Kiwi actor and father of three Matt Chamberlain knows what it’s like to battle his way to the top, having being told when he was younger that there was no way he could be an actor.
“There really wasn’t any work in New Zealand at that stage, so acting as a career just wasn’t a great option.”
It wasn’t until Matt played a part in a high school play that he discovered his passion for acting. Coming from a farming background, however, it seemed that gaining an agricultural commerce degree at Lincoln University was the right thing to do. “Looking back, however,” he says, “I don’t know how much I’ve ever used it.”
In the back of Matt’s mind, giving acting a crack was always on the cards. After finishing university, he applied for drama school, but was declined because of a lack of experience. After another year of acting in amateur productions around Christchurch he tried again, and was given an interview. At that stage, however, Matt says he “couldn’t face going back to another institution”, and instead travelled the world for more than two years.
Eventually, with his wanderlust satisfied, a third audition for drama school proved successful.
Matt’s glad he persisted. “Drama school enabled me to work with a lot of people in the industry. It is a leg in the door and you learn a lot.”
The first day out of drama school, Matt earned himself a place on Gaylene Preston’s Bread and Roses as heckler number two. “I had one line and I thought, ‘I’ve got a job! First day out!’”
From there though, it was an uphill battle. “For several months I ran around auditioning for anything I could – I was like a headless chook.”
After a while he decided to sit down and think about what it was that he was really passionate about. “That was the best thing I did,” he says. “I realised that I was passionate about telling New Zealand stories. And that calmed me down a bit because it gave me a focus.”
One of his earlier jobs included being a stand-in on a feature film. “I stood there for the lead actor while they set up the lights. You’re pretty much the lowest form of life on set as far as status goes.”
Nonetheless, getting to know what happened on set and what roles people had was very valuable to him, he says.
Nowadays, working on films such as In my Father’s Den (2004), Black Sheep (2006), Under the Mountain (2009), King Kong (2005) and Avatar (2009) have become a reality for Matt. “It was amazing to work on a really big budget production,” he says, referring to his work in King Kong and Avatar.
Many New Zealanders know Matt best for his role as Murray Cooper on prime-time soap opera Shortland Street for the past four years. He landed the gig through meeting the series’ casting agent at one of his film premieres.
Filming Monday to Friday, Matt says only 25 per cent of his time is actually spent in front of the camera, while the remaining 75 per cent is spent rehearsing, learning lines and reading scripts. Though at the start the work was faster-paced than he was used to, he’s accustomed to it now and says that the stress reduces with time.
Stress aside, there are plenty of laughs to be had in the world of acting. One of Matt’s funnier memories involves working on the set of The Lost Children (2006), when he found himself accidentally doubling up as his own stuntman. Tied up and perched on a fleeing horse facing backwards, he fell off, fortunately only sustaining “a few bumps and bruises”. Happily, he reports, the same thing happened to his stunt double when he gave it a try.
Matt is impressed with the huge upsurge in the number of New Zealand theatrical and television productions in recent years, providing so many more opportunities for actors today. “It just goes to show,” he says, “that focusing on the stuff that really inspires you can keep you going and can really pay off in the end.”