Wallace grew up poor in the Pākēha-dominated Auckland suburb of Mission Bay. He began stealing as a child, and went on to spend a decade in and out of prison. During a spell inside Paremoremo's notorious D Block, he began to realise that many young Māori get in trouble because "they don't know how to fight with words". According to NZ Herald journalist Tony Reid, Wallace taught himself to read and write by smuggling pages of dictionaries into his cell. He "surreptitiously obtained other books denied to D Block prisoners as punishment".
After leaving prison in 1974, Wallace worked in earthmoving, then joined Auckland's Mangere Bridge project. Within three days he was promoted to leading hand. Three weeks later the politically untried Wallace was made chairman of the bridge job committee, after winning over many with his straight talking.
When work on the bridge stopped over disagreements about a satisfactory redundancy deal, Wallace became a central figure in one of the country's longest-running industrial disputes. As the expected five weeks stretched to two and a half years, Wallace organised long-term support for worker's families, and sold off many possessions to feed his family.
Wallace featured in The Bridge, a documentary about the dispute made by Merata Mita and Gerd Pohlmann. In May 1982 he made a memorable acting debut, joining Mita and the rest of a powerhouse Māori cast, for Rowley Habib's award-winning teleplay The Protesters. A scene featuring Wallace's feisty protester begins 12 minutes into the third clip.
Mita would go on to help cast Geoff Murphy's ambitious Land Wars epic Utu; it was she who brought Wallace to the director's attention. Murphy wrote later that casting Wallace as fictional guerilla leader Te Wheke was one of Utu's biggest risks. But he proved to be "sensational". In an emotional Radio New Zealand interview after Murphy's death in 2018, Wallace credited Murphy for casting him, and introducing him to the Māoritanga he'd had so little exposure to. Murphy, he said, "made me a different man". After reading Utu's script, Wallace felt "that could have been me. The same anger and frustration. It is only the attitude to revenge that would have been different".
On set, the day began each morning at 6.30am with a two-and-a-half-hour session in the makeup chair, having his moko applied (as shown in this making of documentary). Wallace delivered a fierce, thoughtful, at times humorous portrayal of the Māori scout who takes up arms and leads a bloody rebellion after his family is massacred by colonial troops. In the process, his character provokes those affected by his actions — including threatened frontiersmen, priests and disgruntled natives — to consider the nature and meaning of ‘utu’ (retribution).
In an enthused piece on Utu, inflential American critic Pauline Kael described Te Wheke as "a literate, Europeanized Māori with a taste for Shakespeare" and called him "a commanding presence — a Māori Che Guevara". Monthly Film Bulletin critic Nick Roddick wrote that Wallace was "magnificent as Te Wheke, whether leafing in fascination through Macbeth, rolling his tongue before beheading the parson, or singing his final waiata".
When Utu opened in the United States, the actor was a vital cog in the busy publicity campaign. Producer Don Blakeney flew him to New York, where Wallace's life story helped Utu win press coverage. He also donned the moko for an emotionally-charged American premiere, where he was joined in waiata by Māori visiting the US for the launch of exhibition Te Māori.
By now Wallace was working as northern branch organiser for the Labourer's Union. A year after Utu's release, he appeared alongside George Henare and Pat Evison in family feature The Silent One. Adapted from a Joy Cowley story, The Silent One centres on a deaf boy who befriends a rare white turtle on a mythical Pacific Island. Wallace played Tasiri, a local hungry for power. The same year, he acted in sci-fi series Children of the Dog Star. This time he played father to one of the show's childhood heroes, played by his real-life son Jason Nathan.
Wallace took small roles in thriller Dangerous Orphans (as one of the heavies) and had a brief cameo in Geoff Murphy's Utu follow-up The Quiet Earth. In 1988 came his next big role, in Merata Mita’s Mauri — the first fictional feature written and directed by a Māori woman solo (Ramai Hayward had directed To Love a Mäori with her Pākēha husband in 1972).
Shot by a largely Māori film crew and employing many non-professional Māori actors (including Eva Rickard), Mauri was set in an isolated North Island settlement. Wallace plays a man who returns to his small country town seeking an identity and a home, while hiding a secret from his past. North and South reviewer Brian McDonnell praised Wallace's "powerful, effective" performance. The actor later flew to Italy to accept an award for the film at the Rimini Film Festival.
Wallace’s next starring role was in landmark Māori anthology series E Tipu E Rea (1989). Filmed in both te reo and English, Te Moemoeā marked the directing debut of actor Rawiri Paratene. It was adapted by Patricia Grace from her short story The Dream. Wallace played a man who has a dream, then wonders if it might aid a win on the horses.
Wallace also had a small part in 1994 Hollywood feature Rapa Nui, based on the legends of Easter Island. Two years later he featured in Australian anthology series Naked: Stories of Men. The 'Cross Turning Over' episode was based on Australian writer Roger McDonald's account of a travels in the Outback, with a team of Kiwi shearers. Wallace also acted in Jack London-inspired adventure series Tales of the South Seas.
In July 2013 Wallace returned to New Zealand from the southern Australian town of Traralgon, after being invited to the premiere of Utu Redux — a restored, retooled version of the film that had made his name as an actor. "We're all actors aren't we, it's just some get paid," he said in a Dominion Post interview. "There are times when you put on airs and graces and there are times when you show anger ... I just did what they told me to do to the best of my knowledge without any training in the acting game, and it went well."
Wallace later returned to Aotearoa permanently. He became kai whakaruruhau (guardian) for Auckland's busy Ngā Whare Waatea Marae. In a 2018 interview for Marae, he revealed that he had originally helped secure the land for it, decades before. Wallace worked on rehabilitating prisoners, as he'd done at times in Australia and the United States. In August 2018, he won headlines at a criminal justice summit, after questioning why there were no Māori among the speakers when the opening address was about Māori in jail.
Anzac Wallace died of cancer on 8 April 2019.
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
Originally published on 26 November 2008; updated on 10 April 2019
'Utu actor Zac Wallace remembers Geoff Murphy' ( (Radio interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 4 December 2018. Accessed 10 April 2019
Marae - Zac Wallace interview (TV Documentary) Reporter Hikurangi Kimiora Jackson (Pango Productions, 2018)
Bruce Babington, A History of the New Zealand Fiction Feature Film (Manchester Unity Press 2007)
Michelle Duff, ''Utu' star back in town for premiere of remastered film' - The Dominion Post, 27 July 2013, page A13
David Fisher, 'Where are Māori?' Utu star Anzac Wallace disrupts Government's criminal justice summit' - The NZ Herald, 21 August 2018
Pauline Kael, 'Mirrors' (Review of Utu). Collected in State of the Art (New York: EP Dutton, 1985)
Brian McDonnell, Review of Mauri - North and South, October 1988
Geoff Murphy, A Life on Film (Auckland: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015)
Roy Murphy,'Utu: the US Push' - Onfilm, December 1984, page 14
Tony Reid, 'His bridge out of troubled waters' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 5 March 1983
Nick Roddick, Review of Utu - Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1985 (volume 52)