Interview: Paolo Rotondo

by Amanda Spratt / 03 March, 2007
The actor, writer and director plays half-a-dozen characters in his new play Strange Resting Places.

He's played a ferocious killer, a political revolutionary, a soldier, a hustler, "the most boring character in Shortland Street" and is the TV voice of TelstraClear: Paolo Rotondo can hardly be accused of being typecast. A good thing: in the play Strange Resting Places, which the Italian-born actor, writer and director extensively researched and co-wrote with Rob Mokaraka, Rotondo plays half a dozen more characters, ranging from a young soldier to an old woman. Winner of the inaugural Italian Film Festival Scholarship, the 36-year-old talks about why Italians are like Maori, why he left the Street and the play he says is about "a hori and a wog stuck in a stable in World War II".

You came up with the idea for this play three years ago. What was the inspiration? Rob and I were working on another short film and he took me to his ancestral village up in the Hokianga. Over a few beers I realised his people were so similar to my people. Whanau is number one. It's different to the Anglo-Saxon culture with its cult of the individual. Maori and Italians also come together and argue and drink and eat a lot. And the village was Catholic. They're simple, everyday things, but together they're the things that make a culture. I was like, "These are just like southern Italians."

The promotional blurb for Strange Resting Places says the two cultures also share cunning and thievery. Do you agree? Yeah. Maori and Italians have both got a disrespect for authority because of colonisation. They bend the rules to suit humans rather than the other way round. My people are a southern tribe and sometimes we call them Maoris because they spend a lot of time eating seafood, picking mussels and being slightly dodgy.

You had great success with your play Little Che, about Che Guevara. Were you always a fan of the revolutionary? I was obsessed by him. Che had an idea of the world as some kind of utopia, and as naive and idealistic as that is, I really admire him for fighting for it. He was a romantic hero who fought for what he thought was right. In a world that is really cynical, I enjoy heroes like that. It's too easy to be cynical. I tried to get Little Che made as a film, but people laughed in my face. "You old hippie," they said, "no one would be interested in him." Then two years later came a movie [The Motorcycle Diaries].

One of your first plays, Black Hands, was based on the dysfunctional Bain family. How did that come about? It was everywhere in the media and he was exactly the same age as me, and I was like, "Wow, what's going on?" And those jumpers! And I thought, "Let's go and see if it's got legs to do anything with." We looked into other cases and discovered familicide used to be the commonest form of murder in the country. So we used the Bain case as a platform to explore a dysfunctional family. And I was glad that for once it was a white family in the South Island rather than a brown family in South Auckland. Race confuses the issue.

You won best script at the Air New Zealand Screen Awards last year for your short film Dead Letters. Do you prefer writing to acting? They're part of the same sort of creative need to tell stories. As an actor you get to work on quite a bit of banal shit and after a while it gets hard to put your heart and soul into it. You might be selling crisps, and you might use all the craft and talent you've learnt, but it doesn't feed you creatively. It's easier to put my heart into my own work.

Did your role as hospital boss Andrew Solomon in Shortland Street fit into the banal? Shortland Street is as job-job as you can get in acting. It's got a lot better, but when I was there I had some problems with it. My character was boring and it left me with nowhere to go. I thought, "I can't do anything with this guy", so I didn't renew my contract. I don't know whether you watched it, but he was f---ing boring ...

You've played quite a few characters on the fringes of mental stability. Do you prefer those roles? I look so intense, that's probably why they cast me as psychos. I think I liked them more when I was a bit younger. Playing a serial killer was really challenging and exciting - look at me, I'm hardly a big scary guy. Those challenges were fun but they take their toll and I'm a little over playing psychos.

Do you think being Italian helps you in your acting? Emotional availability is common to Italians. Power in Italian culture is expressed by how much you can emote. An Italian man is judged by how much he can cry, emote, be passionate about something, whereas a New Zealand male is judged by his ability to withhold or control that emotion. Both have merits but they're polar opposites, and I sit somewhere in between.

A lot of your co-stars in the Street try their luck in Hollywood. Any plans to do that? I'm not going to be like one of 20,000 other dudes in Hollywood that look just like me. The idea of living there is pretty unappealing. It's so much better to live here than anywhere else. I live on Waiheke Island. It's pretty hard to wrench me off there. And I'd prefer to be in New Zealand writing plays about New Zealanders.
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