Mitchell Manuel began acting via an unusual route: as a teenage inmate at a Levin boy's home, his experiences fed into the script of 1981 borstal drama Kingi's Story.
Kingi's Story's Levin-based writer/director Mike Walker felt that the talents of young Polynesians had not been utilised enough on screen. After extensive auditions, Walker gave the Kiwi-born Raratongan the lead role of Kingi, and enlisted him on the movie's fundraising missions.
Though Māori characters had appeared amongst the ensemble casts in 70s shows Pukemanu and Close to Home, and Billy T James was already on the path to national fame, Kingi's Story was pioneering in having Polynesians in central roles in a Kiwi television drama.
Walker used the character of petty criminal Kingi — reflecting on recent events from a prison cell — to examine how people become wards of the state. Kingi's Story was shot largely on location at Kohitere Boys' Training Centre, one of a number of boys' homes built to deter young teens from entering the adult prison system.
The 48-minute long film finally went into production after TV One drama head Ross Jennings was won over by Walker's script, and videotapes of Manuel acting. Manuel, then 17, had never performed on stage or screen, and as he writes in this backgrounder to Kingi's Story, the world of filmmaking took some adjusting to.
Four years later Manuel was back on screen in Walker's first and only feature, Kingpin. Manuel brought his Kohitere experiences to bear, co-writing the script with Walker. This time round Manuel played Riki Nathan, a 15-year-old burglar seen as a threat to reigning borstal kingpin Karl Stevens (Nicholas Rogers). Along the way, Riki gradually forms a bond with effervescent inmate Willie (Faifua Amiga, in his screen debut).
Listener critic Helen Martin praised Kingpin as compelling and authentic, and argued that "the raw energy of the film is charged by the spirit of the kids." She added: "... in a story which lends itself to melodrama, simply because many of the characters are attempting to live out macho power fantasies, every acting performance is absolutely first class, utterly professional."
In a glowing review in the Dominion, filmmaker Costa Botes complemented the story's inventive and unpredictable nature. He added that "the credit for this must go to writers Mike Walker and Mitch Manuel, who have set up a flexible and supportive framework within which a group of talented amateur actors can function to their greatest advantage."
Manuel would combine acting and co-writing roles once again in 1986's Mark II. Walker had begun developing the project long before meeting Manuel, with hopes of making it as his first feature. Now the cancellation of trucking series Roche saw it resurrected as a television project, after quick rewrites by Walker and Manuel. Television hand John Anderson directed.
Kingpin's central trio of Amiga, Manuel and Nicholas Rogers again took centre stage, this time playing a group of teens heading south from Auckland in a Mark II Zephyr. Critics for the NZ Herald and the Auckland Star complimented the work of the trio, but reserved special praise for Manuel's performance, which would win the best male actor gong at 1987's local Film and Television awards (Mark II also won best single drama).
The Herald's Barry Shaw called Manuel's Kingi "the scene-stealer whenever on camera, a hawk-eyed fugitive running from a nasty bunch of heavies; brave, if bitter, at heart. Manuel had a presence that made Mark II much more than just a caper." Shaw also gave Manuel and Walker credit for their writing, adding that the two could "take real pride in that their creations loved, squabbled, rejoiced, panicked, strayed and erred, resisted and forgave, as young people do."
He also has a line of scripts in development, including Burn - a loose sequel to Mark II - and an adaptation of Simon Snow whodunit Devil's Apple.
Costa Botes, Review of Kingpin - The Dominion, 19 May 1986
Helen Martin, Review of Kingpin - The Listener, 5 October 1985
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Monique Oomen, 'These Dreams Came True' (Interview with Mike Walker) - Onfilm, October 1985, page 3 (Volume 2, no 6)
John Paga, Review of Mark II - The Auckland Star, 6 November 1986
Barry Shaw, Review of Mark II - The NZ Herald, 6 November 1986