Actor Martin Henderson is well known in his native New Zealand, where he’s been acting since he was a child and his TV series credits include Strangers and Shortland Street, which he followed up with Australian screen credits including Sweat and Kick.
In 1999, Henderson moved to New York to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. His New York stage credits include the New Zealand play Ophelia Thinks Harder. From there, he moved to the West Coast where he found success in Hollywood films Windtalkers, Torque and the hit horror film The Ring. His other screen credits include Little Fish, Bride and Prejudice, Perfect Opposites, Skagerrac and the upcoming Flyboys
This week, Henderson makes his West End debut starring opposite Hollywood actress and rock musician Juliette Lewis, making her stage debut, in Lindsay Posner’s new production of Sam Shepard’s hard-hitting 1980 play Fool for Love.
Date & place of birth
Born 8 October 1974 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Lives now in
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last seven years. While I’m in London, I’m staying near Buckingham Palace. I used to visit London when I was younger. Friends of mine were working and living here. They were all just out of university, living ten people in the same flat in Acton, you know. I was not interested in that at all. It actually gave me a really bad impression of London because I saw that lifestyle and it didn’t appeal to me at all. In the last few years, I’ve done a couple of movies here which has been good, but even then I didn’t get a real feel for the city because we’d work ten, 12 or sometimes more hour days in a studio and then you’d be exhausted by the end of the day. This time it’s great. Once we open, we’ll come to the theatre at night but we can wander around in the parks during the day.
Why did you want to become an actor?
I’ve been acting since I was a kid. Because I started so young, it was kind of just a dream to do it as a career. My father was adamant that I concentrate on my studies so that took a lot of focus. Then I started on a TV show when I was 17. I’d already got into university and I didn’t need to do the last year of high school so I thought, great, I’ll do this TV series for a year, get some money and fund my way through university. But that was when I really fell in love with acting and wanted to do it professionally.
First big break
Everything leads to another thing. In some ways, the fact that I started so young was a break in that it meant later on I got other jobs because I was already known in New Zealand. By the time I was 23, I’d been acting for ten years so the decision to go to America was just about competing in a bigger arena rather than seeing whether I could act. It was scary but not such a huge step because of the confidence I had built up from the early TV work I did. And The Ring opening in America was a big thing for me. I got a lot of publicity from that.
Career highlights to date
Last night was thrilling to play to hundreds of people in the West End. I sent a text to my mum and said “it’s a long way from the school production I was in when I was ten”. It is special being on stage here. The West End is the West End, you know. The pedigree, the history and tradition - there’s a lot of respect for that. Last year, working with Cate Blanchett, Sam Neill and Hugo Weaving on Little Fish meant a lot to me because it meant going back home. That was an amazing experience and working with people who had no ego at all was wonderful; it was just about the work and that was really encouraging.
This is my favourite stage production, closely followed by the Cinderella production of my standard four. And my favourite film would be Little Fish.
Cate Blanchett I mentioned. And I love Indira Varma, she’s fantastic. We did Bride and Prejudice together and she’s become a friend.
Rowan Woods (Little Fish), and Lindsay Posner from this production. Lindsay is extremely patient.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Since I’ve been in London, I’ve seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Christian Slater in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the West End. And I saw a lovely little show called Rabbit at the Old Red Lion. I loved it.
What do you like about working on stage?
The last stage production I did was seven years ago in 1999 at the Samuel Beckett Theater in New York. It was a production of a New Zealand play called Ophelia Thinks Harder. I was at drama school in New York and we weren’t allowed to do any acting outside of school. I had to sneak and do that in my spare time. I got away with it until about the fourth night when the light bled from the stage and I could see my teacher sitting in the fourth row with this big smile on his face when he realised I’d seen him! But whatever, they didn’t kick me out! I love the contact with the audience in theatre. When I was a kid in New Zealand, I would do little school plays and skits. I used to write comedies mainly and get my friends to be in them. Going back to theatre, I remembered why I wanted to act in the first place, which is to give people an experience, hopefully one they enjoy. People say that actors just want the applause, and yes every actor does want the applause, but you only get the applause if you’ve given something. You’re really reminded in theatre that your job is to give, and that transforms you somehow as a performer, it makes you more selfless in a way. Film, particularly in Hollywood, is all about, how did your film do and what are you doing next. It’s all me, me, me - you almost forget there’s an audience.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I feel I’m just getting back into theatre now doing this now. I’d love to do some Shakespeare, I think that’s the ultimate challenge for me. Hamlet - hey, you’ve got to give it a shot.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I was going to do a science and business degree. Lately I think architecture would be really fascinating. It’s the balance of the creative with the practical that fascinates me.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
President Bush. I’d really love to be privy to what’s actually going on.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love sailing in the Mediterranean. And I love going home to New Zealand.
