Gary Young is a New Zealand actor with a varied career who played Mr Willoughby in season 3 of the Starz hit show, Outlander. Gary can also be seen in Secret City, Harrow, The Shannara Chronicles, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Mulan etc. We talked in-depth about growing up in New Zealand, London, acting and other jobs, martial arts, all things Outlander (including costume, “acupuncture”, accent, speeches) other shows and movies, horse riding and lots more besides.
DB: If we start at the very beginning, where were you born and could you describe the area where you grew up?
GY: I was born in Napier on the East coast of New Zealand, a nice enough place, Bayview, which is a very small town. It was beautiful because we were pretty close to the beach, rustic and rural but my memory is all shaped by just how poor the family was. We managed to move to another place and thinking back now it was kind of ramshackle with a big open ditch just in front of it. I can remember lying awake at night and hearing huge water rats running over the roof. I would have been about 4 or 5, very little. Having said that I can remember wandering around at that age through grapevines right next door just having adventures with my sister. We got up to all sorts of stuff, going exploring.
DB: So at home there was your sister: who else was at home with you?
GY: There was my dad and mum and somewhere along the line my youngest sister came into being. I’ve got some very rose-tinted memories of the situation but overall, thinking back about it now, we were in pretty poor shape in how we were as a family.
DB: What’s your position in the family?
GY: I’m the oldest, trying to look after everybody else.
DB: What did your mum and dad do in the way of work?
GY: My dad was a market gardener, so he would work really hard shifts. My mum didn’t work for a while and then she went to work for a cigarette company. This eventually split my parents apart; they had some pretty wild arguments about it. That came about around the age of 9 and by this time we had moved to Taradale which was more of a middle class suburb in Napier, away from the sea. That was pretty huge for a little guy.
DB: Did you live with your mum or your dad?
GY: My dad. I mean I didn’t see her for must be about five years after she split with my dad, and that was pretty much only fleetingly. I remember I was riding on my bicycle through town and I heard somebody call out my name; it was my mother, and for some reason I just kept on cycling. I got back in touch with her when I was in my late teens/early twenties but it’s the time that you’re never going to get back that stays with you. All that lost love.
By that time Dad was working as a taxi driver, doing night and day shifts that were about 10 hours, so it was just me and my sisters at home. I’d make breakfast for everybody in the morning, that kind of thing.
DB: What was secondary school like?
GY: I went to a co-ed school. I really wasn’t stimulated academically. I was always pretty athletic and I was much more interested in sport, although English I really enjoyed. I played 1st 11 football for about 3 seasons – made it into the regional age group rep team; I played a bit of basketball – I’m only 5ft 7 but back then you could get away with it. I had friends who played for the 1st 11 hockey team, so sometimes, if they were short of players, I’d play for them.
I remember the English teacher, the one who had an influence over me. He was the stereotypical English teacher: he had a moustache and a beard, was about 25 and you knew that he was a poet; he wore a fez and tweed. With any of the plays or novels we studied he’d insist on class members reading out loud, to give some life to what was being written and the ideas that were inherent in the text. We did Shakespeare and a number of different texts and it opened up my mind to the power of words.
High school; I drank a lot. I started off on beer and then switched to straight vodka; I’d just go down to the bottle store and get vodka to drink with my mates. On the weekend we would go down to a creek out in the middle of nowhere, set up a tent, they’d have their beers and I’d have my vodka, just drinking myself into oblivion.
DB: What age would you have been then?
GY: 16-17. By that time my capacity for alcohol was pretty high. Somehow I managed to make it through to 7th form, did all the exams and managed to get into university. A couple of times, apparently, I just completely blanked out but was still mobile and cognisant in some sort of “fairyland”; I couldn’t remember a thing. I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t doing me any good….’ By the time I was at university I was heavily into drinking beer, because I thought beer would be the safer option.
DB: Where did you go to university?
GY: I went to Victoria University in Wellington. I had visions of becoming an architect although that wasn’t terribly well thought out. I managed to find some good friends at the university hostel my first year. I was doing the Architecture Intermediate year and it was a complete disaster, I only made it to two semesters. Again, with my friends I would just get completely blotto for weeks on end, complete waste of time but you’re too young to realise how much time you’ve wasted.
After the disaster of the first year I had a big think through and tried to get some sort of understanding of myself, and what direction I wanted to go career-wise, because I realised I couldn’t keep on doing this kind of crap. I’ve always been a guy who enjoys his isolation and being comfortable in trying to work out more about myself, so I can understand myself and why I do things. I felt it was time to knuckle down a bit.
Previously I’d tried to accommodate the circumstances of how we were. I remember when I was 15 saying to Dad, ‘Why don’t I quit school, get an apprenticeship, so I can help out a bit more at home?’ But he said, ‘No, no just go to school and get yourself a good education.’ Sitting on the cusp of tertiary education disaster I changed my degree into a Human Geography course with significant papers in English – stuff that I actually enjoyed – and just took it from there.
