Taking the bull by the horns by Madelaine Empson
Matt Chamberlain was first bitten by the acting bug when he put up his hand to be in the house play at high school. He doesn’t remember the name of the play but he does remember it involved selling a bull. Among the other details he recalls, “It was set in England, I was the local vicar, and I ended up buying the bull by mistake.”
Despite going to university, earning a degree in economics and marketing at Lincoln College, a stint overseas, and trying other things (none of which he was particularly good at, he laughs), acting had made its mark. So, he took the bull by the horns and went to Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School in 1991.
“There’s been busy patches and not-so-busy patches, but I seem to have muddled my way through”, he says humbly of the 30 years since in which he’s played more than 50 characters onscreen – including five years as Murray Cooper in Shortland Street, a turn as Lieutenant Colonel in James Cameron’s Avatar, and a supporting role in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
Onstage, Chamberlain has starred in close to 30 shows and now bolsters his playwrighting resumé with Timberrr…!, a comedy about deforestation set to chop down the doors of Circa Theatre from the 26th of March to the 23rd of April.
What have been some of the highlights of your extensive screen career?
In My Father’s Den was an amazing experience. [Writer and director] Brad McGann gave you this mission, ‘What have you got?’ It made you feel like you had permission to go for it. He was a really interesting guy, young, shooting his first feature film. Unfortunately that was his last. He passed not that long after, cancer. It was quite a remarkable script and a great team he had around him. I didn’t play a huge role in it, but I knew it wouldn’t end up on the editor’s floor. It was small but perfectly formed!
Many Kiwis will remember family man Murray Cooper from Shortland Street. What was your time like on the show playing Wendy’s hubby from 2010 to 2015?
It was great. It was a fantastic opportunity to get a bit over five years of consistent work. It’s fast, but it makes you make decisions very quickly. It’s a great bunch of people, and the audience is just amazing. Occasionally you’ll get a story that you feel could be making a difference for people. It's entertainment, and intrigue, and there’s always those cliff hangers! And the ‘out on Murray’ or ‘out on Wendy’ teams.
What’s your favourite story from your time on set?
Michael Galvin. Sitting down, having a serious talk with me in the scene. He was about to tell me that his son Phoenix was having an affair with my daughter Jasmine. And he sat down, and he said, ‘Murray, I don’t know how to say this, but Wendy is having an affair with Phoenix.’
And he just didn’t know he’d said it, and I said, ‘Really?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
The whole crew just roared with laughter. And he still hadn’t figured it out, ‘What happened, what did I say?’
Jumping on to your stage career, what challenges do you thrive on when it comes to stage versus screen work?
It’s slightly different muscles involved. I did a play with Indian Ink, and they gave me a note in rehearsals, ‘We love what you’re doing, it’s great, but you’re doing it all in profile. You’re looking directly at the other character.’ Because I’d been doing screen stuff, you don’t have to deal with the audience. They move the camera. It felt really odd, I’m having this serious, intimate moment with my wife, and I’ve got to turn out and look to the audience periodically.
Then I was doing this scene with Jacob Rajan, who’s just a master at theatre. He was about three-quarters of the time out to the audience and about a quarter of the time with me. It was like, ‘Oh I’ve got it!’ I wasn’t as good as Jacob was at it, but it’s bringing that connection out to the audience. What he was doing looked completely believable and engaging. It’s practise and skill. But once you get back it’s like getting back on a bike.
What show has had the most impact on you?
I’d been out of drama school for maybe a year and a half, and I got to do Nga Tangata Toa with Taki Rua Theatre. It ended up being such a rich experience because of the cast and the spirit it was done in. We were learning waiata and taiaha and rākau, and everybody was learning it – the Māori cast, the Pākehā cast, we were all in it together. Great cast, Nancy Brunning, Jim Moriarty, Apirana Taylor, Shimpal Lelisi, Erina Toi-Paku, Hera Dunleavy. It felt like we kind of had the Māori gods behind us, pushing us along.
You co-wrote the upcoming play Timberrr…! with Damon Andrews. What’s it about?
It’s about an ageing champion wood chopper [Ned] who’s farming out the back blocks of Tahora [in Taranaki]. He’s a big fish in a small pond, and a confirmed bachelor. Into his life comes a young fella called Billy. He says he’s his son. Ned doesn’t react well to that. He’s a hard man. Billy is a marshmallow, he’s from Parnell, he’s enthusiastic, open-hearted. They’re the odd couple, but gradually they find some common ground. It’s all hijinks. It’s fairly broad humoured but hopefully there’s a lot of heart in there. And Billy has a secret as well, but we won’t say what that is!
There’s a small number of actors but a large number of characters. Why did you choose that style?
Damon, who I went to drama school with, co-created a play called Wheeler’s Luck, and I loved it. I said to Damon I’d love to do it along those lines, and he was keen.
We’ve got three actors playing 18 characters, off the top of my head. There’s a lot of mime, we don’t use a lot of props. They wear one costume and become everyone. We’re very lucky that the cast we’ve got is just fantastic. It’s Stephen Papps, Tyler Kokiri, and Serena Cotton. It’s a big workload for the actors but it’s very satisfying watching it when you as the audience start to see the world they’re creating. Your imagination fills in the gaps.
I liken it to when you’re watching subtitles, and at the start you’re reading and looking at the screen and reading, but about five, 10 minutes in you forget you’re watching subtitles.
How has COVID affected your life as an actor and the show?
Last year I really enjoyed. I was in One Lane Bridge, and The Panthers, I had a little part in that. I got to be in Once down in Christchurch, which is my second musical in how many years. That was a steep learning curve from the musical side of it. I loved it and it sold out for its five weeks. Hit a spot for the audience I think. 2020 was pretty quiet, but there are a lot of people doing it a lot harder. We’re doing alright.
We’re firing ahead with Timberrr...! If you’re going off what-ifs, you wouldn’t ever do anything.
What is the crux of the play that you hope will stick with your audiences?
It’s primarily about male relationships and how ludicrous they are when their egos and their frailties come to the fore. That’s where a lot of the humour is. There’s a sense that there is hope for the male species at the end of it!