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Martin Henderson - Now that I'm older I don't give a ....

Courtesy of Pavement Magazine with thanks... What a difference a few short years living overseas can make to a television soap star's career.


Courtesy of Pavement Magazine with thanks...

What a difference a few short years living overseas can make to a television soap star's career. Courtesy of Pavement Magazine with thanks...

What a difference a few short years living overseas can make to a television soap star's career.Oh sure, for those of us old enough to remember his character Stuart Neilson, he still looks like just a slightly older version of the 'teen hunk' who graced so many magazine covers at the height of his fame. But this is most definitely not the same Martin Henderson who played Shortland Street's favourite pin-up boy from

For one, there's the permanent American accent. Convinced he was sabotaging Hollywood auditions because he had to think too much about his voice, Henderson now sounds like any other native Californian. Ask the 28-year-old to change back to a Kiwi twang and you cringe. It's almost that bad. Yes, he gets ribbing for switching 'sides'. But no, he doesn't much care what anyone thinks.

Gone is the old Henderson uncertainty, the angst and the burning desire to please Shortland Street publicists, fans and TV critics alike. In its place, Henderson now sports Tom Cruise-like locks and beard and the movie star swagger of a guy who may not buy into the hype that he's Hollywood's Next Big Thing but knows he's taken that first major step to becoming a Serious Player.

"A lot of the changes just come with getting older," says Henderson, in hometown Auckland to see family and friends and to talk up his first big-screen male lead in the word-of-mouth horror hit The Ring.

"When I was 17 and on Shortland Street and being that recognised and exposed, I really cared what people thought about me. I put a lot of pressure on myself because of that. I felt I needed to represent the show in the right way and be so well-behaved. But at the same time, I just wanted to get drunk with my mates and meet girls. Now that I'm older, I don't give a shit. It doesn't matter what someone else thinks."

Least of all now, Hollywood studio bosses. While John Woo's Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater, wasn't exactly a box office success, Henderson's portrayal of the sensitive soldier Nellie pining for his sweetheart back home sent casting directors into a spin. Then he won the male lead opposite the British-born/Australian-bred Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) in The Ring, a re-make of a cult Japanese horror film about a videotape that kills its viewers seven days after they've seen it.

It's hard to say just what impact Henderson's role as Watts' doomed boyfriend Noah has had on overall takings - Henderson himself admits The Ring is Watts' film - but it opened at number one on its release in the US and is now rapidly closing in on a worldwide gross of US$200 million.

A more conclusive test of Henderson's Hollywood pulling power will come when he reappears at the end of the year as the leather-bound star of Torque, a kind of The Fast and The Furious action romp on two wheels, co-starring Ice Cube, Monet Mazur (Just Married) and Jaime Pressly.
Whether biker movies are your thing or not, you can't help but admire Henderson for the career risks.
Bored with playing Stuart Neilson and stifled by his celebrity, Henderson left Shortland Street when it was still a ratings phenomenon. Then, just when he was being groomed for TV stardom across the Tasman and about to break into the Australian film world in 1999, he turned his back on Easy Street again, this time to struggle as a flat-broke, anonymous acting student in New York.

It's the stuff of made-for-TV movies. His Aussie CV boasts parts in the short-lived soaps Echo Point and Sweat, the latter opposite good buddy and former roommate Heath Ledger; Prime TV's Big Sky; and lastly, an AFI Award nomination for his supporting role in Kick, the big screen story of a rugby player who swaps his muddy shorts for ballet tights.

"Everyone thought I was mad to do what I did and move to New York," admits Henderson. "But I'd made my mind up. I knew the actor I wanted to be and I didn't think I was going to attain that living in Australia and doing the kind of TV work I'd been doing. It wasn't challenging me. I wasn't growing and I'd become quite disillusioned with acting.

"I'd lost my drive for it and had become pretty apathetic about a lot of things. I was drinking a lot, partying and really lost my passion for [acting]. I let work come to me. Someone would offer me a part on a TV show and I'd be like, 'Fine. You want me to do that? I'll do that'. But I never stepped back and said, 'What do I want?'

From as early as he can remember, Henderson always wanted to be like his childhood heroes Harrison Ford and Christopher Reeve, who he watched at the old Civic theatre on Auckland's Queen Street. As he later struggled for direction in Sydney, the only way he believed he had a serious shot at his Hollywood dream was to rediscover his passion for acting in the most disciplined environment he could find, a world away from the parties, publicists and fast-turnaround TV.

Enter from stage left, as in way-out-in-left-field stage left: The Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Theatre on East 54 Street, Manhattan, New York. The school's alumni include Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, writer David Mamet, Diane Keaton, Dylan McDermott from TV's The Practice and acclaimed director Sydney Pollack.

"I knew it was a very disciplined school and I needed that," says Henderson. "I'd become pretty complacent about a lot of things and I knew there was a certain regiment there I needed. From the speech, voice, singing, dancing... the whole bit.

