Julian Dennison. You may not have heard that name before, but you should probably get used to hearing it from now on. The 13-year-old actor from Naenae on New Zealand’s North Island has been gently making waves across the Tasman for a few years now, first as the poster child in a viral anti-drug driving ad campaign and later as an award-winning actor in his first feature film, Shopping.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Dennison is now sharing the limelight with one of New Zealand’s most cherished exports – Sam Neill – in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film directed by up-and-coming Kiwi director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do In The Shadows).
With the film opening in cinemas across Australia this past week, I got the chance to chat with Dennison about his burgeoning career, his hopes for the future and what it was like ‘meeting’ John Legend at Sundance…
RGD: Could you tell us a little bit about how you first got into acting? Was it something you were interested in from a young age?
JD: Yeah, so I didn’t really get into acting – I sort of fell into it. When I was in primary school, probably in Year 5, this call went around for Pacific Islanders and Maoris to take part in a public audition they were holding at our school in the hall. I got a callback, I ended up getting the part and that was my first film Shopping. That’s it really, that’s how I got into acting!
RGD: Is it something you can see yourself doing in the future – what’s the game plan?
JD: I want to stay in the film industry when I’m older; I want to be a director. I’ll definitely keep working in the industry because it’s really interesting seeing what goes into a film and seeing all the hard work, not just a camera and director and those things.
RGD: Who inspires you? Is there anyone in the industry or your personal life that you look up to?
JD: I definitely look up to my grandmother. She’s a great lady. She was always passionate and very loving and caring for her family. I definitely look up to her to always stay humble and things like that.
I look up to Cliff Curtis also; he’s really awesome guy who has done so many different acting jobs. Any nationality that you want him to be, he can do it. He’s just a really awesome guy.
RGD: Your character in the movie, Ricky Baker, is a loveable troublemaker most of the time. Do you feel as though you share any qualities with Ricky in real-life?
JD: I feel like every person who goes and watches the film will have at least a bit of every character in them; anyone can relate to any of the characters, even just a little bit. I sort of see a bit of Ricky Baker in myself, but it’s not like I go around putting graffiti on everything!
RGD: You’d previously worked with the director, Taika Waititi, on a commercial about drug driving before filming Wilderpeople – could you tell us a little bit about how that relationship began and how it helped you land the role of Ricky Baker?
JD: Yeah, you’re right I did do that advert a few years ago, and that went really viral – I was known from then on as ‘lips kid’. That was the first time I met Taika. I didn’t have an audition for Wilderpeople because he’s been saying he’s wanted to work with me again, he just didn’t know at the time which project he wanted to work with me on. When this came up, he said that I was the perfect fit for the character.
RGD: Your co-star in Wilderpeople, Sam Neill, has been in a wide range of films across his career. How familiar were you with his work before worked on this film together?
JD: When mum and me were first talking about it, she actually said to me, “You’ll be working with Sam Neill!” and I was like “Who’s Sam Neill?”
Because he’s in older films than I am and he’s part of a different generation, I hadn’t seen many of his films – but I looked him up and I was like “Aw Mum, it’s the guy off Jurassic Park!” Once I saw his face I knew who he was.
RGD: Did Sam pass on any little nuggets of wisdom about acting whilst you were filming?
JD: Yeah, he definitely helped me develop my character. We did some workshopping for about a week before we started filming and he really helped me get into character and know my character a bit more.
RGD: I saw the film last week and really loved it! It’s very funny. Something that really impressed me about your performance in the film was your feel for comedic delivery and timing. Do you feel as though that’s something that comes naturally to you?
JD: Yeah, I definitely worked with Taika on that – he helped me get the timing right. Sometimes he would be just behind the camera so that I could see him in the corner of my eye; he would wave his hand to be like “and now!”
I feel like the timing sort of got natural over time during filming as I learnt more from Taika.
RGD: The film has already been a huge hit back home in New Zealand. What’s it like to be part of something that so many people have shared in and enjoyed?
JD: It’s really awesome to see! We’re now the highest-grossing New Zealand film, beating Boy, Taika’s other film. I feel like the film will go well in Australia because we have a similar sense of humour. I don’t know if it will go so well in America…
RGD: You were actually just in the US, at the Sundance Film Festival, to promote the movie – what was that like?
JD: It was amazing! It was very cold, but at the world premiere a lot of people were stopping us on the street to tell us about how much they loved the film. They said it was probably the best film they’d seen during the whole festival, but it was only the second day so that probably didn’t mean very much!
It was my first time in the States and seeing everyone’s reactions was really uplifting.
RGD: Did you get to meet any stars while you were at the festival?
JD: I did meet John Legend! He walked passed me, so that’s officially meeting him.
I’ll tell you a quick story though; we were doing a promotion – I think it was with the Hollywood Reporter – and we were going to take some photos, and Nick Jonas was having his photo taken just before us, and Sam went to go sit in this seat and Nick Jonas’ manager came over and was like, “Sorry, my client is sitting in that seat.”
When we got back into the car later, I asked Sam if he knew who Nick Jonas was and he said “No idea!”
RGD: The film was shot in some pretty remote areas of New Zealand during the winter months. How did you cope with the conditions whilst shooting on location?
JD: It was very, very cold. 90% of the film was shot on location. We shot the movie in five weeks, about 25 days. One of those weeks was just on the car chase!
Sometimes, we were only 5 or 10 meters into the bush in a park, so you’d get runners come past and they’d see us filming in the park, just me under this bush or something.
RGD: Taika’s next movie is Thor: Ragnorok. Have you asked him about the possibility of a sneaky cameo role? You could be the first Kiwi superhero!
JD: Yeah, I could! It’s amazing, I’m pretty excited for him that he’s getting to do this big studio film. It’s a big step up from an independent New Zealand film to a Marvel Studio film, but I feel like he’ll do a really job at it. He’ll put his quirky directing and the way he tells stories into Thor.
I’ll probably beg him to let me be in it – I could be a kid in the background just running away from some evil guy, but at least I would have done a Thor film!
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is available in Australian cinemas from May 26
Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment