Peter Elliott’s first taste of a television career started with a hammer.
Before finding work in set construction, Elliott had a ‘wealth’ of jobs. “I call it a wealth," he says. "Other people would call me serially unemployed.” But at the age of 22, he finally found his calling — television. Building and painting sets for shows like Woolly Valley, It is I Count Homogenized and Grunt Machine made him realise he’d rather be in front of the camera than behind it.
Elliott had been part of the amateur acting set in Christchurch before joining the Court Theatre in 1980, which led to acting parts on television — in McPhail and Gadsby, Pioneer Women and Hang on a Minute Mate.
After a stint in Australia, Elliott returned to Auckland and scored his breakthrough part — playing lawyer Paul Davison in Erebus – The Aftermath, a mini-series based on the tragic 1979 Air New Zealand Antarctic flight. “I had lots of cross examination stuff to do, taken directly from transcripts. We had to learn every comma and word perfectly, and if we got anything wrong we could have been sued. So it was tricky.”
Not quite as tricky was his next role as bad boy Rex Redfern, on glitzy drama series Gloss. “It walked a very fine line between high camp and drama, and at the same time comedy, and it walked that line very well," says Elliott. "It was like our Dynasty or Dallas. As actors it was very new and weird for us — as there hadn’t really been ‘stars’ in New Zealand. There was Pat Evison [Close to Home], and that was about it.”
Elliott talks about the show in this 2010 interview. Gloss won Elliott his first nomination for the Listener Film and Television awards, and helped cement his place in television history, but after a couple of seasons the show was canned, and he went from playing a ratbag to a fast-talking shock jock on TV3 drama Homeward Bound.
In 1994, he dipped his toe into film, playing Bill Perry in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. It was an experience that was as nerve-wracking as it was exciting. “My first scene in Heavenly Creatures was meeting [British actor] Diana Kent in bed. We’d never met before and here we were about to procreate. On set, start, go now!”
In 1995 he starred in teleplay Trifecta as a disgraced lawyer. The result won Best Drama in the 1996 NZ Film and Television Awards. The following year he returned to the screen in a regular capacity as Doctor David Kearney on Shortland Street. Elliott found it a nice change to be playing a "straightforward and charming" role. His character would later become Chief Executive of the clinic, but the four-year run came to an end in 1999, and the next 18 months saw roles in short supply. Elliott talks about his time on and after Shortland Street in this video interview.
A phone call from TVNZ changed that: Elliott was asked if he knew anything about sailing. Having grown up on the Christchurch estuary, he knew enough to want to audition for the role of host for Captain's Log, a documentary series that traced Captain James Cook’s footsteps around New Zealand.
“It was the first time in my life I was just being me on camera, and I had to learn how to be Peter talking. [Director] Tainui Stephens said to me that I was a man in search of a waka and that was very true. I didn’t know who I was, and this series helped me to find out. I did find my waka.”
The same year, he hosted four-parter Explorers, and was named Best Presenter at the Screen Director's Guild Awards.
Elliott's knack for presenting would lead to many different on-screen adventures — including this Intrepid Journeys episode in Kenya, natural history documentary Primeval New Zealand, TV series Secret New Zealand and narrating a long run of projects, including two of the country’s major documentary productions: epic 13 part history series Frontier of Dreams, and Give it a Whirl, a landmark series documenting New Zealand pop music.
In 2006 Elliott wrote and presented documentary Jungle Rain, about the impact of Agent Orange on New Zealanders involved in the Vietnam War.
In 2009, he won a role as the lawyer defending David Dougherty in Until Proven Innocent. His performance won him the Best Supporting Actor award at the Qantas Film and Television Awards. “What I was thrilled about was that it was the first real Lippy Pictures production, and it was marvellous working with these female producers who had just buggered themselves to get this made. It’s nice to win but it was even better to win for such a great production.”
In 2012, Elliott was again nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Fiona Samuel’s Bliss – the Beginning of Katherine Mansfield.
Despite the accolades, Elliott says he’s still waiting for that perfect film role. “I’ve never really done a major role in a film and I would like to. I love film. Film is like being on stage in terms of the actor's involvement.”
In 2014 Elliott hosted eight-part series The Art of the Architect which screened on TVNZ. He went on to an ongoing role as local businessman 'Big Mac' in acclaimed trans-Tasman drama 800 Words.
Between acting gigs, Elliott is a man of many talents — he also writes motorcycle and boating reviews.
Despite nearly 40 years on our screens, Elliott still considers himself a jobbing actor. “Every single job that comes in you have to take. It can be hand to mouth. You have to find other things to do.”
Elliott lives in Auckland with his wife, Susan Trainor, and their three children Grace, Lucy and Joss.
Profile written by Zara Potts
Published on 6 June 2018
'Peter Elliott: Glossy beginnings and a distinguished career' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 15 September 2009. Accessed 6 June 2018
Britt Mann, 'A day in the life of New Zealand actor Peter Elliott' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 15 April 2017. Accessed 6 June 2018
Sarah Nealon, 'Peter Elliott talks about life as a 'jobbing actor' (Interview) - TV Guide, 9 November 2017