DB: Did you quit drinking altogether or just kept it very moderate?
GY: I kept it really moderate because I also got back into fitness. Right through my high school years I’d always been really fit; I had a resting heartbeat of 51. I got back into going to the gym, got into the university football side. Funnily enough, the rest of the team would be having beers at half-time and the odd one would piss off to the bushes and have a quick joint… it wasn’t a winning season for us, that season.
DB: What did you do straight after getting your degree?
GY: By that time I had joined a martial arts club, so I had been training pretty consistently and hard and I went and worked for my instructor; I think for two and a half years.
DB: Could you tell me a bit more about the martial arts discipline that you do?
GY: It’s called Wing Chun and it’s a Southern Chinese style of martial art, it’s very direct. There are several things about it which I think make it unique: legend has it that it was formed by a woman about 300 years ago; it’s renowned for its sticking hand sensitivity drills. These drills are supposed to make you sensitive enough to detect tactile pressure and deflect it (example; a punch) by either diverting it away from your body, or by stepping out of its way. Note I didn’t say block. The system is built on the principles of economy of motion, and economy of time. If I forgo the block and let a person punch at me, moving away from their attack but closing the distance, hopefully it will give me time to make a much more decisive manoeuvre. Say a shift to their right or left, which means they have to take the time to shift their defence – and if it takes them even a split second, that’s a huge advantage. So the main thing is, making them miss; if you can use your feet to get an angled position on them so much the better. If I can also upset their balance then the advantage is pretty decisive. So it all gets back to the feet; moving in a manner that creates space and time for you. Like anything, it needs to be tested in the real world where people aren’t going to be very compliant.
It’s certainly served me quite well over the years. I remember somebody coming at me with a knife and saying, ‘Do you want some of this?’ I suppose I was a bit more aggressive back then and I said, ‘Well if you use it, I’m going to kill you,’ it was a stand-off and then he backed off. (I must have been stupider than I am now as well).
The whole philosophical side about the martial arts is, I think, a good thing. Ultimately you’re looking to understand yourself, and if you can understand yourself you can understand the other person, and then you can set a course to doing what is right. I remember when I was working in a library, I was just wandering around and I see this guy chatting away to some woman and they obviously knew each other. She sat down and he did a straight right hand to her forehead, knocked her out. Long story short we confront each other, he comes for me, I put him into an arm bar and start taking him to the ground, where I can control him. All the way through time slows right down and you can feel yourself making these split, split second decisions, ‘Shall I break his arm? Shall I put a little kick here and break his ankle? Should I just add a bit more emphasis to the spin and push his head straight into this wall?’ But I didn’t do any of that, thankfully. I put him onto the ground, put him into a lock and then a member of the public comes up – who’s seen the whole thing – swears at him and launches a kick at the guy’s head. That slap of polished patent leather against someone’s head. It was absolutely horrible…. Wing Chun has served me to do the right thing.
There was another incident, two people at rush hour were just standing in the middle of the road arguing with each other, throwing punches and you’ve got cars backed up, drivers just sat at the wheel looking at these people. In your head you go, ‘Should I go there or should I not? Yes.’ I put down my bag and see somebody filming it on their phone and I’m thinking, ‘Why the fuck don’t you go over there and do something about it?’ I get in the middle of them and say, ‘Hey, come on guys,’ and get them calmed down but then one of their mates starts mouthing off and they’re back into it, you know. After three times of this mouthy friend going off, on the fourth time I turn round and say, ‘Not another fucking word!’ and the guy backs off. This dude comes up – he’s dressed in a security officer’s uniform – and says, ‘Hey bro, I’ve called the cops.’ The two “fighters” look at each other and then drive off. He (the security officer) was the only guy who helped me, so I go over to thank him and ask, ‘When are the cops coming?’ and he says, ‘Oh I made it up bro.’
DB: What did you do after working for your instructor martial arts training?
GY: For about a year I’d been seeing a woman that I’d met at university, we’d gotten quite close, and she’d gone to London. After she’d been away six months/a year I followed, in the vain hope we could continue the relationship. In the first couple of months I’d managed to see her again, but by that time it was all pretty much a dead relationship.
I went to London to experience something different and to try and find exactly what I wanted to do because up until that point in my life I had just been drifting along. I stayed with a friend from university and managed to drink £800 worth of beer at the local pub in about a month, with her cousin and another cousin, who I think had deserted from the French Foreign Legion; he was a really interesting, gentle guy who was rather disillusioned.
