In Bellbird, Cohen Holloway departs the Waititi-verse for a dramatic role in a bittersweet film about fathers and sons and life down on the farm.
Holloway started out as a singer-comedian, but, invariably, Waititi has employed his fellow Wellingtonian as a straight face. On Thor, it didn’t look as if even that was required. Arriving at the film shoot in Queensland, Holloway saw that his part – a leader of a scrap-scavenging gang on a distant planet – came with a costume featuring a headdress and full-face mask.
“When I got on set, they put the mask on me and I was just kind of sulking, thinking, ‘Oh well, maybe there will be a Lego doll of me and I’ll make money out of that.’ Taika’s like, ‘Man, I put you in this big movie and you want your face to be seen?’ Um … yes!”
He began his career in disguise. In early 2000s sketch-comedy series Facelift, Holloway specialised in prosthetic-enhanced impersonations of John Campbell and David Lange. There is a lost clip of him as Campbell interviewing himself as Lange. It was canned when the former prime minister died in 2005. “It was my greatest moment,” he sighs.
But on Thor, as filming began, Waititi walked up to Cohen, pulled off the face of the headdress and said, “There you go.” He’d made the costume department make the mask detachable. Holloway got his brief close-up in the biggest movie of his cameo-heavy career, though not his figurine.
“He’s been a champ,” laughs Holloway about the director whose movies have helped get his face known and boosted the careers of a fair few New Zealand actors. “And he’s just one of the true lovely gentlemen and also a mad genius.”
It’s the Waititi movies that Holloway gets recognised for most in the supermarket aisles of Paraparaumu. He lives in the Kāpiti Coast town with his wife and two children. “Sometimes you might get a gang member who wants a selfie from Boy for the Crazy Horses. They’re really polite and lovely.
“For me, the greatest compliment I get as an actor is when people go, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’, because most people can’t nail it.”
Those somewheres have been expanding for 15 or so years. Pretending to be other people goes way back. Holloway’s parents are psychiatric nurses. He’d often get to hang around their workplaces. “I was interested why these people were talking to themselves and so I’d go around mimicking people. And when I was at school getting bullied, I worked out if I mimicked the bullies, they became my friends.”
As a 17-year-old, he won a radio competition to sound like Irish soul singer Andrew Strong from the film The Commitments. “When I turned up, I was full of acne and skinny and they wouldn’t let me in the pub. They said, ‘You’re not the guy that was on the phone.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ So, they let me in.” He soon formed a band, while spending six years as a bank teller, where the gift of the gab he says he inherited from his dad came in handy selling stuff. He eventually enrolled at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School despite being warned by his mother’s brother, veteran actor Jim Moriarty, that there was no money in it. “As a kid, I always admired him and kind of copied him and wanted to be an actor.”
After graduation came Facelift, stand-up comedy and Eagle vs Shark. Fifteen-plus years later, it seems Holloway’s best work lies outside the Waititi-verse. His portrayal of David Dougherty in Until Proven Innocent, the 2009 television drama about how the Auckland man was wrongfully convicted of child rape, won Holloway the best actor prize at that year’s Qantas Film and Television Awards. His best comedy role was in the 2015-17 mockumentary series Find Me a Māori Bride, playing Tama, a metrosexual Auckland property developer forced to embrace his Māori roots.
“It was a big break for me, but I got so many tellings-off at marae all around New Zealand for the naughty things I did on it,” he says. “My pā and my tribe now accept me as a Māori, which is good. And I get free hot pools.”
Earlier this year, Holloway was back on primetime as a leading man in Fresh Eggs, the black comedy series about a city couple whose shift to the country lands them in a drugs underworld. The gun-happy show was bumped out of the TVNZ schedule mid-season after the Christchurch terror attack.
“It’s a funny one with me. You either bank your money that you love me because I’m funny or you go, ‘Oh, I like him because he does some good serious films.’ It’s not often that I get to do something like Bellbird. It’s just this beautiful slow-burner.”
The film required city-raised Holloway to learn about working in the rural sector. He flew up to Maungakaramea, south-west of Whangārei, where the film was shot, for a crash course in dairying.
“I was terrible. Dairy cows can actually sense how nervous you are, and that pit where you milk was designed for the owners, who are on the short side, whereas I’m tall. So, my torso got absolutely slammed, because when cows get nervous, they poo, and I just wore it everywhere. I was absolutely brown.”
They were possibly the fastest and worst reviews he’s ever got.
“Yeah, honest, eh? Honest feedback straight away.”
By the end of the shoot, though, he was on first-name terms with the herd. He got to know them over time, too, with filming staggered to catch the changing seasons. It also gave Holloway, the cameo king, a chance to make Bruce a lived-in character.
“Normally, you get three or four weeks, then you walk away and say, ‘I wish I had done this,’ but in Bellbird I got to go back and pour that character back into the scenes.
“But I am so sorry you have to see me on screen for a lengthy period of time.”
Still, that’s two leading roles in agrarian-themed productions in one year. Holloway appears to be making hay while the sun shines and bringing home the bacon.
“Yeah, it’s been a really good year for the Cohen Holloway. But since I’ve been working for a while, I know you’ve got to kind of lap up those two years and save all your money because then you get overexposed and it’s, ‘Nah, he’s been in everything.’ So it’s time for cameos again.”
Bellbird is in cinemas from November 7.
This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.