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Legendary Kiwi actor Ian Mune on losing his wife, and finding inspiration

The screen star opens up about his lengthy career and the greatest gift his late wife gave him.

He may be one of this country’s best known actors/directors/writers, with more than half a century in the entertainment industry, but don’t describe Ian Mune as an icon.

“Words like that have nothing to do with me,” says Ian, who happily bandies about other four-letter words but shudders at that one.

“If people want to think that way about me, that’s their business. But if I started thinking that way about myself… no thank you.”

He prefers to see himself as a “learning actor” who may have 52 years of experience under his belt but is still figuring things out about his craft and constantly challenging himself.

His latest challenge was playing the part of an artist in the Auckland production of Spirit House, the first stage play he’d done in 17 years. The play is about two men using a studio 85 years apart who are visited by the same woman, and Ian says when he first read the script, he thought, “How in God’s name are we going to do this on stage? But it works.”

Ian (75) admitted to suffering from nerves – “but I would be worried if I didn’t, it’s part of the job.” Adding to the pressure was the fact that not only did he have to bring his character Charles to life, but he had to paint during the show.

Luckily, it’s a skill he’s taught himself over the years and he’s good at it, as he demonstrates when he produces a striking portrait of co-star Mia Blake from memory in about half an hour as he poses for photos for the Weekly.

Producing a work of art while remembering his lines could be tricky. During one rehearsal, he was so busy concentrating on what he was painting, he didn’t notice it was his turn to speak.

“I suddenly realised there was this terrible silence. I realised everyone was looking at me, waiting for me to say my line. I had to be careful not to become too engrossed in what I was painting.”

Ian reckons having multiple talents is the key to being able to earn a living in what is a relatively small industry in New Zealand. He switches easily between acting (he has appeared in movies and TV series including The Piano, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring and Mercy Peak), directing (credits include Came a Hot Friday and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?) and writing (Goodbye Pork Pie and Sleeping Dogs).

The one thing he can’t do is sing.

“Every now and then I have done so under duress and got through it, but it is a nightmare for me,” he admits.

However, it was his lack of singing ability that nudged him towards an acting career. Not long after he started school, his teacher pointed out that he was flat, and the memory of that “dug in deep to that five-year-old mind”.

But several years later, during a class production of Androcles and the Lion, he was praised for his lovely roar, which was a huge boost to his confidence and sparked an interest in acting.

“I grew up knowing I can’t sing but I’ve got a lovely roar,” he chuckles. “Plays provided the experience of what we all do in the playground – pretend to be someone else – and I felt very comfortable doing that.”

Acting wasn’t really a career option in the late 1950s – unless you were prepared to go to drama school in London, which Ian wasn’t – so he trained as a primary school teacher.

But in 1964, when he was 23, he decided to follow his dream and joined Wellington’s Downstage Theatre to kickstart his acting career. It’s a move he’s never regretted.

“When I arrived there, I thought, ‘This is where I’m meant to be.’”

He’s worked consistently ever since, including doing some US jobs (in 2003, he played Winston Churchill in the TV movie Ike: Countdown to D-Day, starring Tom Selleck as President Dwight Eisenhower). But he’s never wanted to move to Hollywood.

“I can’t stand Los Angeles. The moment I arrived there, I knew it was the wrong place for me.”

But six years ago, he stopped working to look after his wife Jo when she became ill.

“I pretty much dropped everything and looked after her for the three or four years when she was sick.

“I didn’t realise it at the time, but she gave me an amazing gift. She knew she was dying and she said to me, ‘Ian, after I am gone, you will not be able to live on your own. I want you to find another partner. Now don’t you dare try to hook up with so-and-so because the two of you will fight like cats and dogs. But this one…’

“And I interrupted and said, ‘No, Jo, stop this. I don’t want another partner, thank you very much.’ But she was insistent.”

Jo died two years ago and Ian fell apart.

“My whole body collapsed. I couldn’t walk across a room without falling over, I lost my sense of balance, I lost my muscle tone, I lost my joints. I lost every damn thing. We’d been together 52 years.”

Ian starred as volatile guerilla leader Bullen in the 1977 film Sleeping Dogs.

He was doing his best to carry on when he met a teacher called Sarah, who is now his partner.

“Sarah knows Jo is still with me and she can live with that. I am a very lucky man to love two women at the same time with the permission of both.

“If Jo had not given me the gift of telling me she wanted me to find someone else, I don’t think I would be where I am today. There would have been an element of guilt. But I don’t have that because this is what she wanted.

“I keep telling my friends, ‘One of you will die first and the other will be left. You need to talk about what you want for your partner in case you are the one to go first. You must give them the gift my wife gave me.’”

Today, life is good. A dad of three and granddad of seven, he’s delighted his daughter Nicola has moved back to New Zealand with her family after living in the US for many years.

Career-wise, now Spirit House has finished, he has other projects in the pipeline. There are definitely no plans to retire.

“As long as you have your wits and enough of your body to still be able to do the job, why should you stop doing what you love? I’ve got joint pain and I hobble around because my hips hurt but I’m old, that’s what happens. I take the painkillers and keep going.

“I was supposed to go to a function the other day but I sent someone a text that said, ‘Do not believe people when they say age does not weary you nor the years condemn – it’s bulls—. Age does weary and the years do condemn. I won’t be there tonight, I’m going to bed.’

“But the thing you need to remember is it’s only your body. As long as you don’t have something like dementia, you can keep going. Your spirit is the guts of it – if you have learned throughout your life what revives and replenishes your spirit, you keep it young. The rest of it is just s— you have to put up with.”

If Ian could turn the clock back 50 years to when he was just starting his acting career, he would tell himself to trust his instincts. He would also remind his younger self to watch people who are good at what they do to learn from them. That’s a strategy he managed to figure out fairly quickly.

“I’ve always been a magpie, picking things up from others. When we made Sleeping Dogs (the ground-breaking 1977 film Ian wrote and starred in), we were making it up as we went along, there was nobody to tell us. We found people who had done it before, employed them and learned from them.”

When it came to acting, he got to witness a master at work by observing Anthony Hopkins in action. He got to know the Oscar winner when he was in New Zealand filming The World’s Fastest Indian. Ian was making a behind the scenes documentary and did lots of interviews with Tony, as the Welsh actor is known.

“He knew I was also an actor and we’d sit around chatting. And when Tony was working, I watched him like a hawk.”

He recalls seeing him film a short but poignant scene where each take just got better and better until the final one had the crew in tears.

“He was amazing.”

Ian’s taught acting in the past and would be keen to do another stint teaching to correct things that young actors do that annoy him.

“There are lots of things that get up my nose, like using too much emphasis in the wrong places. A lot of young actors are working too hard. They need to ask themselves, what are they trying to communicate? They need to understand that they don’t have to overdo it – audiences are bright. Respect the audience and keep it simple, stupid!”

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