I managed to get a job working for an industrial cleaner. First day on the job we were cleaning out some burned out factory, using water hoses. I was up a ladder about 8 metres up, there’s water on the floor (I think I was being paid about ₤1.90 an hour). I thought, ‘Okay, well if I fall off the ladder, I’m a dead man,’ so I quit after about three days and managed to get myself a job in King’s Cross, in a sandwich shop. Always being a bit of a Socialist, whenever anybody came along for a cut of cake I would just give them a huge piece. I worked there for two weeks and then went to an office out Gatwick way and had an interview for a security job. They worked 60 hours a week, rotating night shifts. That’s where I worked next and I moved out of that first place because I could see I needed to get away from the drinking culture – drinking cheap wine and listening to Enya! I moved to a squat in North-East London, it was eye-opening living in a squat with other Kiwis. London I thought was a terrific, very cosmopolitan city and I loved the little communities that existed throughout the areas where I was living, the graffitied roller doors and stuff – it all seemed more “real”. I’d get a couple of questions pop up quite often, ‘Are you Chinese?’ I’d open my mouth and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re Australian,’ and then I’d say something and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re a Kiwi!’ I seemed to be accepted much more for who I was because back here in New Zealand I’ve always had that feeling that I was a bit of an alien. I’ve never made friends easily; I don’t mind being by myself. I met this nice dude, he was Yorkshire born and bred who was looking to get a flat up, so I moved in with him, a girl from Enfield and another guy from County Armagh. It was a great flat. Lots of character. We were visited by the parents of one them. I don’t know if it was the bright lights, but one of my flatties took a picture of them. Now, standard I imagine is a shot of parents in front of some London landmark like, I don’t know, Big Ben? But no, they had visited Soho and were snapped, grinning ear to ear and arm in arm, in front of a sex shop…. . We had some pretty cool, tight but loose times.
I think one of the eye-opening things for me, when I was in London – and this influenced me all the way through to now – in that first Christmas/Winter season, there was huge media coverage of “Cardboard City” where people were living in cardboard boxes out in the street. That was the coldest winter for a while and you’re thinking, ‘How can people with the means to put a stop to this, or to help, allow this to happen?’ It’s absolutely fucking crazy, you know. Fucking nuts!
It was while I was at work doing those 12-hour [Security] shifts that I came across an ad in Time Out magazine advertising the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. I’d never had any thought to acting or theatre or film (although I’ve always been a fan of films that made me think) so I thought, ‘Why not give this a go?’ I went down to Red Lion Square on one of my days off, met up with a few people, talked and decided, ‘Alright, what I’ll do is work, pay the fees, join and stay there for a while.’
DB: What was the drama training that you received at Lee Strasberg?
GY: Well it was all very interesting. One of the first exercises I remember us doing involved sitting on chairs in a circle then people breathing from the stomach and doing a deep voice. The next part of the exercise was waving your arms as you sat down. The real eye-opener was that people would put their feet outstretched with their hand on their feet, making sounds and looking people in the eye. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Nobody was batting an eyelid, so I thought, ‘Oh well, that’s pretty cool.’ We got into doing small scenes and along the way you’d do exercises to try and draw sense memory: dredging up things from your past in order to find an emotional peak in a scene.
I did that right to the end of my time there, working at the job just to get money. I took some time out to go to Oxford and have a look around there, but the big plan of using London as a base to travel around never happened and that was the furthest I got North – South was the airport I landed at.
DB: How long were you in London?
GY: Two years. I was just amazed at just how included I felt in that environment, it felt really good. I was a bit reluctant to leave but if I look back at it I hadn’t achieved very much in any kind of professional sense, but in a personal sense I got a lot out of it.
DB: Why did you end up going back to New Zealand?
GY: First up my visa had run out, which is a pretty good reason. My stepbrother had come over and wanted to go to Israel and live on a Kibbutz, but I thought… well, I didn’t think, I suppose… I just drifted back to New Zealand.
DB: How old were you by that time?
GY: I think I was 23-24, still quite young. I did a tour of the country, got myself a job working at a joiners place and met with my future wife, did a little bit of mucking around and just more of the same unfocused bullshit, I suppose.
DB: What did you do straight after that?
GY: When I was in Christchurch I went along to the local theatre to audition and the Artistic Director there said, ‘Oh, you should apply for Toi Whakaari,’ so I did and the next time I saw him he was one of the panellists. Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School that year had 300-400 entrants and I managed to get in.
They worked a lot more on script analysis, finding the beats in plays, objectives, much more technical. They also worked a lot more on voice production, centring etc. Lots of interesting plays. I was there two years and did Caucasian Chalk Circle, Midsummer Night’s Dream, View from the Bridge and a self-devised piece which we all learned a lot from. It was a play using boxing as a way to explore overcoming one’s deficiencies, with two others, and of course staged in a car park for “extra” grit!
DB: Is that when you decided you really wanted to focus a lot more on the acting?