"I just felt that New York would give me the key to who I wanted to be as an actor; to find my ideals, what drives me, what inspires me. Acting had always been a thing I loved as a kid, that was fun and something I did for no other reason. I wanted to get back to that and New York gave me the chance to be around people a little more genuine about what acting is."

Mostly, however, Henderson found himself growing from the life experiences that came with struggling to survive in one of the world's most challenging cities.

Henderson lived in an East Village railroad apartment he shared with two friends. It was so cramped, Henderson slept on the living room floor on a foam mattress stored under the couch, which doubled as another bed. Another roommate made do with the kitchen floor. "There was no empty floor space in the apartment when we were all asleep. It was horrible," Henderson recalls.

To pay the acting school's annual tuition fee of $20,000, Henderson worked nights as a restaurant food runner - the guy who took the food to the fat-cat Wall Street types at the tables. It was one rung down from a waiter but without a working visa, Henderson says, it was the only job he could get.

He laughs when he recalls his first attempt at bartending in the city. Although he had no previous experience mixing drinks, Henderson leapt at the chance when a buddy asked him to fill in at a club.

"I was just making it up as I went along and everything was going fine. The place kept getting busier and busier, then at 2am they drew the curtains, dimmed the lights and everyone started having sex on the counter tops.

"I'm like, 'Thanks for telling me about that part of the job, man'. I pretended not to notice, like I was totally cool with it. But I quit the next week."

Against school rules, Henderson worked as an actor, starring as Hamlet in the off-Broadway play Ophelia Thinks Harder after an approach from its New Zealand producer. Henderson, a professional actor since the age of 13, admits he eventually found he wasn't getting enough out of the classes at the Playhouse. They covered too much old ground and he found himself clashing more and more with tutors over technique. He left halfway through the two-year course but admits he never lost his love affair for the lifestyle and the life-lessons New York delivered.

"It was a huge challenge for me and I relished it," he says. "I was learning so much living in New York, being surrounded by so many artists. I developed a real interest in that world. I hadn't grown up in a really artistic family anyway, so it was a huge learning experience. I learned quite a few things at school but in the end it was more what I learned about life that affected me."

On the strength of his role in Kick, a Los Angeles-based Australian producer befriended Henderson while he was in New York and promised to set up meetings for him on the West Coast. So after a spring in New York without the pressures of study, Henderson packed his bags for LA.

"It was relatively easy for me to get an agent," says Henderson. "I had a reasonable body of work already and that's the wonderful thing about New Zealand and Australia. They have this industry, with shows like Shortland Street, which is a wonderful place for young talent to express themselves, learn and use that as a platform."

Still, his struggle for a serious breakthrough in LA didn't get any easier. He couch-surfed his way around friends and acquaintances, selling some shares he'd invested in while living in Australia and borrowing money from his mum Lorraine to survive.

The low-point came in the days after his rental car was broken into and his New Zealand passport stolen on the eve of a screen test in Toronto. After his manager's assistant, who is now his publicist, made a series of frantic calls to the New Zealand consulate begging for a temporary passport, Henderson eventually made it to Canada for an unsuccessful audition.

Detained at the border for interrogation by over-zealous officials, Henderson eventually straightened out a visa wrangle and returned to life in LA. But days later, the pick-up truck he'd just bought using a US$2000 loan from his mother was impounded after Henderson made an illegal left turn and police found the actor was driving without car insurance, which is mandatory in California.

"There I was, standing on the side of the road, with no transport to get to the audition and facing a US$800 fine to get my car back. I remember thinking, 'This is ridiculous. Is this really worth it? Fuck it, I'm going home to get a job'."

But Henderson also knew he couldn't give up, not when he knew he was so close to a breakthrough. Sure, he was struggling, but there was a buzz around town for the latest hunk from Down Under.

Henderson met with Steven Spielberg for Colin Farrell's role in Minority Report, got down to the final two to play James Dean in a TV bio-pic (James Franco won the part) and perhaps most impressively in terms of future box office clout, found himself up against Tobey Maguire for the starring role in last year's blockbuster smash Spider-Man.

"Spider-Man came down to me and Tobey in the end and I knew that was a big deal as far as the industry was concerned," recalls Henderson. "But not for me. I'm not a huge fan of that kind of thing. It was different for Tobey because he already had established himself as a good actor. But it would have taken me a long time to outgrow Spider-Man."

By the time Windtalkers rolled around for consideration, the LA-weary Henderson had skipped town to hang out with his then-girlfriend, French actress Berenice Bejo, on the Prague set of her new film A Knight's Tale, also starring old pal Heath Ledger.

"Most chances I get, I leave LA," says Henderson. "Hollywood is pretty fucking boring. Most people there are pretty boring. The whole Hollywood thing is a facade with a lot of insecure people and I don't want to be around that kind of thing."

