If you thought that Wellington Paranormal star Maaka Pohatu would mount a spirited defence against co-star Mike Minogue’s accusation that he’s the absolute worst at corpsing [laughing] on set while the cameras are rolling, then you’d be wrong. “By the time you see whatever makes it to the final cut on television, I’ve usually cracked up a bunch of times,” Pohatu straight-up confesses. “Nothing crazy like 30 takes, but there’s usually a good six to eight.”
The Cowboy Bebop actor has taken to doing anything on set except look directly at the comic eyebrow-lifting work of Minogue or Karen O’Leary. They play Sergeant Maaka’s ‘big bad boooo’-busting beat cops, Officers Minogue and O’Leary, working the abundantly haunted streets of Wellington. “I just found reasons to look in a drawer,” Pohatu says.
But the best laughter on the set of the What We Do in the Shadows spin-off always belongs to Wellington Paranormal co-creator, director and sometime guest star Jemaine Clement, who appeared as a sentient robot formed from abandoned mobile phones in the season 2 finale. “It’s ridiculously fun on set, but it can be a long, long day and sometimes you’re not in the mood, but it always comes from somewhere,” Pohatu says. “But when you hear Jemaine laughing behind the monitor, for me, I think, ‘yes, I nailed it’.”
The longest day occurred while shooting season 3 finale ‘Fatberg’, about another inanimate object gaining self-awareness, this time a greasy lump of sewer lard. “It was really, really late at night,” Pohatu recalls. He also found himself paired with his Achilles heel on set, the only person who can make him lose it worse than the double act of Minogue and O’Leary: Thomas Sainsbury, who plays Constable Parker. “Me and Tom together are real bad,” he reveals. “By the very last scene there was nothing Tom or I could do to keep a straight face, to the point where Jemaine was like ‘Look, just look at each other, give a determined nod, and then that’s it’.”
A natural in the role, Pohatu was cast in Wellington Paranormal without auditioning, much to his own surprise. That wasn’t the only turn up for the books that blew him away. “I thought that Karen was an actor I’d seen before in loads of other things, and she was like, ‘Um, Shadows was my first gig. I’m an early childhood teacher’.”
He’s stoked to be part of the fabric of New Zealand’s pop culture and proud to represent Māori culture globally. “It’s huge and I love it,” Pohatu says. “As a Māori actor, I get to play a detective sergeant of a place, the boss, and the show gets to explore our intrinsic spiritual beliefs.”
It does heap pressure on his broad shoulders, though. “I get a bit of anxiety, sometimes, when I think of all my Māori language teachers. They work very heavily in the industry as consultants, and part of me gets nervous when I ad lib in Māori. I’m also thinking, ‘will my grandma be ok how I used that?’ But it’s great.”
His favourite guest/ghoul appearance was Māori actor Tom Kereama’s turn as Te Maero in the season 3 episode of the same name, playing a hairy mythological giant known as a Maero that’s similar in stature to Big Foot. “That suit was wicked, and the practical effects on the show are brilliant,” he insists. Though he does chortle on recalling one American critic, reviewing the show in The Hollywood Reporter, who said it “mostly looks cheap enough that it might have been bankrolled entirely in Marmite”.
The belly laugh this induces proves Pohatu is pretty sanguine about such criticism. For what it’s worth, he’s genuinely impressed by what the visual effects team manages to pull off every episode. “On my first in season 1, we were shooting out on a farm for the introduction of aliens that were like plants that clone people,” he recalls of a paranormal day at the office. “The very first thing I was exposed to was a model of an eviscerated cow, which was quite gruesome. Like, it had entrails and stuff spilling out of it. And straight away, that set the tone for me. We don’t shy away from the scary horror elements.”
The deadpan delivery of Pohatu and his fellow cast members undersells the grotesque, he suggests, keeping it just the right side of funny. He points to Edgar Wright’s zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead as his personal favourite of the horror-comedy genre. “It’s just a couple of blokes that love going to the pub and how they react to the zombie apocalypse,” he chuckles. “Throwing their record collection at zombies while saying, ‘Look at him, he’s proper wasted, isn’t he?’ I love that kind of stuff.”
A big music fan, like Wright, Pohatu has travelled the world playing with his band the Modern Māori Quartet, alongside fellow actors James Tito, Matariki Whatarau and Francis Kora. The latter was in the Beat It Gang in Waititi’s beloved film Boy. “We all went to the same drama school in Wellington at different stages and we’d meet up at industry parties and gravitate towards the corner of the room, pull out the guitar and sing together,” Pohatu says.
While the pandemic has put travelling for this side-hustle on ice for now, Pohatu reveals that he’s rarely not working a tune, much to the chagrin of Wellington Paranormal’s sound design team. “They get sick of me because they can always hear me talking smack or singing something. I’m the annoying guy that gets something random stuck in the crew’s head for the whole day. Right now, I can’t unhear the Backstreet Boys. I’ve got a head like a jukebox that works on random.”
So can we expect Wellington Paranormal to pull out a musical episode? “Run that one by Jemaine and Paul [Yates, co-writer]. There are some ghosts that make people dance in this season. There’s no singing, but there are some pretty wicked dance moves happening.”
Premiere episodes of the fourth and final season 4 of Wellington Paranormal are fast-tracked weekly and screen at 8.30pm, Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND and afterwards at SBS On Demand, to complete our series box set. Start with S4 episode 1 now:
Or start right at the beginning with S1: