Temuera Morrison as Rewi Maniapoto in Ka Whawhai Tonu (Struggle Without End) which was released in theatre this weekend.

Since his early days as an actor, when he was playing roles like Dr Ropata in Shortland Street and Jake “The Muss” Heke in Once Were Warriors, Temuera Morrison’s bread and butter has been in international blockbusters like Star Wars and Aquaman. But his latest role in Ka Whawhai Tonu (Struggle Without End), playing Rewi Maniapoto (the Ngāti Maniapoto chief who led the iwi forces in the Battle of Ōrākau in 1864), brings him home in more ways than one. As he tells Dale Husband in this kōrero.


Tēnā koe, Tem. You’re known mostly as coming from Te Arawa, but your mum’s from Waitomo and Maniapoto. What does coming from that area mean to you?

Yes, I grew up here in Rotorua, but my mum was from a place called Hangatiki, which is between Ōtorohanga and Te Kuiti. You turn right there to head to the Waitomo Caves.

We had a farm there in the undulating green hills of the King Country — and what a beautiful, fortunate childhood I had. I was destined to become a performer of some kind under the tutelage of Uncle Howard (Morrison), and my aunties and other uncles and all the kapa haka stuff.

But over on the farm was mum’s family, the Staffords. My uncle Pat (Rore) Stafford is one of the leaders of Ngāti Maniapoto today. He also speaks for Ngāti Rārua, at the top end of the South Island, where we connect to as well.

I had a wonderful time with my grandparents there. My granddad milked 130 cows twice a day, took two cream cans out to the road every day. He was a horseman as well, a horse whisperer. He broke in all the local horses. We were the last of the haystack makers. Everyone else had a baler for hay baling in the summertime, but we were still making haystacks. It seemed like there were 100 of us up at the farm homestead at Christmas time, getting together with the cousins on that side, putting down the hāngi for Christmas Day. Just beautiful, fond memories, you know.

What I also saw there, growing up, were the Pākehā farmers next door. The Johnsons, the Vincents, the Millers. We were the last Māori family there. Everyone else had sold up. I grew up seeing a work ethic where the farm work came first, and everyone pitched in and helped one another.

I got to ride the horse with my granddad and milk the cows and feed the pigs. I went to the farm every school holidays. I never wanted to leave. When my parents used to come and pick us up, I’d tie myself to the tree so I wouldn’t have to go home to Rotorua.

The dairying’s finished now, but my uncle still raises cattle. He’s 80-something, and he still walks up the hill and feeds out. I still go back when I can to spend a bit of time with him.

I’m familiar with your Uncle Rore’s mahi. He’s a real rangatira. But focusing for a moment on your mahi, your many roles in film have been fictional. What was the most challenging aspect for filming your own tupuna, Rewi Maniapoto?

Those tūpuna were very special in terms of the knowledge they held. They had knowledge of the cosmos, knowledge of warfare, knowledge of building the whare, knowledge of how to keep a tribe together. Real chiefs who had real mana. When they spoke, everyone jumped.

The big thing for me was the director, Mike Jonathan. He and I go way back a long way. He has ties to Maniapoto. Actually, he’s one of these fullas with ties everywhere, and he’s helped a lot of people in his time. He was a special friend of mine.

I was always auditioning. I wanted to go to Hollywood and have a go at putting my face over there. And Mike was a big part of helping me do that. He was the only guy who had a camera, sound equipment and an editing suite, so I could record my auditions and send them off to Hollywood. These days, we can do it all on the phone, of course. And sometimes they know my work, so I don’t have to audition.

When Mike asked me to play my tupuna Rewi in Ka Whawhai Tonu, it was payback, really. I don’t forget the people who’ve supported me in the past. So it was my turn to give him a bit of a favour — but, oh, it was scary stuff as well to walk in those shoes. I just don’t think we have anywhere near the gifts and the special powers that our tūpuna had.

Mike Jonathan, the director of Ka Whawhai Tony, discusses a shot with director of photography Grant McKinnon. (Supplied)

The battle of Ōrākau was a pivotal moment in our country’s military history. How affected are you by the reality of those dark days? And have you forgiven Pākehā for what occurred?

I had to look into my own whakapapa before I started worrying about the Pākehā side. I had a James Montgomery Morrison in my whakapapa. We found out that he was in Tauranga fighting in the wars over there. So on my Morrison side was a soldier fighting the Māori for their land. And my Māori side was fighting them for our land. Christianity had come in, too.

It was a weird, weird time with tūpuna putting their gods aside because they could see the musket, the cannon, the blanket. So they thought: “Geez, their gods must be more powerful,” and switched to Christianity. And it must’ve been a bit confusing for them spiritually, because there were things in that battle where some people were still following the old ways and Rewi had sort of said: “No, we don’t do that stuff anymore. We’re going to fight under the Christian banner.”

So, it was a very interesting time. But also, the warriors themselves. James Cowan, the historian, actually went around and recorded a lot of the people who were at that battle, and they were praising the Pākehā soldiers for their bravery. A lot of the Māori chiefs acknowledged a good fight and the bravery of those they fought.

A photograph of Rewi Maniapoto in June 1879. (Photograph by Elizabeth Pulman. Alexander Turnbull Library Reference No. PA2-1359.)

The film has a huge Māori cast and plenty of te reo. Do you think that te reo filmmaking has come of age?

I think we’re having a little bit of a change of the guard, a little bit of a renaissance. We’ve had the likes of Don Selwyn and Merata Mita, who made their mark. But there’s a new generation. I need to mention Cliff Curtis and Taika Waititi in terms of directors. And now we have Mike Jonathan coming through.

We have other young talented Māori forming their own production companies, such as Steam Box Productions in Rotorua. They’re part of the Curtis whānau. They used to make hunting programmes, Hunting Aotearoa and things like that. They’d go catch pigs and deer, and film it. My cousin Howie was one of the presenters. They must’ve got tired of catching pigs because now they’ve gone into drama. And this is one of their first big productions, I guess.

It’s quite funny, because it seemed like the week after we finished Ka Whawhai Tonu, everyone switched roles. The director went behind the camera, started doing the lighting, the cameraman started directing, and then we started making a TV show called End of The Valley, which is gonna be on Māori TV in November. Another great production.

We have a pool of talent now on both sides of the camera, not only the actors but also the technicians. And we also have a couple of very knowledgeable Pākehā friends that come in and tautoko the boys and bring their expertise. I’m talking about people like Shayne Radford in the art department, and Grant McKinnon on camera. He’s worked under Al Bollinger and some of the best of our people, like Leon Narbey and others. He’s brought all that experience to a lot of our Māori productions.

It’s a brotherly love, too. We all get down to it. We’re all in the trenches, and sometimes it’s a bit of a reunion. I run into my boys from way back, and here we are still doing it. So, it feels good, mate. It feels good. And yes, I think we’re doing it our way, telling our stories.

The film reveals more about Rewi’s character and about our Māori leaders of that time, and the tauiwi as well. How do you think it will contribute to the historical record?

The story is set in that historical battle of Ōrākau in 1864, but it goes on a little fictional journey through that battle. It’s more about the rangatahi and about the spiritual element as well. Some of our people were mediums, and they could read the signs for the tūpuna and connect them to some of these atua, which is the wairua side of our culture.

The film is quite a spiritual journey. It has a lot of mana, a lot of wairua, and the performances from our younger generation who are coming through now are remarkable. I’ll mention Hinerangi Harawira-Nicholas and a young guy named Paku Fernandez. They gave brilliant performances, very natural, and blew me away.

I only saw the film for the first time last night, and it was quite confronting. It’s right in your face. I’m proud of my friend who directed his first movie, and proud of the production of the Curtis brothers. And there are some great performances, especially from wāhine.

It was actually the women at Ōrākau who stood up and said: “We will fight you forever and ever. And if the men die, so too shall the women and children.” It was a woman who uttered that famous quote.

The film makes you think about that time, and makes you think about how this country was settled. A lot of blood, a lot of fighting. We can’t ignore those battles that we’ve had.

Temuera Morrison as Rewi Maniapoto. (Photo supplied)

Hinerangi Harawira-Nicholas as Kōpū. (Photo supplied)

Where does the role sit in your list of best acting experiences that you’ve had?

Right up there. But it was challenging to start with. I was working on another production called Chief of War. I was playing a Hawaiian, learning Hawaiian, getting right into that role. And then we had problems on that set with the weather. We were getting cyclones, and some of our sets got washed out. So our time got extended way beyond when I was supposed to be finished.

They gave me 10 days off, and I quickly switched from Hawaiian to Māori tupuna. It was such a quick turnaround, and I was saying some of the wrong dialogue. But I managed to pull something out of the bag. One of the young women next to me, Ngahuia, she stood up and just let rip. She was telling them where to stick it — and just the pain, the agony, the crying, the ihi, the wehi in her voice, it really ignited a performance. And then I just had to go with that.

So, it’s right up there. It’s all in te reo as well. I’m really enjoying the fact that I can play a Māori and speak my own language. Feels good, feels good. The heartbeat’s a good beat.

There seems to be a lot of anti-Māori politics playing out as we speak, brother. This film, depicting more cultural accuracy, is it going to help or hinder race relations in this country?

Yes. Some things are happening in terms of politics. Some of the programmes, the courses, the people on the ground who were doing things in a Māori way, some of their funding is being scrapped and things like that. I don’t know what’s going on there.

But we’ve gotta look at the positive, too. There’s a lot of people learning the reo, and everyone’s talking a bit of te reo now.

I think the film’s going to be a taonga — a taonga to awaken our minds. We have a bit of amnesia in our country about history. The British didn’t just turn up here and have a cup of tea and a scone. There was a whole lot of fighting going on. We need to release the chains of colonisation upon our minds. This film will definitely help with that.

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

E-Tangata, 2024

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