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Why Kiwi actor Kieran Charnock finds his characters hard to shake

Kieran Charnock in Stray.
His performance may have won him a major acting prize, but Kieran Charnock hasn’t watched himself in Stray, the independent New Zealand movie that has been a career breakthrough.

It seems the 26-year-old Welsh-born Wellington-based actor just doesn’t want to watch himself act.

“I believe in becoming the person and letting that person inhabit the space rather than manufacturing the character and having a technical approach,” he tells the Listener.

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Doesn’t he want to see himself? He shakes his head. And his Masterton-based family, although supportive, don’t quite understand why either.

“It’s difficult for me because it makes me feel isolated, or like I’m in the wrong. There are some other actors out there who don’t watch their work and that gives me courage.”

Charnock, who describes himself as a “heavy, heavy introvert”, flew to the Moscow International Film Festival in April for the world premiere of Stray. He later won its best-actor prize. However, he left before the screening of director Dustin Feneley’s crowd-funded debut feature, though he did go on stage to collect his lavish Silver St George best-actor trophy.

In the measured, minimalist drama, he’s the softly-spoken Jack, who, freshly paroled from a stint inside for attempted murder, heads for the wide and chilly horizons of Central Otago. He connects with Grace (Arta Dobroshi), a recent immigrant who has her own troubled past.

Jack doesn’t say much in the movie, but still, Charnock says, he couldn’t shake the character afterwards.

“I have an extreme calling to become these people, but it’s a struggle because I have a personal life. The journey I went through in Stray took a huge toll on me – my body and my mind, my psyche. It took an extreme toll … It was made two years ago but it still affects me to this day.’’

His mindset for Jack leaked into Cleaver, a short film he did soon afterwards in which he plays a suburban loner who’s a witness to domestic abuse. “The reason Cleaver works is because I was in that place. I was in a very, very dark place in my full-time life for quite a while. I had made it an occupation to put myself in [Jack’s] headspace and that’s an unhealthy thing. I became my version of that character.’’

Kieran Charnock  receives the best actor Silver St George from Nastassja Kinski for his performance in Stray. Photo/Getty Images

Although acting is his first love, Charnock is also writing his own scripts. Stranger, a short film he co-wrote and co-directed, is premiering at the Show Me Shorts Film Festival, alongside Cleaver. It’s earned him a nomination for best director at the festival.

Stranger is about a young boy and his father, a firefighter, who is severely disfigured in an accident. Charnock was inspired by an account of an American police officer, who survived severe burns, and his relationship with his children. “It was a really beautiful story about their connection.’’

The Stray award has opened doors. He has another role in an upcoming New Zealand feature, which he can’t talk about yet, and it’s shown him that his approach, his non-self-viewing rule and all, is working.

“It has reaffirmed what I am doing … I don’t need anything else. They should give awards to someone else now.’’

Stray is in cinemas now; Show Me Shorts is in Auckland from October 6, Wellington from October 12, and throughout the country in October and November.

Video: Dustin Feneley

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.