No more Mr Nice Guy
Shortland Street veteran Craig Parker talks to Shannon Huse about a life lived on screen, being paid to sign autographs and working with Bill Nighy.
CRAIG PARKER has grown up on television. We’ve made the journey with him from geeky Glenfield College boy turned actor on Gloss (Justin Greig) to 20something guy about town (Seth on Citylife, Guy Warner on Shortland Street and Alistair Kingsley on Mercy Peak). Now knocking on 40, he’s our very own blockbuster star with two television shows and a feature film on the go this year.
Thus far he’s been mostly Mr Nice Guy, but this year sees Parker exploring the darker side to life.
For the next couple of months, we’ll see him staggering through Shortland Street as drug-taking, marriage-wrecking, car-crashing Guy Warner. Then he’ll play a diplomat who falls from grace in sexy new politically incorrect comedy Diplomatic Immunity. And he’ll round off the year playing a hairy, scary werewolf in Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans.
Parker is looking forward to being in an action movie with Bill Nighy. “He’s such a wonderful actor who always has a twinkle in his eye. And it’s just cool to be in a movie that has vampires and werewolves.”
Underworld is currently being filmed at Auckland’s Penrose studios and Parker plays a Lycan warrior fighting to free the werewolves from their vampire overlords. It’s a decent-sized role and the third movie of the blockbuster franchise so the combination of pay and international exposure is likely to give Parker’s career a significant boost.
But back to Guy Warner: “He's just so screwed up he’s fantastic to play,” Parker enthuses.” He’s a multidrug user in serious denial about how his daughter Tuesday has been affected and now he’s damaged the whole Warner family in the accident.”
This stark character change from Guy the social worker is what attracted Parker back to the role, along with the series’ continual innovation. “It’s just a really good show that keeps evolving and improving.”
Shortland Street’s track record for canvassing big societal issues without moralising is another plus as far as Parker is concerned. “I’m really impressed they’ve shown the good and bad of Guy taking drugs. Without moralising they’re showing the terrible consequences of P addiction.”
Before stepping back into Guy Warner’s shoes, Parker travelled and worked in Europe for five years and returning home was shocked by the prevalence of P here.
His other big project for the year is new 13-episode comedy series Diplomatic Immunity, another South Pacific Pictures production, which starts filming in Auckland in March. It’s got good bloodlines – springing from the pen of James Griffin ( Outrageous Fortune). Parker plays the bright, blue-eyed boy from Foreign Affairs who sleeps with a minor royal and for his sins is dispatched to the fictional “Most Royal Kingdom of Fe’ausi.”
With his still youthful good looks it’s easy to forget Parker (37) has well and truly proven his acting chops in New Zealand. From debut roles in Hotshots and then Gloss on TVNZ he trekked through 20 television series including the acclaimed Mercy Peak, 10 theatre productions including last year’s controversial ATC production of The Pillowman and five feature films including the Lord of the Rings. He’s also paid the bills with television voice-overs and corporate gigs (“secret whoring”) all without getting over-exposed and while maintaining a reputation as a “lovely man”.
“I don’t think you can really define a career as successful until it’s over. I’ve never had any aspirations to play Hamlet or Lear. And one of the reasons I love acting is, unlike other careers, you don’t have to plan things out. Some of the best and most enjoyable roles come from out of the blue in a surprise phone call.”
He’s always strived to be versatile and professional. “There’s a lot of playing in the job and it’s important not to lose sight of what’s important. You have to be a professional, turn up on time and deliver what they are paying you for.”
He’s no longer fazed by having his clumsy first acting jobs come back to haunt him. “I normally hate watching my own performances but it’s been such a long time since Gloss it feels like watching someone else. I call it terrified acting because my shoulders are up around my ears the whole time.”
From Gloss he got an early lesson in treating fans with respect. “Ilona Rogers [ Gloss doyenne Maxine Redfern] was probably the most famous woman in New Zealand at the time but she was always so gracious with fans and gave them her time no matter what. She told me it was because she could understand how nerve-wracking it was for them and I’ve always tried to follow the same approach.”
In New Zealand most fans just want to acknowledge “the guy off TV”; internationally it’s most likely fans of the Lord of Rings trilogy. He played elf Haldir, who died in Viggo Mortensen’s (Aragon) arms at the Helms Deep battle. He is on several LOTR fan sites.
He did LOTR fan conventions for a few years where even minor characters are feted like stars, jetted around, with lush appearance money and fees for each autograph signed.
“The conventions are not as weird as they sound. Occasionally, you see someone dressed as a tree or something strange but really they’re like school camp.”
Parker’s dulcet tones suggest a private education and a privileged upbringing but in fact he was born in Fiji, the youngest of three children. Dad Barry was a former airforce man who worked for Air Pacific while mum Robin gave up being a kindy teacher to look after Craig, older brother David and sister Wendy.
His family moved back to New Zealand when he was 10 and very excited about the prospect of living in a place that had lots of cars and big buildings. They settled in blue collar Glenfield, a decision he puts down to his parents arriving late at night and drinking too much gin on the plane.
At Glenfield College his “incredibly encouraging” drama teacher fostered his acting interest. areer. At the time acting was considered self indulgent and impossible to make a living from but Parker persisted and has been successful despite no university or drama school education.
He may be well known, but Parker’s not as famous as supermodel/actress/swimwear designer/Rod Stewart-wife Rachel Hunter who attended Glenfield College at the same time.
He met his former class-mate recently at a London party and reminded her of their alma mater. Her reaction was priceless. “She just said ‘Eww’ and walked off,” he says recreating her look of horror (like a supermodel who's just been asked to eat carbs) with the head flick as she turned away.
Part of the reason Parker’s not reached similarly famous status is his determination to eschew the fame game. While in the UK he turned down a role in the popular TV series Casualty and he also guards his privacy jealously.
You won’t see his Ponsonby home and tropical garden in a woman’s magazine and his love life is another no go area. As a gay man Parker says he doesn’t care what people say about his sexuality “it’s just not an issue for me.”
“I just don’t get why an actor would want to reveal their secrets, hopes and fears to a magazine or newspaper. I know what the magazine gets out of it but not the person. If you are doing publicity to increase your self confidence then you are really in trouble. It’s important to keep some privacy. Your friends and family are the people who you reveal yourself to. They are the ones who should have real access to you.”
He’s not trying to be mysterious or aloof and anyone regularly on Ponsonby Rd will likely see him out eating and drinking with friends at his favourite SPQR.
He will reveal he speaks “survival French”, has an advanced diving qualification and at one stage toyed with the idea of being a marine biologist, but travelling and socialising are his favourite things to do outside of acting.
“My mum told me that I had to get a hobby so I took up gardening. There’s definitely something satisfying about planting things and watching them grow. Drinking is another hobby and drinking and gardening is really the perfect combination.”
Not that there’s likely to be much time for quiet beers in the garden this year.
STREET-WISE: Craig Parker.