born June 5, 1946 in Wales, John Bach has spent most of his career working in New Zealand, and is an icon of local production.
Overseas he had a recurring character in the Australian TV series Farscape. He has also appeared in several New Zealand films, such as Utu, Carry Me Back, Goodbye Pork Pie, Old Scores and Beyond Reasonable Doubt. His best known role internationally is Madril in the two last movies of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-2003).
Interview - Public Profession: private person
By Chris Bourke, published in NZ Listener 12 July, 1985.
With leading roles in Roche and the soon to be released film The Lost Tribe, John Bach remains on of New Zealand's busiest - but most determinedly private - actors.
It usually goes like this, John Bach walks into a bar and orders a drink. Then someone turns to him and says,
Mick Roche, ain't it? You think you're pretty tough, eh?
Bach may grit his teeth and stop the conversation with cold, dead eyes, but really, he prefers it that way. He'd rather be recognized as one of his characters than for people to know John Bach
I just thank my private life is my private life, and it's got nothing to do with my job. If people know a lot about me, then they'll look at the screen and say 'John Bach' rather than concentrating on the work I'm doing. The part I'm playing is more important than me. The general public like to know little bits and pieces about the people they watch but I don't think it's valid. That's the American System.
John Bach (pronounced "Baytch") is determinedly private, but committed to his profession. He reluctantly agreed to talk (about acting, understand) with the purpose of supporting two recent projects he is proud to be associated with, Roche and The Last Tribe, a film in which he takes the lead role. But he nevertheless shows his dissatisfaction, by fixing the interviewer eyeball to eyeball and slipping into the most psychopathic of roles:
If you don't tell the truth I'll come after you. I'll come and get you and cut you off at the knees...
The interview is postponed for several days as friends arrived now to celebrate his 39th birthday and to watch the the evening's episode of Roche. The room is tense as Bach sits cross-legged and in front of the screen, but he ignores his own performance and applauds the other actors. Some edits receive abuse, as does the colour grading - until we discover it's the television set. Fellow actors are immediately telephoned and congratulated.
The evening becomes "John's party" as inhibitions are shed, although the tension remains. Bach forcefully declares his disinterest in publicity, and a friend says,
good luck - I publicized three of his movies and could never get him to do an interview.
But having agreed to the ordeal he commits himself totally. Chainsmoking, he settles down to discuss the roles he's played in the strange life of an actor - all the time feeling it's presumptuous of him to generalise for his peers. He offers to show a video of The Lost Tribe, makes sure his resume is up to date, then telephones later with an appropriate quote.
The morning after a very late Saturday night, he turns up for the photo session - a little bleary eyed, sure - 5 minutes early. The actor performs for the camera and provides a series of enigmatic poses. Is that a smile... or a threat?
He's actually quite a nice bloke, says John Bach of Mick Roche.
He is being heavy, and he still does give a littleheavy. but there's much more to him than that. He's got incredible weak areas and his heavyness detracts from the fact that he's got other qualities. He’s on edge all the time. but he’s under enormous pressure. He wants to be an individual. but let’s face it, if you want to be an individual, you’re gonna have to fight everybody: not only the government, the unions, not only your peers - every- body.
The guy has never understood the fact that if you play the game right, you’ll be okay. He plays the game his way, and he takes his chances. Sometimes he loses and sometimes he wins. But he’d still rather be himself than anybody else. He’ll never grow up. He will not tolerate dishonesty but he lies to himself. It’s a kind of innocence. That’s what Mick Roche is all about. To do all that is an atrocious thing to even attempt. But the writers and directors have attempted it.
Will the audience perceive the depth to Mick Roche? Bach is doubtful if all will. He murmurs,
There’s an episode of Roche where there’s a hint of incest. God help the 'Moral Majority' if they even cotton on. But they’re so thick, they won’t even realise!
Those involved with Roche are fiercely proud of the programme.
Despite any- thing anybody might say, and despite the angst we might have had working on it, Roche is a development. There's at least four episodes out of the nine that are really worthy of people in this country going, 'Shit. New Zealand television and drama have really got it together.'
Bach is disappointed there will be no Second series.
During Roche Mick Roche actually developed. Towards the end I really felt I knew who Mick Roche was and how he'd behave. I'd like to go back and shoot the first couple of epi- sodes again. The second series would have been so much better as the writers have really got it together - the seven episodes they wrote were brilliant. Bach had to withdraw when he got the lead role in an Australian television series and now Roche Two has been cancelled.
They were going to recast my part, but a couple of the other guys had to get out as well.
Bach says that many people still remember him as Tom Hearte, his character in Close to Home.
I’ll go somewhere, and they'll say 'Gidday Tom' . . . which proves to me they watched that bloody thing. The role is still one of his favourites, and was a good learning experience.
Close to Home had its moments. They employed a lot of people and tried a lot of things. Everybody worked so hard on it . . . but I think, eight years . . . it went on too long.
Tom Hearte began as a mild-mannered teacher. He went bush for a while, and when he returned for the eccentric final days, it was in the more typical John Bach role: Tom Hearte became a political fanatic.
Well, they had to make him a radical. What else can you do with someone who’s a teacher and doesn’t do very much - how do you make them interesting?
Some of his more high-profile roles have had a similarity to them, and Bach is too well aware of it.
I’ve played all sorts of parts, but in the eyes of everybody, I’m a heavy. I think I am in a bit of a rut, but it’s starting to break, with Mick Roche.
Recent New Zealand films have almost seemed incomplete without the arrival of a crazed, gun-toting John Bach for a terrifying finale.
