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Kiwi actor Vinnie Bennett: 'I'm just grateful to be doing this'

Meet the Kiwi actor whose performance in new movie Human Traces landed him a Rising Star award at a top film festival.

Vinnie Bennett never picked himself as an actor.

Right now, the 25-year-old from Christchurch is one of the world’s hottest young acting talents, after his performance in psychological thriller Human Traces.

The film, from Kiwi director Nic Gorman, is set on a Subantarctic research station, where a scientist couple is trying to restore the island’s ecosystem when the arrival of mysterious newcomer Pete (Bennett) puts their marriage in danger.

For that performance, Bennett was named a Rising Star of Canada’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), an accolade that has upended – or perhaps decided – his future.

“It just threw me right in the deep end of the whole [movie] industry,” Bennett told NOTED.co.nz over coffee in the Toronto neighbourhood where he’s been staying since August.

It’s a long way from where he thought he’d end up. Before ever picking up a script, Bennett had planned on becoming a cop.

“I thought [it] would be a cool job because every day is different, it sounds exciting, you get to be a little bit of a hero.”

You might say that’s exactly how his career has turned out.

Variety called Human Traces “a gripping study in isolation, desperation and paranoia”, adding: “Bennett justifies his rising-star status at this year’s Toronto fest with a smouldering performance as the enigmatic and potentially dangerous interloper.”

Vinnie Bennett poses for a portrait during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo / Getty Images

For the admittedly self-critical actor, the recognition was “just good news, because you realise ‘ok, I guess my performance was decent enough’.”

Bennett spent the film festival week meeting blockbuster producers and directors, taking part in industry boot camps and press events, and flitting between parties attended by the who’s who of Hollywood, meeting Cuba Gooding Jr and James Franco, and almost, he emphasises, Javier Bardem.

“I was in the same party as him so I feel like we’ve pretty much met – not really,” he laughs.

Bennett grew up in the seaside Christchurch suburb of New Brighton. Raised by his “pretty amazing” mum after his dad died when he was a few months old, Bennett is now the eldest of seven.

“As a kid, I would always dress up – me and my brother would put capes on and get wooden swords and play out until the sun went down. I did that probably a bit too long, till I was maybe 12 or 13,” he laughs.

“There was always that aspect of imagination that I really liked running with, and that’s what I’m still trying to do these days, is keep that childhood wonder about everything.”

In his final years at Shirley Boys’ High School, unsure of what to do next, Bennett decided he’d probably join the police – until he discovered Year 12 drama class, though he had to take it at girls-only Marion College because there weren’t enough keen students to fill a class at Shirley Boys’.

In Year 13, he shifted to Aranui High School’s performing arts programme, training Shakespeare, before joining a theatre company.

Then in 2011, two events again changed his course – the Christchurch quake hit during a rehearsal, then he had a chance meeting with an agent while travelling with his troupe.

“I got back to Christchurch and there was nothing going on, really, for the actors especially, so I kind of just threw everything in my Ford Laser and took off up the country,” he says, bound for Auckland.

Fast forward six years, appearances on Kiwi TV shows including Filthy Rich and Power Rangers, and a part in Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell (ironically, playing the part of “Rookie Cop”), then his Rising Star nod from a film festival regarded by some insiders as bigger than Cannes.

Since TIFF, Bennett has signed with a US agent, and spent time in Los Angeles meeting casting directors, visiting studios, and “geeking out, but trying to stay cool”.

He’s planning a move there in the new year. There’s no role lined up yet but, on the back of momentum from TIFF, he says, “it kind of just feels like there’s something coming.”

“Talking to the casting directors, going over there, they said ‘you won’t have trouble getting work, it’s a time for you to think about which kind of path you want to take, in which show’. They think that’s going to be more of a problem than getting work, it will be deciding which jobs to actually audition for.

“During pilot season you’ve got six, seven auditions per day sometimes and obviously you’re going to have to say no to a few of them, so it’s just kind of figuring out which path you want to take as a performer.”

Bennett’s working on his US accents and accommodates a cheeky on-the-spot request for a demo that ranges from Los Angeleno to New Yorker to Southerner, and ends in peals of laughter.

Unlike his vocal imitation of a Hollywood Hills resident, Bennett is keeping both his feet on the ground – even while rubbing shoulders with stars he once admired from the cinema audience.

He feels a bit guilty being so far from home but he’s doing his best to have faith in what he’s pursuing.

“There’s still that certain part of you that feels like you have just kind of left everything in order to be a star and chase this dream which, you know, barely anyone has any success in, it’s really hard, and I feel like you have to be a little bit crazy to pursue such a tricky career,” Bennett says.

He’s not alone: Bennett’s girlfriend, ex-Shortland Street actress Frankie Adams, is filming US sci-fi TV show The Expanse in Toronto. So far, their shooting schedules have usually alternated, giving them more opportunities to spend time together, though Bennett admits that may get tougher as they land new roles.

He laughs at the suggestion of a Kiwi power couple taking over Hollywood: he’s still pinching himself at how far he’s already come and says his teenage self certainly wouldn’t believe it.

“Even to be here doing what I’m doing with acting, it’s enough for me, so I’m just grateful to be doing this and if I can just stay doing this for as long as I can, I’d consider that a success.”