me the things that I needed to know.

As a producer, I like to give people a voice so they can be heard, and not just look at them as employees or contractors. I like to hear people say: “Oh, are we able to talk about this?” He tangata e ngākau nui ana ki te tangata, that’s me. I love dealing with people and helping them to elevate their own mahi. That’s my kind of producing style. But I’m still learning, Dale. I’m still learning as we go along.

He nui te mahi. It was a huge amount of learning and work, I’m not gonna lie. But I think the fruits are definitely on show in the film itself.

Also, there’s nothing like working with Lee Tamahori. He’s an absolute genius, that man. We got on like a house on fire — along with Robin, who herself is a master. So to have their support to do things my way meant so much.

Well, congratulations on the film. It’s being aired here and offshore, and has already been released at the Toronto International Film Festival — that was in September of last year. So that’s The Convert. But I get the feeling, Te Kohe, that we’re going see a lot more of your name in the producer credits. Tēnā koe me ngā mihi.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2024

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