Henderson admits he was a little nervous for those first few days on the Windtalkers' set. After months of anonymity and surviving on cereal dinners, there he was sitting in a foxhole with Nicolas Cage, chewing the fat.

"At first I thought, 'Fuck, here we go, a bunch of Hollywood acting dudes'. But they were nothing like that at all. They were all cool guys."
Henderson didn't volunteer how much he was paid for his first Hollywood feature but after a little pushing, he concedes the cheque was for "high five figures". (That's in American dollars.)

Afterward, Henderson returned to Europe with Bejo before heading back to LA for more auditions around the time of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C.

"I came home as soon as I could after September 11. That was a strange time to be away from your family. But I found people saying, 'You're not going back to the States, are you?', and started to get freaked out about other people's fears.

Dreamworks signed Henderson for The Ring so fast on his return to Hollywood, he had no time to dwell on the threat of terrorism and the widespread paranoia it caused.

He'd heard of the Japanese original from which The Ring was adapted but had never seen it. He didn't know Watts either but they clicked from the first time they met.

"I remember thinking, 'Phew, this is going to be good'. She is so nice and sweet. I got lucky again having someone like Naomi, who is Australian, to work with. They don't take themselves quite as seriously as American actors. They have a little bit more of a sense of humour about it all and are more relaxed on set. So, in that Kiwi/Aussie way, we could give each other shit without anyone taking offence to it."

So was he nervous in his first male lead? There's a painfully long silence before Henderson eventually offers: "Yeah, a little bit. But I was ready for it too at that point. I'd spent so much time and energy trying to get the opportunity, so when it came, I was like, 'Let's have some fun'."

With so many post-production elements to The Ring, Henderson says it was hard to get any sense of magic during the filming of his scenes. And he admits that the first time he saw a cut, he had visions of his career dying seven days after its release. "I was like, 'Oh shit, I wish I hadn't seen that'. There were definite problems but fortunately Dreamworks realised that too and they did a great job, right up to just before its release, to get it exactly where it needed to be."

The studio also took no chances on publicity, sending a helicopter to whisk Henderson from the desert set of Torque to the industry release of The Ring, his first Hollywood red carpet premiere with his name in lights. Henderson had missed Windtalkers' US launch a few months earlier because he was filming the Danish indie black comedy Skagerrak in Europe.

"I was a little nervous walking down that red carpet because I hadn't seen the final product. All the media were asking me questions on the way in and all I could say was, 'I hope it's good'."

Hearing the reaction of the audience that night not only made Henderson realise he may have a hit on his hands, it also reinforced why he'd put himself through such a roller-coaster ride to get there.
"I remember sitting there and thinking this is exactly why I want to do this. You're giving something and making people happy. You may not change people's lives but you can certainly inspire them and give them an insight. That's a really wonderful gift."

For now, Henderson says he's content travelling and indulging a new-found interest in photography and painting as he waits for the next script.
He won't say how much he was paid for The Ring, or Torque, for that matter. But he concedes he's long since swapped the pick-up for a new Range Rover and no longer has to work for a couple of years if he doesn't want to.

Henderson certainly doesn't feel any pressure to take on just any old role from his William Morris agent David Adamson, an expatriate Kiwi who met Henderson by chance on a sailing trip a couple of years earlier. Adamson says that when an actor like Henderson comes along, someone with a work ethic to match his talent, "you grab it with both hands".
He talks about positioning Henderson in the same league as Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp or Sean Penn, actors whose body of work is impressive but sparse.

"When Martin is on screen, saying a line or reacting to one, he's the one I want to look at and to me that's the star power of it. Martin wants to be working in this business for a very long time, so if there's nothing right that's he's passionate about, then he doesn't have to do it."
So, with a worldwide hit and the makings of another in the can, does Henderson think he's made it?

"I feel like I'm starting. I've taken that first rung on the ladder. As for making it, I don't think any such thing. I've certainly got an opportunity now to do what I want but I see my career as continually evolving."
As for Stuart Neilson, "weird" was about all Henderson could offer when asked if he ever thinks about the sulky teen and where all this fuss started. He later concedes, however, that the lessons he learned on Shortland Street have stayed with him.

"I think it was good to have that experience at that age because now I'm not seduced by the Hollywood life. I learned what all the bullshit was about. Now I have a certain line I've drawn and that's my line. I'll support the work things I do but as far as my personal life is concerned, I think it's irrelevant."

Pavement, New Zealand's leading contemporary culture magazine, is a bi-monthly, large format publication, which this year celebrates its 10th birthday. Pavement features a stimulating and provocative blend of local and international fashion, film, music, art, design, literature and beauty, combined with images by some of the world's leading photographers. You can subscribe now for just $39 a year by emailing

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

1 Jul 2003

The Big Idea Editor