GY: Wanting to act is the ultimate in drifting life choice. Jobs were few and far between and I’d done real quality roles at drama school, but some of the stuff that was actually out there was pretty crappy. I learned pretty quickly that there’s stuff that really interests me and stuff that doesn’t, but by staying professional you get through the job and get some kind of satisfaction from it.
DB: Do you enjoy doing stage work?
GY: Yeah I really enjoy it. I haven’t done a lot of stage – I think the last bit was in 2013 – but the satisfaction I got from it was quite deep, just due to how immediate theatre is and how emotional things can be. When you have a whole theatre full of people and can feel them change emotionally, and they are just following each word and gesture that you’re making, it’s an amazing feeling. I suppose that’s one of my regrets, not having done that much theatre.
DB: Would you like to go back and do some more?
GY: It would be terrifying, not having done a hell of a lot for some time but, yeah. The camaraderie, through the exploring, trusting the other actor to keep it safe so you build up this bond, it’s only in rare exceptions that you make those same sort of connections during a film or television.
With an opera chorus job that I got in about 1999, I’d be just blown away due to witnessing or hearing something that was just absolutely amazing. Whether that be throat singers, or the use of colour in the choreography when they set us waving these monstrous flags while yelling at the top of our voices, or hearing the lead warming his voice up about an hour before the show. He had the most peculiar method, where he’d be mumbling to himself, and then he’d make a sound like a cat with a furball.
I did a physical theatre job shortly afterwards and by that time voice production was at a peak, for me on stage, and I could do something under the lights with say 50% power and could hear the lighting rig above me vibrate.
About 2000 I was involved in a feature that never actually got finished which was a major disappointment for me because I poured about 150% into that. It was a budget production and it got bogged down. It was a 1st director’s feature and there were just huge problems with the director wanting to see his vision on film and some of the people who had been hired to help. I remember he went through three Directors of Photography: first one lasted one week, the next one lasted until the penultimate day, and then one of the camera operators took over on the last day.
DB: Would that have been one of your first screen roles?
GY: I did a short film in my last month of Toi, Chinese Whispers, where I played a gangster. Using my “amazing physical” abilities I thought it would be neat to have this guy run 15 metres and then bound up a chain fence, all while he had a cigarette hanging out his mouth. (Laughs)
DB: Just to touch on a couple of films, you were in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Where was that filmed?
GY: Principle photography was shot in studios in Auckland and then they did a huge series of pickups about a year later in Beijing, it was an interesting production to work on. I met one of the producers, Morten Tyldum, he was an excellent guy and was more or less directing all the drama and dialogue scenes, so I got to know him really well. He really is top notch and really looks after his actors; he’s brilliant.
DB: And you worked with Michelle Yeoh.
GY: Michelle was really cool and I’ve got a lot of respect for her, she doesn’t pull all that star bullshit.
DB: You’re in Mulan which comes out next year, are you allowed to say anything about that at all?
GY: I’m afraid I can’t. I don’t know whether it’s me, or if I’m a bit strange or whatever, but I’m much more interested in smaller, more intimate productions.
DB: Talking of which, you wrote, directed and starred in a short film, Ron and Alice. Could you tell me a little bit more about it?
GY: It’s a short about a rather strange man, who has plastic model making as a hobby. His wife/girlfriend has a disease which is killing her and it’s about how they both cope with it. I wanted it to be an intimate look at that kind of relationship, it was something that I was interested in exploring.
DB: Would you like to do more writing and directing?
GY: Yeah I really would. There’s something that’s been sat in my head for a while now, that I’d like to get down and make concrete. Something that’s personal and explores people’s emotional response to situations which are universal but of course it’s made unique by the fact that we all react to things differently.
DB: Do you have anything specific in mind or is it more of a generality?
GY: Well, I had a friend and he was a really lovely guy and helped me a lot when my marriage broke up – helped me heaps and heaps and was a very dear friend – and he was killed in Afghanistan. There is something in me that wants to make something about that kind of situation where you lose such a good friend.
GY: Yeah it was a bit of a shock, you know, little old New Zealand…
DB: You mentioned your friend, you did military service as well didn’t you?
GY: After the big split with my wife I was at a really loose end and that same friend, who had previously had a stint in the navy and was looking to get himself fit for SAS selection said, ‘Look I’m going to be joining the Reserves, why don’t you come along?’ So I did. He went on to the pinnacle in that kind of profession; I trained as an infantryman, “Queen of the Battlefield.” A corporal in charge of our section during basic said one of the nicest things to me. He said, ‘You’re a good man, Young.’ I almost cried inside.
DB: I wanted to touch on Secret City which stars Anna Torv who is also in Mindhunter. Where was that filmed?
GY: It was filmed in Sydney and a lot of location filming was in Canberra. I remember Secret City with a lot of fondness because there was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work but also learning about a different place and a different kind of culture.
