Why actor Roy Billing thinks Robert Muldoon was like Donald Trump
Featured on Kiwi and Australian screens since the late 70s, Kiwi actor Roy Billing has returned home in 2020 after 30 years of working across the gap. Kiwis know him from children’s dramas under the mountain and Dog Star Childrenas a whole new audience discovered him in 2021, when he played the late Prime Minister of Aotearoa-NZ, Robert Muldoon, in The Panthers.
Now he is preparing to return to the Auckland stage in Great Horizonsopposite Annie Whittle, and embracing island life in her lush Waiheke home.
Roy Billing: It just felt like it was time to go home. I was firmly established in Australia. No matter where I live, I always find work there – before Covid anyway.
I have always loved Waiheke, and I have friends and relatives here.
* Former Shortland Street actress Annie Whittle’s home theater above Auckland
* The Panthers: TVNZ’s evocative and provocative tale of turbulent times
* Panthers star Roy Billing tells how he avoided Muldoon’s ‘trap’
In Australia, I lived in Sydney, so I thought I didn’t want to live in the city. I like the idea of living somewhere like Waiheke, which is only 40 minutes from the biggest city in the country. I just take the ferry when I have work, meet friends for lunch, go shopping or whatever.
It really is the best of both worlds.
The idea of the garden is to give the impression of living in the bush. There were well-established trees here, so it was enough to plant roses and flowers. It’s pretty low maintenance. And yet we are in Surfdale, a fairly populated small suburb.
I have a good vegetable garden in progress. I continue to plant vegetables, even though it is hard for Waiheke. From January to April we don’t get much rain and we all depend on water from reservoirs. It is therefore necessary to be very economical with the use of water.
You feel like you’re on vacation all the time. There are French doors all around the house. I can open it up and let a breeze through and there is a great deck around the house. So it’s quite spacious, but it still has that bachy feel, which is quite nice.
In winter, I have a wood fire that heats the whole house.
I have collected a lot of art over the years. I have quite a nice collection of New Zealand and Australian paintings, some nice Aboriginal bark paintings. I have work Georges Baloghyand I have some works by a late Australian artist Fred Cresson.
The portrait with the fish on my lap was painted by a woman called Camellia Morris. She painted this to put it in the Archibald Competition, But that did not work. He did a few other contests, and she gave it to me after she was done exhibiting it, which was very nice. She did a great job. It is a very nice gift.
I have another painting of her, of a child on some kind of paddleboard on a beach. She is very good at painting water, and it reminded me of one of my grandsons.
The cityscape is George Baloghy, the Auckland artist. It’s actually on Symonds St, just across City Road. At this point in his career, he was walking around painting stuff in the city where buildings are going to be demolished. There’s just one big office building now. It was in his 80s period.
I am New Zealander. Of course they call me Australian in Australia. But I was born here, so I consider myself a Kiwi actor working in Australia.
With PanthersI didn’t come out to impersonate [Robert Muldoon], because I don’t look like him, unless they put masses of putty around my jaw. But I read his books and watched the doco series The grim face of power, who talks about him. So there has been a lot of research.
It wasn’t intimidating to play it. He’s just another character. I knew there would be people who would want me to do an absolute impersonation of him, but I thought not. I just wanted to give an impression of who he was.
He looked a lot like Donald Trump, in some ways, with his dictatorial style and passionate supporters. He was quite a controversial figure in New Zealand. I just hope I understood the essence of him in the performance.
I spent 30 years in Australia, came back occasionally to do things like Officer Annabut I have a lot of work in Australia so I’m sort of instantly recognizable there for now Underbelly, Irish Jack, The disha lot of very good things.
I went back there at the beginning of 2021, in January, to shoot the last series of the last series of Irish Jack, about three weeks in Melbourne. I had to come back and do two weeks of MIQ, and I thought no, I don’t want to do that.
The work hasn’t dried up, people are still interested, but because of the quarantine requirements, people are nervous about hiring me, and I’m a little scared of getting tricked. But I get a lot of work here, so who cares?
I’m in Great Horizons following. It’s an American play, but we obviously staged it in New Zealand, and it’s excruciatingly, painfully funny. It’s about a couple in their mid-70s, living in this upscale retirement village, and she suddenly decides she wants to separate. It’s a shock to their whole family and middle-class middle-aged kids trying to get involved to stop them, and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes in.
It’s a very, very well-observed element, well-observed human behavior. You know, kids try to boss parents around and control them, and parents don’t want that.
It was written by an American writer, but the themes are universal. There seem to be a lot of people at the end of their marriage who break up, I don’t know why, but it’s a pretty relevant situation. The comedy comes from the family conflict, with the kids not believing Mom and Dad are going to separate at their age, while Mom and Dad are quite capable of taking care of themselves.
It’s great to be working with Annie Whittle again. I think we worked together years and years ago on a television comedy, in Wellington, called Press for serviceand I think we did some sketches on The Billy T James Show. We get along very well. It’s great fun, having a lot of laughs.
I prefer cinema and television, but I think it’s good to be back on stage. Especially with a piece like this, audiences will love it.
I will probably try to do a play like this every year now. I had given up on them, but I really appreciate that.