‘My character is blue, but what you see on the big screen is 100% me’

Sunday 8 March 2020 | Written by Rashneel Kumar | Published in Entertainment

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‘My character is blue, but what you see on the big screen is 100% me’
Duane Evans Jr, whose mother is from Cook Islands, has landed a role in the upcoming Avatar series. 20030610/ 20030611

Duane Wichman-Evans Jr got into acting by chance. When he was three, he went with his mum Tutevera Wichman, a Cook Islander, to a casting for a health department TV commercial. As he sat there waiting for his mother to finish her audition, the casting director spotted him and said he was exactly what they needed for another commercial.

Christina Asher, who later served as the casting director of Disney’s hit animated Polynesian film Moana, cast Duane as the lead in the 2007 commercial. His mum, dad and sister were also in it.

But little did Duane didn't know that the TV commercial would lead him into a world so different from his – the glamorous world of screen acting.

“It happened by chance, mum, dad and I didn’t know I could act until I did that first commercial and I really enjoyed it and so I’ve kept doing it,” he says.

“I wasn’t really inspired, acting is something I have always done, since I was a toddler, like some people play rugby or basketball all their lives, acting is like that for me, it feels like a natural thing to do and I love doing it.”

Duane’s first film role was in a short film called Ebony Society. Directed by Tammy Davis, the movie premiered at the Sundance Festival and won best New Zealand Short Film 2011 and also Best Short Film at Flicker Awards in Australia.

His first feature film was Billy, the story of legendary New Zealand Māori comedian, Billy T James, released in 2011. Duane played the role of young Billy T James.

Altogether he has 15 credits listed on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) and he says there’s a few that are not mentioned.

Duane Wichman-Evans Jr gained fame after featuring in the long running New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street.

For three-and-a-half years, he played Michael Hampton-Rees, son of nurse Vinnie Kruse (the late Pua Magasiva).

Duane got the role through an agent Gail Cowan Management (GCM) who were looking for an actor who looked like he could be Pua’s half-papa’a son.

His character Michael was born and raised in England and Kenya after his parents split. Michael’s mother was wealthy so he always had the best of everything, a bit spoilt.

When he was eight, he came to visit his dad for the first time and ended up staying. He got up to a lot of mischief. The character Michael was a good kid, loved his dad, step-mum and baby brother.

“New Zealand watched me grow up from age nine to 13,” Duane says. “I also had to learn a British accent, which my mum helped me do.

“I loved working with Pua and Sally Martin, who were my parents on the show, I learned a lot from them and also from Jennifer Ludlum who was my onscreen grandma.

“Actually, I met my mum’s cousin, Moe Hobbs while filming my first scene. She is a first assistant director on the show. Aunty Moe is from the Browne (Rarotonga) and Strickland (Aitutaki) families.

“Her grandad (Eric Browne) is my great grandmother’s (Upokotoko’a Wichman, nee Browne) brother.”

Duane says he had one of the best experiences ever with Shortland Street.

“I really love the (former) director Kiel McNaughton, he directed me on Shortland Street when I was young and I loved working with him then.

“He’s a cool cat, never gets anxious stays super-calm, he knows what he wants and doesn’t waste time. Once the shot is in the bag he moves on, I love that.

Shortland Street was amazing for teaching him how to react and learn lines quickly. The show has the quickest filming turnaround in the world, they film an episode a day!

“The actors in that show would be some of the best in the world because they know how to listen to the director they learn their lines quick and get the scene right in one or two takes.”

The Shortland Street gig set him up for more movie roles, including the once in a lifetime role in James Cameroon’s Avatar.

Duane, now 16, plays Rotxo of the Metkayina clan, who are a reef tribe in the Avatar sequels. Rotxo is a young hunter and free diver. Renowned New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis plays the chief of the Metkayina clan.

Duane says getting the role was a major challenge. He was told by the production that 15,000 kids auditioned for the seven roles that were cast.

“I auditioned via self-tape and our agent GCM sent it to the casting director in Australia.

“She passed the tape to James Cameron’s casting director Margery Simkin, and she did a video chat with me and we got along pretty well. Next thing I knew I was on a flight with mum to Los Angeles to audition in front of James Cameron,” Duane shares.