Getting back to that sense of isolation and difference… I remember going to a theatre conference in Brisbane (about 1995) and popping out one morning to get a packet of fags, and just hearing somebody yelling at the top of their voice, ‘Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go home?’ And thinking, ‘What? Are they shouting at me?’ I turned round and there was a woman across the street yelling at the top of her voice. I turned back round to have a look at the guy behind the counter and he had his eyes down. The way that I am I yelled something back, you know.
DB: Like, ‘What Wellington?’ Was that a shock?
GY: It was a shock because it was much more overt than I was used to, but I suppose you just got used to it and gave it not much further thought.
DB: You’ve just come back from filming in Australia the conditions there sounded pretty horrible.
GY: It was quite hot, muggy but the people are the sort that I gravitate to, trying to form teams, understandings with people and empathy, sympathy, finding out who they are. Those are the important things I try and do in terms of relationships on set.
DB: When you say it was “quite hot” how hot was that?
GY: “Quite hot” would be… It was rumoured one day, when we went to a location for a makeup check, to be about 50 degrees Celsius.
DB: I couldn’t work in that, I’d be a little puddle!
GY: (Laughs) It was something to experience, believe me. You got out of the transport and instantly the heat and humidity just wrapped around you, it felt like somebody had come along and wrapped a foot thick electric blanket all round you, turned up to “high”. The shade didn’t help much either.
DB: Were you familiar with Outlander before you got the role of Mr. Willoughby?
GY: No I wasn’t, not at all. The first notice I had was reading the audition script. Then I purposely chose not to base what I did on what I had read about the books. He was interesting enough from what was conveyed to me through the script that I felt I didn’t need additional stuff to clutter what I wanted to try and do with him – with all respect to the books.
I remember I was in Wellington at that time because an emergency with a family member had come up and they were in hospital. I got the call fairly late on, that the audition had been set for morning time, so I walked down to the studio, did the audition and then walked back to the hospital again to be with this loved one. I absolutely knew what I wanted to do with the character, so in a way the outside circumstances didn’t really hinder me.
DB: What did you feel about the prospect of going to South Africa to film?
GY: I’d been to Cape Town before for a huge 40-minute corporate short film, so I knew a little bit about what to expect there, but it had been about 7-8 years in between visits. I was aware of what Cape Town was like and was really curious as to what had changed. When I eventually got there it was a mixture of finding what was familiar and then finding out all these differences: these were primarily along the lines of people begging on the streets. I could walk ten metres out the door of the hotel and I knew somebody would come up and ask me for money. I had always been of the mind that one of the kindest things you can do is to actually take some time out to listen to people, talk with them, but the sheer amount of people coming up made it really difficult.
I’d troop out each day, if I wasn’t required on set, and make sure I had change with me. I’m not religious in any way but you want to do some good, even if it is for the purely selfish reason of making yourself feel better about yourself. One guy had a leg amputated above his knee and was just lying under the minimal shade of a tree, you can imagine how hot it gets. I remember on that last trip (the one prior to Outlander) talking to a taxi driver on the way to the airport and he said, ‘Nelson Mandela came to power in 1995 and a lot of people were thinking that all this would be cleaned up, and they must be mad, it will take centuries, perhaps.’ Just wandering around the streets with James [Allenby-Kirk] and Keith [Fleming] was an eye-opener.
DB: I’ve got a “thing” about costuming because I think it can make such a radical difference and has an impact upon the viewer that they don’t even realise is happening. You have two main costumes in the show: could you describe the costume that you had at the beginning and how that, along with the hair and makeup, helped you to find Willoughby’s character?
GY: Each character that I look into is a whole amalgamation of little touch points that I can find from myself and touch points in history that inform the character. You are right in that the costuming is really important as well and how the character matches the picture in my head.
The costume itself was thick and quite durable; I didn’t feel constricted by it; I felt it gave me some kind of freedom. Here’s a guy who’s obviously dressed in a costume that’s different to what he dressed in, in his country, so he’s trying to fit in somehow, but he just doesn’t. He’s wearing a faded green, some kind of camouflage. You can see bits and pieces of his heritage in the way that his hair’s done, just poking through, so it was perfect. I really enjoyed working with the costume person, Terry Dresbach, because that was an excellent collaboration: she took my input with respect as I respected her ideas as well.
DB: What about the first time you saw him in the mirror?
GY: The first time I saw him I kind of liked him and his look. I’m really self-critical whenever I see pictures of myself but he looked like a completely different guy from me. Perhaps that’s just actor bullshit but I could see little vulnerable pieces of myself showing through the collars or sleeves, or just oozing out between his ears, and that was something I was really wishing to imbue him with, so I was really happy.
DB: You do look different as him, it’s funny how the character can alter the personal appearance by the way they move, or facial gestures.
GY: It’s part of the craft and you’d hope to think that there are quite distinct portrayals between different characters, otherwise I’m wasting my time. (Laughs)
DB: Or he would just be like you are in say Harrow with Ioan Gruffudd.