But I don’t think I've played a really twisted character. What about Goodbye Pork Pie? Bach laughs.
Okay. That was twisted. Yeah all right he was an outright freak, absolutely crazy.
I'm always getting knives stuck in me. A lot of people think this, but if you look at it . . . Pork Pie, Battletruck, Rachel, Utu, Lost Tribe, Pallet on the Floor (I try and rape someone, but I miss out there) . . . but it’s not 50 percent of them. There is almost a 'crazed cop' genre as well (Inside Straight, Beyond Reasonable Doubt), and his upcoming part in Country GP is not all-innocence either.
I think it’s just my physical size and the fact that I can sometimes look threatening - even though I'm probably one of the biggest wimps around.
But there have been several "normal" roles recently (as a writer in Iris and an art-gallery director in Other Halves) as well as parts in films for children. When Bach's acting career began, however, it was in comedy. Puno and the Paycock I did that at school in Christchurch. That's when I first started acting, when I first came out here from Wales when I was 12.
Then it was pantomimes, school plays, repertory classes and uni- versity drama.
It was mostly serious 'The Theatre’. I was only ever in one revue, I played a German on a bicycle with a bass drum on his back.
For nearly 20 years John Bach has been a professional actor, and he has played a variety of parts: a balloon, a penguin, and perhaps most bizarre of all, a drag queen. He gets out the photo. It’s Quentin Crisp meets Ronald Jorgensen, 191cm (six feet three inches) of mascara and eyelashes.
Look at it. Can you believe it? I can't sometimes.
Acting is a strange way to make a living.
That we want to go out, take a character off a page that someone else has written and try and become those people for people who come and watch. Then it stops, and we have to go back to being ourselves.
It's not always easy. To stay in business, you've got to learn how to switch off. You see actors go too far and they're mucked up because it's been so emotional. And we get boring as well, because we go around emoting every- where. It's that old thing, 'Oh God, here comes an actor - emote, emote, yeah, yeah
Like many actors, Bach slips into role- playing in the middle of a sentence.
It's habit, you play with different accents. I honestly think a lot of actors can't stop doing it. I don't know - I'm making these huge generalisations - but from my own observations, actors do act for each other all the time. I like it, it keeps things buzzing, they’re alive.
In his recent lead role in The Lost Tribe, Bach actually played two char- acters, identical twin brothers called Max (the 'nasty') and Edward (the 'nice guy'). It was a demanding role, switching from one to the other.
I went a long way in on that one. I wanted to give my arse on it because John [Laing] had given me the lead, and I wanted to be as good, as real, as I could be.
Bach mentions one powerful scene in which it was crucial that people thought it was Max walking towards a woman. The preview audience were convinced.
A couple of them just freaked.
Oh God it’s evil coming this way. To get in that far, I was thinking the most diaboli- cal things I could think of. I was Max, and I'd gone too far. I know it's there, it's in the eyes. It's not me and it's not Edward. This other character is actually there.
That's what it's all about. When people can actually sit there and say, [shivers] 'Oooh - he’s evil'. I did it! I did it! That’s the fulfilment for me. To convince them - that’s what acting is all about.
Perhaps Edward and Max was the perfect role for an actor who is a Gemini. Bach is hesitant.
A lot of people will think this is absolute rubbish, but I started thinking about it. We all did in the 60s [groans] astrology and all-that stuff. But the more reading I did, the more Geminian I am. I certainly do have a split personality. As I've got older, I’ve got it under control. But I think that it’s helped me in acting. There are quite a lot of Geminis in acting - we're supposed to be communicators - but other people are Taureans or whatever and they're better actors than I am, so maybe it’s just total nonsense. But for me it works.
With the success of Roche and the 25th anniversary excerpts on television, we are currently being reminded how far New Zealand drama has come. Bach is a fervent believer in the New Zealand actor:
I think some of them are the best in the world. Look at the ton of shit we get from overseas. Okay Boys from the Blackstuff is brilliant, but I really believe that there are actors in this country given the directions and the writing who could pull that off as well.
It frustrates him when actors aren't given the time to do their best work.
The other day, there was an emotional scene - a young actor had to cry. She asked for a couple of minutes and was told, 'No. Cry now.' On film sets, they take hours to get things ready, then expect instant results from actors. 'Just hold on fella - you like the lights, the camera, the sound is happy - will you give us a break?’ Sometimes they push them so fast and then wonder why it's not brilliant. It doesn't happen' all the time, and it's happening less, but some- times I get so angry I have to voice it.
I’m a real rabble-rouser. for getting actors decent treatment. I've offended a few producers in my time. There is a huge bunch of fine people in television, and independently, who treat actors de- cently - as they'd like to be treated themselves. It's just every now and then you get this thing of . . . movable props. 'Bring on the movable props!' or 'Bring on the meat!' Sometimes it's a joke and you can laugh. But other times...
Bach is now off to Australia to do a six-part television series. The part need you ask - is another heavy: he plays the leader of a group of criminals who pulled off Australia's biggest bookie robbery.
What's the point of playing a nice little role where nothing ever happens? It’s boring - people would start going to sleep. But if people see a character come on and they. know, soon as he appears, something’s going to happen - he'll either 'fall down and-make them laugh, or he'll say something that makes them angry. They'll either hate him or like him? It’s much better to play someone like that.
But you've got to divorce yourself, so that the more private your life is, the more they'll accept that you are that character. That's my way of working. 'Some actors love the limelight'... that's bullshit. We All do, otherwise we wouldn't be up there.