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Rawiri Paratene

Actor, Presenter, Writer [Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa]

From playing gang members to impersonating Winston Peters, Rawiri Paratene has won a reputation for his versatility as an actor. But that's only the start of it — Paratene has also directed for radio and screen, won a Robert Burns Fellowship for his writing, taught drama, and spent time as deputy chair of the New Zealand Film Commission.

At school Paratene initially struggled with reading and writing. But he had the gift of the gab; after leaving high school he went on to become the first Māori student to graduate from Toi Whakaari (NZ Drama School). His hope was that acting would help his development as a writer.

At age 16, Paratene had halted a promising rugby career in protest at the 1970 All Black tour of South Africa. He also joined Māori activist movement Ngā Tamatoa, which campaigned for te reo to be taught in schools. Later he founded the Wellington branch. In 2012 he presented this documentary on the organisation.

Paratene got a small part in 1977 historical epic The Governor. Aged 21, he was starring in early Kiwi sitcom Joe and Koro (1977). The chalk and cheese tale featured two flatmates: a university educated Englishman, and a young Māori who works in a fish and chip shop. Amidst a busy run of acting for stage and radio, Paratene later began a six-year stint on long-running pre-school show Play School. He is still recognised for it today.

Paratene's earliest screen writing credit was this 1984 episode of TV series Country GP. The previous year, he'd won a Robert Burns writing fellowship at Otago University. A number of the projects from this period ended up on TV screens, including Erua, and hour-long Montana Sunday Theatre tale Dead Certs (for which he won an award, playing a racing addict egged on by a ghostly friend). Erua, the tale of a relationship between artist Toss Woollaston (Grant Tilly) and a Māori boy, won him a NZ Television Award in 1989 for Best Drama Writer. Two years later Paratene wrote and acted in Opo, which mixed dramatised sequences with memories of those who encountered the famous dolphin, back in 1955. 

The 1980s also saw the birth of Paratene's big screen career. He was GOFTA nominated for 1986 romance Arriving Tuesday, playing a charismatic Māori poet/musician who adds drama to a relationship in decay. The movie was filmed partly in the Hokianga, for many years Paratene's home base. He also voiced the character of Rangi in 1986 animated hit Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale.

The 90s saw Paratene winning attention on the comedy front. After the makers of short-lived skit show Laugh INZ approached him in search of material, he gave them the fast-talking Hohepa Public, a Hokianga bushman who Paratene described as "a blatantly political character". The showstealing Hohepa monologues saw him invited to join skit show Issues. Paratene would feature in five seasons. His many impressions included Oprah Winfrey and politician Winston Peters.

But two big screen roles would cement Paratene's place in Kiwi screen history. In 1999 he played Mulla, the gang member trying to go straight in Once Were Warriors sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? Some scenes required seven hour make-up sessions, to apply extensive fake tattoos. Directing the movie was Paratene's Dead Certs collaborator and mentor Ian Mune. According to Paratene, a childhood spent partly in the South Auckland suburb of Ōtara provided some familiarity with the world portrayed on-film. Paratene was so convincing on-set, he noticed real life gang members were backing away from him.

In 2003 Paratene travelled to film festivals around the globe to publicise Whale Rider, in which he plays the fiercely traditional grandfather to Keisha Castle-Hughes's Pai. Paratene had predicted early on that if handled correctly, the film would succeed globally. "I don't believe I've ever wanted a role as much as Koro," he said. "Koro is absolutely honest to his tikanga — his understanding of Māori culture and customs. But with that honesty comes stubbornness and pride, and that's what trips him up."

Paratene's directing career began back in the late 1980s, with 'Te Moemoea', an episode of pioneering Māori anthology series E Tipu e Rea. It was based on a Patricia Grace short story about a rural couple who are inspired to place horseracing bets after a dream. It was made entirely in te reo Māori, and simulcast on National Radio in English. Paratene wrote another episode in the E Tipu e Rea series: 'Variations on a Theme' is based partly on his own school experiences, and deals with Māori education. 

Paratene has also directed on language learning shows Kōrero Mai and Whānau, plus a documentary on a visit to New Zealand by Kiri Te Kanawa, and (with Miranda Harcourt) 1940s-set drama school short Needles and Glass. In the 90s, he spent four years as deputy chairman of the NZ Film Commission, and later returned to his old drama school Toi Whakaari, to teach for three years.

The first Kiwi chosen to join England's prestigious Globe Theatre, Paratene toured 197 countries with a Globe production of Hamlet, the play that had first helped convince him to become an actor and writer. Another personal highlight was Children of the Sea, which began as a series of theatre workshops in Sri Lanka for survivors of tsunami and civil war. The play won four awards at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival (the same year, Paratene travelled to Nicaragua for this episode of Intrepid Journeys). In 2008 he won a NZ Film and Television Award for Best Actor, after starring in short film The Graffiti of Mr Tupaia

Docudrama What Really Happened: Waitangi saw him playing Ngāpuhi chief Te Kemera Kaiteke, uncle to Hone Heke. Paratene also did acting stints on soap Shortland Street, and appeared in episodes of Mataku, Duggan and Xena: Warrior Princess, plus mockumentary Love Mussel (2001). His writing work includes hit musical Blue Smoke, and Mobil Radio Award winning play The Proper Channels.

In late 2010, Paratene won acclaim for passion project The Insatiable Moon. Paratene had been set to star in the movie for many years. He plays the "barefoot, messianic Arthur, glowing with goodness as the self-proclaimed second son of God". Metro reviewer Graham Adams found the performance convincing and compelling; the film won Paratene the 2011 Aotearoa Film Award for Best Lead Actor.

After a number of years away from the screen, Paratene returned in 2019. He went on to act in Cook Islands feature Stranded Pearl, and small town TV comedy Golden Boy.  

At the close of 2012 Paratene was made an Officer of the New Zealand Merit for his contributions across film, television and theatre.

Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 15 April 2021  

Sources include
Karina Abadia, 'Paratene a class act' (Interview) - East & Bays Courier,
16 January 2013
Graham Adams, 'Down But Not Out in Ponsonby' (Review of The Insatiable Moon) - Metro, October 2010, page 120
Chris Schulz, 'Whale Rider actor Rwiri Paratene: 'I could have died' from strokes' ' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 11 April 2021. Accessed 15 April 2021
E Tipu e Rea
press kit
What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? press kit
Whale Rider press kit
'Te Kemera Kaiteke played by Rawiri Paratene' (broken link) TVNZ website. Accessed 5 March 2017