As Olaf in the hit TV3 series The Almighty Johnsons, actor Ben Barrington plays the oracle – the all-knowing grandfather god of light and rebirth.
But once the camera stops rolling, his first call is often to his own oracle: The woman whose opinion and advice is law, his mother Maree Barrington.
“Mum has always told me she knows best, and she’s right, she does. I truly believe that,” says Ben.
The 36-year-old drove his mum up from their hometown of Hamilton for our photoshoot, and is obviously delighted to be spending the day with the most important woman in his life.
Ben and Maree (59) have a very easy relationship, and while there’s a lot of laughs and plenty of gentle teasing, their relationship is clearly based on mutual respect.
Ben is every inch the gentleman, carrying Maree’s bags and opening doors for her; while she, in turn, is a delightfully typical mum – Ben may be a grown man, but she’s not above admonishing him if he has a lapse in concentration, or starts talking on his phone when he should be walking.
“My own father brought me up to believe that you’re no better than anyone else, and nobody is any better than you, and it’s the way I’ve brought up my own children,” explains Maree.
“I’m a teacher, so I’ve always been the strict one – if Benjamin and Kate [his younger sister] were naughty, their father would say, ‘You wait until your mother hears about this!’ But Benjamin’s never been a difficult child – although he’s always known his own mind, that’s for sure.”
“Mum’s pretty straight with me – if she sees a picture in the paper, or hears I’ve done something idiotic, she’ll be straight on the phone, going, ‘You idiot – what on earth were you playing at?” laughs Ben.
“She’ll make it pretty clear if she thinks I’m doing something I might regret later.”
Luckily for Ben (and Maree), his exploits are rarely bad enough to make the news.
But if they did, chances are Maree would most likely know his partner in crime.
“I’ve met a lot of his girlfriends – I’m actually still friends with a couple
of them. We talk quite regularly,” says Maree.
“Well – if they weren’t nice girls, he wouldn’t have gone out with them, would he?”
“A lot of my friends are more gutted about not seeing Mum, than me, if we split up,” says Ben with a straight face.
Maree and her husband Chris, a car dealer, are proud of Ben’s acting achievements, which include two Lord of the Rings films, Jane Campion’s Emmy Award-nominated Top of the Lake and Outrageous Fortune, as well as The Almighty Johnsons.
But, says Maree, while she may have had other career plans for him, his path was pretty set from an early age.
“I’d have quite liked him to be a pilot, as I love travel, or a plastic surgeon would have been handy, but right from when he was a weeny thing, Benjamin was a character. He was a complete perfectionist – every piece of artwork, every mask he made, had to be perfect,” she explains.
“He was very strong-willed, never the type to follow a crowd. But he was obsessed with everything to do with television and films.”
A huge fan of The Muppets, Ben would watch and imitate everything they did, and he would often take himself off to the movies in the holidays. But it was during a school production, aged just five, when Ben first showed his true colours.
“It was a school on the outskirts of Hamilton, and I got a call from the teacher to say Ben didn’t like the line he was given, and felt it should be different,” Maree remembers.
“He read it right for every rehearsal, then when they performed the actual play, he swapped it for the line he thought it should be.”
While that’s a very precocious move for a five-year-old, Maree says it was standard fare for her son, who has been dedicated to all things entertainment for as long as she can remember.
“Ben was a huge WWF fan as a child – he knew the names of all the wrestlers,” she says.
“His grandfather’s quite the handyman, and Ben used his tools to make a proper wrestling ring, complete with springs and ropes. It had everything.”
And so Ben’s ended up as one of New Zealand’s most recognisable acting figures, putting himself out there for us all to see – sometimes literally.
“I have seen him naked on stage in theatre, yes,” says Maree, quite matter-of-factly.
“Friends of mine came along too, as did his grandparents, and they all asked me how I felt about seeing Ben like that – but to me, that’s just the character he’s playing.”
And Ben insists it’s never been weird for him either.
“I know there are actors who find the idea of doing a sex or nude scene in front of family members excruciating, but it’s not an issue,” he says.
“It’s not like it’s sexy. Usually, when I’m doing a scene like that, I’m in a room full of guys with pot guts and tool belts looking really bored, just trying to make sure my arms and face aren’t in the way of the shot.”
And while there’s no-one serious in Ben’s life at the moment, he hasn’t ruled out kids in the future. Typically for Maree, she’s fine with him taking as much time as he wants.
“It’s not my decision,” she insists.
“What Benjamin and his sister do with their own lives is up to them. Although I’d adore a grandchild, I wouldn’t be a silly, doting grandparent. I
don’t believe in that nonsense of kids ruling the roost.”
It’s that straight talking that has so inspired Ben.
“Mum is always understanding and supportive of everything I have done. I am just so grateful to her.”
Catherine Milford.Photos: Michelle Hyslop • hair, make-up & styling: Jules Armishaw • Maree’s top from Jacqui-E, jeans from Trenery. Ben’s shirt from Country Road. Maree’s top and pants from Jacqui-E. Ben’s top from Country road, jeans from Route 66.