“I attended the final audition alongside 16 great child actors from around the world. They were all really good actors and I thought that any one of us could’ve landed the parts. They cast five actors from that audition round. I was blessed to be part of the five who got a part. The other two kid actors were cast separately.”

Working in a gigantic franchise with megastars and acclaimed producers and director is a dream come true for Duane.

“James Cameron is a director like I’ve never seen before. He works so hard and long. He is precise about everything which makes it easier for us actors, we don’t have to guess what he wants because he explains everything really well. It was always really enjoyable working with him.

“It was also exciting to meet and work with Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet and Oona Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter). All of these actors were so great to work with, they’re all really friendly, down to earth and great to talk to.”

But bringing his whole family onto the set of Avatar was the most special moment for him, Duane says.

They got to see them work and how performance capture technology works.

“Although my character is blue, what you will see on the big screen is 100 per cent me and that goes for all of the other blue characters, as well. That’s how amazing the technology is now.”

Duane was in Los Angeles for approximately 18 months shooting Avatar. He left New Zealand in July 2017 and did the last bit of production work in April last year.

During this time he learnt a whole lot of skills that were new to him, like stunts, parkour (free running), weaponry, grappling, archery and free diving.

“We trained in free diving in Los Angeles for six months before we filmed anything underwater.

“The whole kid cast (seven of us) trained under water and we are all really good free divers. I can swim and act underwater at depth, for about 3.5 minutes!”

His Avatar experience was vital in his latest flick, Legend of Baron To’a, which is now screening at Rarotonga’s Empire Cinema. Duane’s role in this film is Royden.

“I got to use my stunt skills on the Legend of Baron To’a. The stunts that you see me do in the film are 100 per cent me. I had a really good stunt double but for the final take I was able to copy everything he did in the camera rehearsals.

“I loved doing the Legend of Baron To’a because all of the actors were awesome, I did most of my scenes with Uli Latukefu and I spent a lot of time with the stunt team.

“They are some of the best stunt men in New Zealand. I was trained by Andrew Stehlin who is actually in the newest X-Men, in the latest film, and Augie Davis. I was honoured to be a part of such an amazing cast of Polynesian and Maori actors.”

Duane says his Cook Islands background plays an important role in influencing his acting career.

His papa was Apai Wichman (Aunty Mau Munokoa’s older brother) and he was also from the Browne family, in Nikao and Panama.

Duane’s nana was June Heather, who is actually from the Roi (Cecil) and Raui families from Aituaki, and also had Atiu blood ties. His mum’s brother (Uncle Henry and Aunty Trish) live in Arorangi.

“My family has its strongest connections in Rarotonga and Aitutaki, as we are connected to Ngati Tangiiau – Takitumu, Puaikura, Te Au o Tonga and Amuri in Araura,” Duane says.

“I am fluent in New Zealand Māori language and have grown up with the Cook Islands language also, through my nana. She was always speaking to us kids in Maori. I feel proud to be of both cultures.”

Duane’s Cook Islands connection helped him get the role in Tatau, a BBC TV series that was filmed in Rarotonga in 2014.

“They cast me because I was an experienced Cook Islands actor and I could easily handle the Cook Islands dialogue. I think that I was actually the only real Cook Islands actor in the cast, the rest were New Zealand Māori.”

Duane and his siblings also helped their parents, who are event directors, organise Te Maeva Nui New Zealand 2019. This, he says, pushed him to learn more about the Cook Islands culture.

“I definitely think that having such a rich heritage influences my acting career. For Avatar the Navi (blue people) respected nature and their planet like Polynesians do, my heritage gave me that natural understanding of their perspective,” he says.

“I also have a natural ability in water with swimming and diving which I guess comes from my Cook Islands and Maori heritage.”

Duane visited Rarotonga few years ago to attend the unveiling ceremony for his nana in Aka’oa Arorangi. He is hoping to visit again later this year.

His focus this year is to complete Year 12 at school and also concentrate on Avatar 2 and 3 which will be releasing in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

“I would like to be a film director one day but I think that I’ll always be acting as well.”