One Question Quiz
Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

Pop CultureApril 6, 2024

‘Look at all the food’: Vinnie Bennett on going from What Now to Hollywood

Design: Tina Tiller
Design: Tina Tiller

The star of Testify takes us through his life in TV, including a very common TV crush, the show that needs a second season and what it was like on the set of Fast & Furious 9.

Over the last few years, Vinnie Bennett (Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Porou, Ngā Puhi) has built an acting career that’s taken him all the way from What Now to Hollywood. From starring in local drama series like The Gulf and The Bad Seed to comedies Good Grief and Kura, Bennett has become a fixture on New Zealand screens. To international audiences, however, he’s perhaps best known as the young Dominic Toretto (the character made famous by Vin Diesel) in the ninth instalment of the blockbuster Fast and Furious franchise.

This week, Bennett returns to the small screen in Testify, a new TVNZ drama about the secrets and lies of a family who run a New Zealand mega-church. Alongside Jessica Grace Smith (Westside) and Craig Hall (Head High), Bennett plays charismatic youth pastor David, whose life is turned upside down when his brother unexpectedly returns after several years away. The role was quite the departure from the “brooding or aggressive young men” he is used to. “It was a strange thing playing such a nice person for once.”

Before Testify hits our screens on Monday night, we spoke to Bennett about some of his favourite television memories, including the haunting power of Twin Peaks, an early fondness for Jessica Rabbit and what it’s really like to make a Hollywood blockbuster. 

Vinnie Bennett (centre) stars in new local drama Testify (Photo: TVNZ)

My earliest TV memory is… When I was a kid, probably not even walking yet, I have these images of my mum and myself just lounging about and the TV being on in the background. I can’t quite remember what I was seeing, but every now and then I watch old ads on YouTube and I’m like “wow, I remember that jingle”. I was also a big Pokémon fan. Saturday morning cartoons were a big childhood highlight of mine.

My earliest TV crush was… Jessica Rabbit. I feel like I’m not alone in that.

The TV ad I can’t stop thinking about is…The Electric Kiwi ad. I don’t know if having a somewhat awful song was the idea, but it worked. I’ve seen the more recent one and they’re super self aware of how the jingle has been received. I really like that. 

The TV moment that haunts me is… I watched Twin Peaks when I was in high school, and the whole tone of it was just a little bit off. It stuck with me because it was so unique. It was almost as if David Lynch knew how to turn nightmares into film.  

My favourite TV moment from my own career is… When the first season of Kura came out, I messaged my friend Dahnu Graham, who played the lead Billy-John, to say Kura was one of the best things I’d ever seen on New Zealand television. A year later, I got a call at 10pm and Dahnu was like “hey bro, one of the dudes who plays one of my friends can’t come tomorrow. Keen to jam?” Thankfully the producer of the show knew my agents and they were able to come to a late night agreement. I was on set at 10am the next morning – and in the show for the next two seasons. 

My favourite TV character of all time is… Earn from Atlanta. The show is my favourite by far, and what I love about this character is that he’s just trying to get by. He’s super smart, but all these crazy things happen to him. You get to watch his journey, and you see moments of him breaking down and those high moments of success, but throughout the whole thing he stays true to himself. 

The most stylish person on television is… Jacob Elordi from Euphoria. I didn’t get the hype around him at first, but he’s super talented and very, very, very stylish. I love what he wears. Definitely got a man crush on him.

My most used streaming platform is… TVNZ+. It’s got all the local stories and docos and you can watch live TV if you feel like having a bit of a throwback with some background noise. They’ve got so many movies, I can’t believe how many they have.  

My favourite TV project that I’ve ever been involved with is… Good Grief. It was a surreal feeling, because Grace Palmer co-wrote the show and passed on the script to me in its very early stages. We’ve been friends for a while – we actually did my first TV gig together on What Now back in the day – and I read through the first three episodes and was like, “this is amazing”. Being on set with someone that you started acting with way back in Christchurch, but now at the point where she’s making the show and you’re a part of it, was like… wow. 

The one thing I wish people knew about making a Hollywood blockbuster is… That it’s big, it’s intense, but at the same time, it’s still just a set. In my head I was always scared to step onto a big blockbuster set, and felt very overwhelmed. At first I was like, “wow, this is a lot – look at all the food, look at all this nice stuff”, but you know, at the end of the day, it’s all there to do the same thing and it all runs the same way. It’s scary how quickly that all wears off, and you just kind of get used to it. It becomes the norm – until you finish, I guess.

The TV show I wish I’d been involved with is… Atlanta. I was devastated when they ended it, but also happy because I think it’s a respectable thing to put a stop on a show instead of making season after season until someone cancels it. I would have loved to be a part of it, whether it was just holding a light or fanning down an actor. I thought it was genius how they were able to express their own takes on current trends, and be able to creatively include lots of satire. I love that each episode is only half an hour long, and each episode is like its own little story in itself.

My most watched TV show of all time is… Dragonball Z. Big, big, BIG fan of that when I was in school. It was the first show I was heavily addicted to. I would sprint down the road when it was close to 4.30pm to make sure I was at home on time to watch. Every now and then they would have the cricket on instead and I remember feeling so devastated, like “you just can’t do that, we need to know what happens”. I spent many, many hours watching that show.

The show I’ll never watch, no matter how many people tell me to is… Breaking Bad. I’ve been told for so many years that I need to watch it, and I made it halfway through the first season and just lost interest. I think it’s because I realised that there’s still seven seasons of it, and the idea of having to binge seven seasons is a lot.

My controversial TV opinion is… One of the biggest mistakes I think any TV network has made would be canceling Freaks and Geeks, with all of those young actors who had their breakthrough. I think it definitely deserves the second season and if they ever do it, I’m here for it.

The last thing I watched on television was… One Day on Netflix. It took me a while, but by the end I was well and truly engaged with it. I thought it was a really nice, clever idea. Everyone loves a good love story, if it’s done well. 

Testify premieres on TVNZ2 on Monday April 8 at 8.30pm (and continues on Tuesday April 9) and streams on TVNZ+.

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