GY: Oh Harrow! That was really fun. I remember sitting outside, it was a balmy Brisbane night and I’m feeling good, I’ve only got two scenes that night. One of them was a background one where I’m just flirting with a bunch of people, cracking jokes, trying to make them laugh and upstage the whole scene. The toilet scene was a lot of fun too. I let the character do what he wanted to do, and he just wandered around, pretty cool, and didn’t give a shit about the situation.
DB: The other costume we first see when you’re walking into the ball with Jamie and Claire, is this beautiful blue silk with embroidery. How did that costume come about? Was that also a collaboration?
GY: By the time I got to that scene the costume had already been made. I had visions of a more traditional look but in this instance, I was proven happily wrong. She was dead on right with what she’d created, which was to use this cloth which had been brought over from China as some sort of keepsake, and then turned into an amalgamation of a Western style with Eastern ingredients. I was pretty fond of that costume. I was always amazed at the reaction it got from people, strangers would come up and say, ‘Bloody hell, it’s beautiful!’ It was an amazing piece of art.
DB: They are very talented those costume people aren’t they and on Outlander, because it’s not a small ensemble cast, it’s a phenomenal undertaking.
GY: Yeah, I don’t think they get enough credit for what they do, it’s a really important part of the whole process. Wrangling on the day, getting people made-up, dressed up and then that look has to be consistent, it’s a huge party trick.
DB: It’s like a military operation…
GY: Yeah, but without the yelling.
DB: Especially at the actors, darling. (Both laugh) What other preparation did you do for this role regarding accent?
GY: Going specifically into accent: his vocabulary is quite extensive so obviously he would have had a chance to learn English up to a fairly high standard. What I did was to just use my father’s accent and then just broaden it out a little bit to enable a certain sophistication with the language to convey certain complex ideas.
DB: Out of interest where was your dad from?
GY: He’s from the South of China, Guangdong Province, my mum too, they are both Cantonese.
DB: So you speak a bit of Cantonese?
GY: Badly, yeah.
DB: Can you recall your first day on the Outlander set?
GY: I was given about a week before I had to go on set, perhaps longer. I think the first day for me was the pub scene. It was quite a crucial little scene as it introduces his character and tries to convey as much as possible of his recent past. It’s a day that I’ll remember for landing on my back 40 odd times; it was fun because I know how to fall from my martial arts. I kept on telling the woman who was playing opposite me, ‘Don’t worry about me, push me as hard as you can. Just give me everything you’ve got!’ Half-way through it I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to be little bit bruised tomorrow. What have I got myself into?’ She was really giving it heaps and a couple of times I got up a little bit gingerly. Some dude, who was part of the crowd, said that he had me covered because my head a couple of times would be quite close to an edge or a lip, where the stage came up a bit. I was thankful that he was looking out for me, but I don’t think he needed to have worried because, for some reason, I’ve got a really good spatial awareness of where things are. He was a good dude.
DB: I’m curious about the acupuncture scene and how it was done, because I assume they’re not actual bamboo needles shoved into Sam Heughan’s real face.
GY: Well no, they’re not! I can attest to the fact that it’s all makeup, little fleshy lumps which have been squashed and glued onto Sam’s face. The needles, I was really conscious of pushing too far through. Sam was really patient because nobody likes having things poking out there and somebody’s hand getting close to their face wiggling needles out – you’re invading somebody else’s space, you know.
DB: Was that similar to when you are sewing up Claire’s arm?
GY: Yep, again that’s makeup trickery. They gave me a whole set of little cuts and wounds to practice with for a month. I would be sitting in my apartment with my needle and my thread and I would go, ‘Is it that time again?’ and it would be time to do an hour’s practice sewing up. I wore out the practice makeup wounds and had to get some more. Come the day I just sat out there and my biggest concern was, ‘Well here we are and I do not want to put holes in the star!’
DB: I really like the part where Willoughby’s writing with the brush and water on the deck of the ship.
GY: When the script first came through with the [Chinese] characters I went to a calligrapher down in Wellington and he was absolutely fascinated by the characters. We discussed what era they were from – there was a quality to the characters that I quite liked, and he loved!! It was a question of filming him as he drew the characters and then going home and, starting with a pen, mimicking those strokes, then graduating to a cheap set of water colours, practising individual characters by themselves and then characters strung together, in the form of how it appears in the episode. Finally getting to a point where you look at how big they may want it; getting a big brush and make the characters bigger, but with that same fluid style. I remember getting those scripts in between Scotland and being in South Africa. I started practising right the way through the break, a 4-hour shift in the morning and a 4-hour shift in the afternoon, six days a week, which comes up to some horrendous number of hours.
DB: How long was your break in between in Glasgow? Did it give you a chance to see the city?