At the moment, I’m reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s fascinating.
Why did you want to accept your part in Fool for Love?
It’s actually a funny story. Eighteen months ago I was doing a workshop in LA and we worked on this play and I loved it. At the end of this workshop, I was determined that I really wanted to do theatre. It just so happened that Ed Harris was getting a production of Fool for Love up on Broadway. I found out about it and I said to my agent “listen, I really want to audition for that part”. In the end, that production didn’t happen and I was a bit bummed out. Then a month or two ago, I got the phone call about this production and I was offered the part of Eddie. It was kind of destiny in a way. It was something that I had put out there over a year ago and came back in another form, and in London, too, which is thrilling. As a New Zealander, I don’t feel totally at home in America. I mean, I enjoy it a lot but there’s something really nice about being in London. I love this city.
How would you describe your character Eddie?
Eddie is a stuntman, a cowboy, a country boy, very simple, very passionate, very brutal, violent and childish. He’s a show-off, cock-sure, he uses a lot of bravado and is very base. He’s all those things. The primal parts of masculinity is what he represents. But then there’s a vulnerable side to him, a tenderness which we start to understand as the play develops and we get more of the background of who these people are and what contributed to the situation that we see them in, which on a surface level looks kind of insane.
Have you always been a fan of Sam Shepard?
Oh yes, he’s brilliant. He’s one of the best American playwrights there is. It’s such a thrill, such a privilege to be able to do his work. This is a difficult play, no doubt. It’s a real challenge for many reasons. But as much as you’re challenged by Sam, you’re also aided by his writing which is wonderful - the construction of the play, the words you get to say.… Sam is a huge music fan and during his time in New York City, he was heavily influenced by jazz. You see that in his writing, this musicality. In this play in particular, there’s a real build-up of tension and then there’s a release. It’s cyclical throughout, so quite musical - in a way, the play starts to play you. There’s not a lot of room for improv with Sam. At first, that can seem restrictive, but once you surrender to it, you understand that every moment of the play you’re fitting the form of what he’s written. It’s great.
Do you have a favourite Sam Shepard play?
Fool for Love would be it. True West was my favourite before, but now that I’ve got underneath the writing and the characters in this play, and the characters have become very close to my heart, I like this one. Buried Child’s also great, and True West is still up there, it’s fantastic. It was interesting last night seeing how much the audience laughed at the play. That’s the thing with Sam. He winds the audience so tight that any little comic moment or jibe is such a relief. The audience think, “oh thank God, it’s a funny moment” and they really are willing themselves to laugh.
Do you have a favourite line from Fool for Love?
It’s one of May’s lines right at the beginning of the play when they’re arguing and Eddie’s trying to twist his logic, as he does. He says “you can believe whatever you want” and she says “I’ll believe the truth, it’s less confusing.” I just love the way she cuts that line there. The play’s about that, thematically: dealing with versions of truth, how we remember the past, what degree of fantasy is involved in our retellings of our own stories and myths, and how that contributes to who we are and how we relate to others.
Given that you’ve had theatre experience, have you offered your co-star Juliette Lewis any advice in making her stage debut?
I taught her everything she knows! No, she hasn’t asked me for advice - you clearly haven’t met her yet! Juliette is the ultimate rebel, she will not be told what to do. But we have a great director in Lindsay Posner. He’s amazing. It’s interesting to watch him work with all of us really, seeing his approach and patience and subtlety and the way he allows you to think you’ve come up with stuff when really he was trying to get you to do that a month ago. Juliette’s level of energy is so high, the girl has so much energy. She goes off on the weekend to do rock concerts in Frankfurt and then flies back for rehearsals on the Monday. She’s incredible, she just gives so much.
What’s the funniest/oddest thing that happened during rehearsals?
Yes, I concussed myself. We’re not really sure what happened. It’s a very physical play and I was going hell for leather. My character’s such a show-off, throwing himself around, banging the wall and I’ve been doing that for six days a week eight hours a day repeatedly. Then I whacked the back of my head on the rocking chair right in the base of my skull. After that, all my balance was off for quite a while! I only came right a few days ago.
What are your future plans?
After the play, if I can manage it, I’m going to have a short break before summer completely disappears somewhere in the Med. Then I’m going to go home because my sister had a little boy - I’m an uncle now - and I want to meet him. In the meantime, I just feel very privileged to be doing this here in London with such a great play by such a great playwright.
- Martin Henderson was speaking to Terri Paddock
Fool for Love opens on 15 June 2006 (previews from 7 June) at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.