Simon Prast stars as Adam Harding in the new season of the popular local series The Gulf, screening Mondays, 9pm on Three.
“I was quite a reserved, grown-up, formal little boy and I enjoyed a wonderful childhood on an acre of land in Waikōwhai, beside the Manukau Harbour, overlooking the airport and Māngere Mountain. We lived there with a great dane, a goat, two sheep and a cat. My folks worked really hard so my younger brother and I could go to Kings Prep, which was quite an expensive private school. I’m so appreciative of the effort they made, they put a lot of love into their boys.
“The interesting thing about the character I play in The Gulf is the connection between the show and my own life. My father went to prison three times and this year, 2021, marks the 40th anniversary of him being sentenced to 17 years for drug-related crimes. At the time, it was the longest finite sentence given to anyone in the country. I was in my first year of law school when he was sentenced and, by the time I was in my final year, we were studying his case because he set a bit of a precedent around wire taps.
“Fast forward to today, I’m sitting there in prison garb, Ido Drent is playing my son, and it’s art imitating life. I dedicate my performance to my old man, and to my ma and brother, because we all went through it together. That’s always the case when a family member gets locked up, the whole family has to go through it.
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“My father was an old-school senior crim. He was not at all violent, but he did like to say, ‘if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime’. My brother and I took turns visiting him at Paremoremo. The first time, he was in D Block and we had to visit through glass, very much like what you see in The Gulf; a boy sitting there, trying to make a connection with his father. Playing that part, I drew on things I actually lived through. It’s rare in life that you get an opportunity to make use of your experiences in such a direct way. Dad served nine years that time, and was released in 1989 when Gloss was on TV. While he was still inside, he had to fight, virtually with a meat cleaver, to reach for the channel changer, to watch his son on television.
“I went to Auckland Grammar, where there was an expectation you’d go to university. I also developed my love for theatre and acting there, and did four plays in my final two years. The last one was Death of a Salesman and when I played Willy Loman, I felt I’d discovered something I was really good at. So I decided to get a law degree first, then see if I could become an actor. I enjoyed law school – goodness, but the training came in handy when I was setting up the Auckland Theatre Company – but what I liked most was the performance aspect. In my final year I won The Mooter Pewter, the cup for a mock trial where an actual judge presided and decided who was the best lawyer. But I couldn’t in all conscience stand there with someone’s life in my hands and look at the jury and think, this performance is going well. I had to at least try to become an actor. I auditioned for Toi Whakaari in Wellington, NIDA in Sydney and Theatre Corporate in Auckland and I was only accepted by Theatre Corporate. In 1983 I finished my law degree and in 1984 went straight to drama school and I never looked back.
“One of my early TV jobs was Erebus: The Aftermath. I played the junior counsel for Air New Zealand and I argued in front of the Court of Appeal long before any of my friends at law school did. I’ve also played Atticus Finch, the most famous lawyer of all time, and the first play I directed for the ATC was 12 Angry Men, so I’ve managed to incorporate some of my past lives into my theatre career and work through some of my legal issues on stage. One of the great things about being creative, whatever experiences you go through, whether they’re painful or exuberant, you can draw on them later and give them an artistic outlet.
“I was cast by the Pop-Up Globe and was part of the company that took two plays to Melbourne for five months. During that time my father became very sick. I came home over Christmas and was with him when he died. My brother, who also had health issues, took the death of our father very poorly and the day I returned to Melbourne he took his own life. I lost the last two members of my family in very close proximity and, as you can imagine, I was full of grief. But I thought of my experience beforehand, working night after night on those Shakespeare plays, with my whole soul expanding, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed, because I’d been given a way of dealing with such big emotions. That’s another thing I’m grateful for – with the work that we do, we send ourselves and our souls to some very dark places, and sometimes some very joyful places, and we are stretched by the experiences and that helps us cope.
“I was a very ambitious actor when I was young and I was very grateful to Janice Finn for creating Gloss and giving me that big break. The whole point of that show was to create stars, but something also captured the zeitgeist. Over 30 years later, I still get clocked by people but, my feeling is, if someone gives a f*** about something I did 30 years ago, I’m chuffed.
“I’m a political junkie and I took on the mayoral campaign in 2010 when it looked as if John Banks would win. Bob Harvey was going to stand, then he didn’t, so it was almost like a protest, and I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Len Brown, Andrew Williams and Colin Craig then threw their hats into the ring and I ended up being one of the top five candidates. I had a fly-on-the-wall experience of the very first Super City election, up against four extremely interesting people.
“Twenty-three people stood for mayor and I came fifth, behind three sitting mayors. But running for public office invites a lot of intrusion, everyone has a right to walk into your life, and it’s a big commitment. I don’t regret a second of it, but I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to do it again.
“Things have happened in my personal life which were not things I could keep running away from, or hiding from with drink or drugs and, one day, there came a moment of truth when my mother was dying of emphysema. I knew I’d done things that had brought her great joy and also things that had caused her great disappointment, and I spent over a year with her as she was dying. It was a very sobering experience, and I was brought to a point where I know I had to either deal with things or destroy myself. I’m enormously grateful to have had that opportunity to find redemption, and nursing mum was a big part of my healing.
“For better or worse, I’ve always had the freedom to do what I want in life. I’ve had some amazing times and I’ve done some stupid things. I’m lucky the stupid things didn’t kill me or totally spin me out into space and I’m enormously fortunate to have been given another chance. I’m grateful for everything that I have, and I’m not bitter about the things I don’t have. I am philosophical. I’m going to be 60 next year and I want to make the most of the rest of the years I have left. That is what drives me now and I don’t look back with regret because all those experiences are part of my life’s rich tapestry.”
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