GY: About 5 weeks, enough time to get to know Glasgow. I’ve always been an advocate of walking to get to know a city. The first walk that I did was up and down Sauchiehall Street. There was ice on the road, and I remember freezing as I looked for an open coffee place! It was early morning and I was still jet lagged. But eventually I found various restaurants; some bookstores as I began to explore more through the city. And two words. Love. Haggis!
DB: Were you chummed up with anybody else or were you pretty much on your own?
GY: Pretty much on my own which is, given my personal characteristics, something that didn’t bother me. I loved Glasgow and how friendly the locals were. As soon as I opened my mouth people would say, ‘Oh you’re from New Zealand,’ and then have a chat. There was one time – my ear is pretty good with accents and I can understand 99% of English-speaking peoples – a guy in this fish and chip shop said, ‘Oh you’re from New Zealand,’ and then only isolated words like “rugby” and “New Zealand” could I understand as they came out. He was a magnificent dude and I felt pretty stupid not being able to understand what he was saying but equally I was enthralled by the musicality of his speech.
DB: I love the scene on the ship where Willoughby breaks up a tense, dangerous scene by ringing on the bell and then telling his life story.
GY: That was the cornerstone speech for the character and was the audition piece, so I was clued up to try and deliver something. We got onto it fairly early in the morning and I was fairly nervous about how it would go but I was quite pleased, given how hot it got, that it managed to convey what I wanted the character to convey. He was consumed by his own story and it was confessional, how he had, in the name of love, run away and that he had regrets about that. The cost and the strange vagaries of what informs relationships between people.
DB: It’s a great and very emotionally charged scene.
GY: Oh thank you, it’s a really lovely scene. I do remember talking to one of the writers, we were going through that specific speech, and I said, ‘Around about here he’s transported back in time and he’s just reliving and trying to find a way through to understanding the situation and also who he is.’
DB: The part where you throw the pages of the story over the side of the ship, that just looked like it could cause all sorts of problems.
GY: There were some problems there, the wind would suddenly pick up and the paper would do something which took it out of camera shot, or there would be no wind and the paper just wouldn’t float around “magically”. We got there in the end.
DB: You did quite a few night shoots.
GY: We did and one specific one that I can remember was filming quite a lovely little scene with Alison Pargeter late night/early morning. I can remember working out with Alison how they wanted to approach each other, that and getting the delicacy out of what was being said but more importantly, what wasn’t being said.
DB: Where was the outside of that scene and the ball actually shot?
GY: There is a huge vineyard/wine making complex about 30-40 kilometres away from the film studio in Cape Town – it was shot there. The ball was shot back in Scotland!
DB: I also really enjoyed the funny scene where you’re presenting the chicken in a cage to Nick Fletcher’s character.
GY: Me and Nick had a fine time with that scene. I’ve got a lot of respect for Nick, as I desperately tried to wrangle the chicken, trying to get it doing exactly the same every shot. I was talking to the chicken, comforting the chicken, giving some acting advice to the chicken.
Now when Nick came along, he’s an ultra-nice dude and a mountaineer, which is impressive in itself. We would go up the local peaks and there were some quite hairy ascents that we took. He’s an absolutely fantastic guy.
DB: I was looking at his photos on Instagram and they’re great. People often pigeonhole people as being one thing but often they are much more than that.
GY: I mean, looking at him you think, ‘Athletically his best days are behind him,’ and then he has these shots where he’s clinging with a finger and toe hold on some sheer cliff face and he’s giving you a smile. On more than one occasion I’ve said to him, ‘Nick, I’m pretty sure I would have shat in my pants if I was in the same position as you in those photographs.’ Absolutely amazing!
DB: What was your last day on set and how did you feel leaving behind Mr Willoughby and the rest of the cast and crew?
GY: By that time I think I was ready for it. Keith and James had already gone a week previous to that, and it just felt weird and like his time had naturally come to an end. His story had come to a nice little conclusion, but I felt a little bit sad because when you devote that much time and energy to something it’s always a bit of a wrench to leave it. He was very deep and very satisfying to play and I got a lot out of it in terms of discovering more about myself.
DB: For someone who is considering acting as a career, is there any advice you can give and are there any particular challenges, or advantages, for someone who is from an ethnic minority?
GY: That’s an interesting question. So much of this job is finding the touchstone within something that you can focus on, so that the job does not become “a job” but becomes something that you don’t mind putting the time into, and as a matter of fact you’ll beat yourself up if you don’t put the time into it. The thing is finding that in every job. Now unfortunately that isn’t true for a majority of jobs that are offered to you, so you have to be professional and still go through the process. Sometimes it is really hard to find that little spark that turns it into a job that you really want to do. Be aware that you will be disappointed and frustrated, and that sometimes you won’t be able to see the point of what you are doing, but if you really want to do it, those disappointments will only serve as motivational factors in trying to reach your destination as an actor – to involve yourself in work that’s fulfilling.
