The star of Three’s new drama Far North talks cowboy movies, celebrity encounters and how New Zealand TV has changed over the years.
There’s one thing Temuera Morrison wants to tell us about television: just turn it off. The star of New Zealand shows like Shortland Street, Gloss and The Tem Show and blockbuster movies like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Aquaman doesn’t think much of the old gogglebox, instead preferring to watch the view from the window of his Northland motel.
“The sun is shining and the waves are lapping and we’re in a beautiful part of the world,” he tells us over the phone from Ahipara. “That’s my television: what’s going on outside my window.”
Ironically, Morrison is in Northland to promote his new TV show, Far North. The local true-crime drama stars Morrison as a mechanic who gets tangled up in an international drug smuggling ring off the coast of Ninety Mile Beach. “It’s very funny at times, it’s very dramatic at times, and what happens on the high seas when this whole drama escalates is a great Kiwi yarn,” he says of the show. “Getting to work with Robyn Malcolm again and being part of the community in Ahipara was just a wonderful experience.”
As Far North careens through a series of unbelievable events, we asked Morrison to look back on his own unbelievable life in TV, including that time he visited Matt LeBlanc’s house and some extremely powerful KFC ads.
My earliest TV memory is… We weren’t allowed to watch TV too late. We had to go to bed and go to sleep, and I could not make out why we had to go to bed and everyone else could stay up and watch TV all night. But my dad used to love cowboy movies, and if there was a good cowboy movie, we were allowed to get up and watch it with him. He just loved all those old Westerns, gunsmoke cowboy movies. And then of course Bruce Lee came along with his movies. I thought I was the Bruce Lee of Rotorua because I was skinny like him.
My first TV crush was… Maybe Samantha, who wiggled her nose on Bewitched, or 99 [from Get Smart]. She just looked like my future girlfriend. And Mork and Mindy. Mindy was gonna be my girlfriend too. Not Mork, he looked a bit weird. More Mindy.
The iconic TV ad that has seared into my brain is… There weren’t many brown people in the ads back in my day, right? Some of the brown faces would stand out sometimes. I’d go “Oh! There’s some brown faces that look like me on TV”. Now they’re all talking my lingo on the TV now. Things have changed in terms of television, everyone’s got a little bit more culturally aware, speaking a little bit more of my language. Back in the day, Phillip Sherry read the news, Angela D’Audney read the news, and there was a lot of English programming. All the sitcoms were English. So certainly, now that the culture is changing a little bit, we’re starting to reflect a little more New Zealand.
The one line of dialogue that haunts me is… People saying “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata” has died down a little bit. But every now and then I go to a convention and I’m signing autographs for Star Wars, and someone will pull out a Shortland Street photo and go “Eh! It’s Dr Ropata!” It’s quite funny. That line was in the very first episode too. My character’s backstory was that he had been working over there and getting pretty good at some alternative methods. But the nurse didn’t really appreciate my skills, so she said, “You’re not in Guatemala, Dr Ropata.” It even became a T-shirt.
My TV guilty pleasure is… I try not to watch much TV anymore, because sometimes it just impinges on your consciousness. You can watch a KFC commercial, and next minute, you’re going to KFC and then eating some KFC and thinking, “Oh my god, what the hell did I eat that for?” That’s the power of television. If I didn’t see it, then I would have been OK, I would have cooked something myself.
The biggest show I watched on a streaming service was… I guess I do watch a bit of Netflix every now and then. Squid Game was quite weird. I did enjoy it but probably have to watch it again to see what all the fuss was about. I watched Ozark, but I started to get a funny feeling in my stomach from the lighting and the mood. I started to feel anxious, so I stopped watching, because I knew something bad was going to happen. See how bad TV is for you? Makes you either go to KFC or makes you feel anxious.
The favourite TV project I’ve ever been involved with is… Gloss. Every week, producer Caterina De Nave would say “Tem, I need to see you in my office.” I always thought I was getting fired. She said, “Tem, keep up the good work. Keep smouldering. You’re the thinking woman’s bit of fluff. Keep smouldering.” Those were my instructions.
So I thought “Gee, this is a good job, I’ve just got to keep that smoke coming out of my ears and try and look cool.” I remained in that job for a while, and then I died in that and I came back to life again. I think Dallas was the big show on television back then. I was able to die and then come back to life again, like Bobby Ewing did on Dallas. So that was kind of cool as well.
My most watched television show of all time is… Probably Mr Ed. That horse could talk! It was unbelievable. But sometimes I put the TV on and just go to sleep, it’s a pretty good sleeping device. I put the TV on and then I just go [makes snoring noise]. OK, that was a great show. I must watch that one again.”
The TV show I wish I’d been involved with is… Everybody would probably want to be in Friends, right? I met actually the guy, Joey [Matt LeBlanc]. My agent was a buddy of his. It was cool to meet that guy. I went to his house…unbelievable. He had a motorbike garage downstairs, there’s even a big boardroom in the middle of his house. Fridges all around, in every room, full of his beer. Miller Light, I think it was.
My most controversial TV opinion is… TV impinges on your mind, and makes you do things and feel things sometimes. Best to turn it off.
The last thing I watched on television was… Te Karere, with my cousin Scotty [Morrison]. When I do have a bit of time I watch the Te Reo channel, because sometimes you can get some of these old people speaking and they speak in a way that you don’t hear anymore. They’ll have these kaumatua on and I listen deeply, intently, to see how they’re talking and what they’re talking about to see if I can translate it. Most times I can’t, but I just like to listen to the dialogue they’re saying. Some of the fluent speakers that they’ve recorded, it’s just amazing. They sound like birds in the bush, like pigeons. Beautiful.
Far North screens on Monday nights at 8.30pm on Three and streams on ThreeNow.