Finding the good in everybody: it might be a bit of a cliché, but it’s what actors tend to do. Especially actors like Mark Mitchinson, who has made a habit of finding the good in people that the rest of the world has given up on.
One of Mitchinson's first major roles on-screen was in 2010 telemovie Bloodlines, playing Colin Bouwer, a South African doctor living in Dunedin who murdered his wife, and got away with it — for a while. Bouwer went to prison (he was subsequently paroled and deported); Mitchinson was named Best Actor at the 2011 Aotearoa Film and TV Awards.
A year later, Mitchinson was named Best Lead Actor at the NZ Television Awards for his portrayal of gunman Jan Molenaar in Siege. The telemovie was based on a 50 hour siege that occured in Napier in May 2009. Mitchinson talks about taking on the role in this video interview. In 2015 he played another real life figure: kidnapper and rapist Bill Cornelius, in Screentime telefeature The Monster of Mangatiti.
Wary of typecasting, Mitchinson is thankful for any chance not to play thugs, rapists and murderers. He has twice played a man famous for defending thugs and murderers — charismatic defence lawyer Mike Bungay — first in based-on-real-life drama How to Murder Your Wife, in which he defended a henpecked husband who did away with his wife. Then, in 2017, Mitchinson went the full Bungay in five-part series Dear Murderer, based on the book of the same name by Bungay’s wife Ronda.
Mitchinson has played his share of policemen and authority figures. In 2016 telefeature Bombshell he was Detective Allan Galbraith, who led the investigation into the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. In Consent - The Louise Nicholas Story, he played policeman John Dewar, and in Springbok tour drama Rage he was Police Commissioner Bob Walton, who called off the match in Hamilton after protesters invaded the field. An early role in Eruption saw Mitchinson playing a scientist predicting volcanic disaster in Auckland.
From The Amazing Extraordinary Friends to Mortal Engines, from Spartacus to The Shannara Chronicles to the dodgy therapist in Nothing Trivial, Mitchinson’s characters have run the gamut of emotions from A to Z. In 2017 he co-starred in psychological thriller Human Traces, as a scientist on a remote island with his wife and a mysterious new arrival.
A personal favourite is Terry Huffer, a down-but-not-quite-out loner who sets up a radio station in a Piha campground. The show, High Road, was originally conceived and made as a web series by Mitchinson’s Piha neighbour Justin Harwood, on the sort of budget that couldn’t afford an oily rag. “We were right at the beginning of when web series were starting and the zeitgeist of the time was do it cheap, and just make it, “ Mitchinson says. “And it took off — probably more internationally than here. People were watching it in France!”
NZ On Air funded two more series. Then Lightbox came along. “They came to us and said they loved it. They wanted to make it their first New Zealand commission, so bought the web series off us and cut that into eight half-hours.” Lightbox subsequently commissioned another series.
Growing up in the United Kingdom — he was born in the town of Peterlee, in North East England — Mitchinson first came to New Zealand in the 1970s, as an eight-year-old. “My Dad was in the church. He’d been invited by Paul Reeves, the Bishop of Waipu, to a parish in Rotorua.” That job lasted roughly three years, then after five years in Auckland the family returned to the United Kingdom.
At 16, Mitchinson got involved in the National Youth Theatre in the UK, before being offered a place at London's highly regarded Guildhall School of Speech and Drama. It wasn’t what he expected. “I came out of Guildhall not sure whether I wanted to be an actor at all. I’d done a lot of theatre work, but drama school was odd for me — I realised I was going to be so reliant on the whims and fortunes of other people, and that lack of control I didn't want in my early 20s."
So Mitchinson took a whole different career path. “I wrote a book based on interviews with actors involved on politics in America, opened a restaurant in London, and then another restaurant. During this time, he’d regularly returned to New Zealand. “It was always a place I’d always come back to, for r'n'r time.”
Towards the end of the 90s, Mitchinson was running a web design company. “I’d started it up just as the web was taking off, and we had an amazing six or seven years,” he says. “But then I thought it was time for me to come back to New Zealand. So I sold my house in Oxfordshire and came to live in Piha. The rest is history!”
What with buying a house in Piha in 2002, meeting his soon to be wife the following year, and then starting a family, Mitchinson had no desire to return to acting. At least until actor Peter Feeney — the godfather of one of his children — was casting for kids series The Amazing Extraordinary Friends. Feeney asked Mitchinson to audition for the role of “a sort of cockney Ray Winstone gangster.” He got the part, and rediscovered acting.
“I got my love back,” he says. “I had such a great time on that show and all that self-consciousness of acting that I may have had at drama school wasn’t there any more. At drama school, it was about the art, you being in the art and not the art being in you. Once you find the art in yourself…well, it’s a blessed place to be.”
It’s that love of acting that keeps Mitchinson going. “I love the work — I love nothing more than getting a job where you go into the minutiae of the character, and work out how to play him.”
Along the way he has also learnt not to stress, especially about auditions. “If they don’t want me, then I’m not the right person, and if they do want me, they’ve found the right person,” he says. “Casting’s so important and it’s not taken lightly, so don’t stress about it. I stress about not working, but I don’t stress about not getting roles – that’s the one thing that’s out of your hands.”
Profile written by Doug Coutts
Published on 5 September 2018
‘Mark Mitchinson: A career playing dangerous men…‘ (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 21 October 2013. Accessed 5 September 2018
'Mark Mitchinson' Lion Rock Management website. Accessed 5 September 2018
Fiona Rae, 'A dramatisation of a Dunedin murder' (Review of Bloodlines) - The Listener, 17 July 2010
Unknown writer, 'New drama tells story of Monster of Mangatiti' (Interview) - TV Guide, 4 September 2015