As to ethnic actors, it would be along the lines of what I’ve just said, it’s fabulously difficult – I’m sure this exists for other people, not just ethnic types. There’s a lack of imagination in the writing or in the portrayal of people, and it’s your job to find that little “something” which will open the character up and make them interesting, real, and somebody that the audience can find some empathy with.
DB: When you aren’t working do you have any hobbies or passions?
GY: I’m into fitness, right [both laugh because at this point Gary is smoking a cigarette]. All my life I’ve been involved in something athletic and Wing Chun was a passion for a long time. In the last two years I’ve taken up a bit of Western boxing. There’s the gym training that I do, which I enjoy and have done right through my whole life with a different emphasis according to how I wanted to shape the body for certain roles or just for the sheer hell of, ‘How much can I deadlift?’
Also New Zealand’s history during World War ll, so at the moment, having not read about the Battle of Cassino for a little while, going through some old books and sources that I have. I really want to get back into some daily writing, some sort of journal or, more importantly, those little ideas I have for scripts.
DB: You did some horse riding a while back.
GY: Oh! That was for Mulan. That was one of the craziest and most satisfying things I have ever done, in my whole life, and I wish I had picked it up during my 20s, it was just fantastic! Do you know how to ride?
DB: I’m a very inept rider but used to work a lot with ponies and horses doing groundwork. Would you like to go back and do some more riding?
GY: Yeah I would. The horse they had me practise on and used for the shoot – by the name of Conan – was just so gentle and forgiving of my ineptness. Just going for a walk with a horse… I cannot explain with words the pleasure that I got from that, it was just so organic, just beautiful.
DB: I read that you support Arsenal Football Club?
GY: Yeah, I do! I think we’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do….
DB: Do you try and watch matches when they’re available?
GY: Not that recently but it’s just one of those lifelong things. I think the first time I saw them was on TV, the ’79 final of the FA Cup, and that was when I was entranced. I can remember getting up with my dad – it would have been 3 o’clock in the morning here – and watching the telecast.
DB: If you can cast your mind back what is your earliest musical memory?
GY: I can remember there used to be a a television programme called Ready to Roll and they would play the top 10 videos of the week and I think it was by Hot Chocolate (I can’t remember the exact song). Throughout my high school years I have memories of being in a caravan around my mate’s place with his record player, playing Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley. We were always a bit “retro” I think.
DB: If you were going on a trip, a road trip or on a plane, what sort of music would be on your playlist?
GY: I tend not to listen to any music; I tend to read. If I was to have some music it would probably be a bit of Pink Floyd, I think.
DB: Do you use a playlist when you’re at the gym?
GY: No, I’ll just have the timer on my phone and will be concentrating on what I want to do.
DB: If there’s a party and music is playing will you just get up and dance or will you have to be dragged up?
GY: You’d need to drag me!
DB: If there’s a karaoke would you get up and sing?
GY: Yep, I’d get up and sing. I used to have, at one point on my life, quite a pleasant voice – not so much now because I haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of singing in the last 10-15 years. I remember where I sang a passage during a production at Toi Whakaari and I’d hit whatever I wanted to do with my voice.
DB: What would be your song or songs of choice then?
GY: I’d say something fairly folkie or there’s a couple of hard rock ballads.
DB: Can you remember what your first single or album was that you bought with your own money?
GY: Led Zeppelin lV, that was the first one.
DB: Imagine it’s your final meal on planet Earth, what would you choose to feast upon and what would be your preferred drink to accompany that?
GY: I would most probably choose Chinese crispy roast pork and I would most probably do it myself, with roast vegetables and rice. As to drink, it would most probably be water.
DB: Would you have a dessert with it?
GY: I’m not a bit dessert eater, eh. It might just be a nice cup of tea afterwards.
DB: Could you tell me about the book, or books, that you are currently reading?
GY: There’s an official publication about New Zealand’s participation in World War ll and a particular volume, I think by Dan Davin, on the Italian Campaign and it’s called, surprisingly, Italy; I’m looking forward to re-reading the passage he has devoted to the Battle of Cassino. I recently got back into reading some fiction, there’s a whole series of about 9 books set in the classical world: action-packed, Romans wandering around, historical fiction.
I tell you what, one thing I’d really love to get back into is some poetry written by Seamus Heaney, I just love his work. Finding out the background behind the poems; it’s just such beautiful writing. I can remember sometimes just being in awe of his writing and standing on a bus just mouthing it to myself.
DB: His poetry lends itself so much to being read aloud.
GY: Oh yes, absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact I think you lose so much by reading it in your head.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
GY: My perfect day would involve me going out with people I love etc. and doing something very, very small. It could be walking the beach or just going up a wee track. Then in the evening coming back, me cooking a meal and all of us just enjoying the meal, and chatting.
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