For more than 25 years,he has been at the forefront of Kiwi television, winning over the hearts of New Zealanders with his energetic delivery and famous grin.
And now, Jason Gunn is treading a new path, and he’s turning to his stepdaughter, Grace Palmer, to inspire him to pursue his dream.
“Acting is something I’ve always wanted to do,” begins Jason. “I’m really excited and I’m looking forward to balancing my radio job with my desire to be an actor. It’s about time!”
So how does Grace come into it? The gorgeous 19-year-old has just landed a plum acting role, playing new nurse Lucy Rickman on TV2’s Shortland Street. “Seeing Grace succeed has made me think it’s time for me to do it,” says Jason. “If it works out, great! I don’t want to get to the end of my life and think, ‘I wish I’d had a go at acting.’”
It’s the first time Jason has spoken out about his dreams and he’s doing so with the unyielding support of his family. He’s buzzing around his Christchurch home with Grace, who has just returned from a nine-month stint taking acting classes in Sydney, while his wife Janine watches on.
Jason says that although he still loves radio, and is enjoying his new job as co-host of the More FM Drive Show with the “incredibly talented” Lana Searle, he’s ready for “the magic of film and television”.
“I love the process of cinema – the people, the craft and the fact that viewers get to sit somewhere cosy for 111 minutes and escape,” he explains. “I would love to have a go at helping people experience that!
“I like the art of storytelling and making people laugh. Prior to starting with More FM, I began writing and making items for a YouTube channel, jasongunn.tv, which I am currently tweaking before putting it out to the world. I have many ideas from everyday events – most are comedy at my expense that everyone can relate to! I’ve been writing with my brother Andy and having lots of laughs, but I definitely feel I’d be better doing it in front of a camera.”
Grace, Janine’s daughter from her first marriage to TV producer Tony Palmer, is very close to both her father and to Jason, both of whom have taught her about the business of television.
“Grace and I have great energy together,” says Jason. “We were ‘LOLing’ before ‘LOLing’ was even a thing. Grace brings so much fun to our family,” he adds fondly, as the two recall spending many hours of Grace’s childhood practicing their repertoire of foreign accents.
Jason’s youngest children, Faith (16) and Louis (11) live with him and Janine, while Janine’s eldest daughter Eve Palmer (24), a presenter for The 4.30 Show, lives nearby.
“When your kids head out into the world, you think, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ Grace’s departure to Australia left a big gap,” confides Jason (45), who calls his children his “best friends” and says he values above all else the mornings he spends with his family, making breakfast, packing lunches and sending his youngest children off to school.
But heading over the ditch was a risk worth taking for Grace. As she discusses her Shortland Street debut, it’s hard to imagine that just six weeks ago, she was waiting tables at a bar in Kings Cross, hoping for her big break. In her spare time, she worked tirelessly with an acting coach to prepare for auditions, and eventually landed a guest role on Home and Away. “Then, in June, I was invited to audition for Shortland Street. I got a call from my New Zealand agent saying I got the part! I had a week to reorganise my life and find someone to move into my Sydney flat.”
Although it was a chaotic time, it will all be worth it when Lucy “arrives with a bang” on Shortland Street this month.
“She is mysterious to begin with, but as the storyline progresses, her motives become clearer,” tells Grace.
It’s possibly more than just coincidence that Grace is only a year older than Jason was when he made his television debut in Son of a Gunn with his sidekick Thingee. In fact, Jason says, he always loved to joke with Grace – “No pressure, honey, but I had a TV show when I was 18!”
Multi-talented Grace also sings, writes songs and jams on the instruments set up in a wing of her parents’ rural home.
“Grace is such a natural performer,” says Jason with pride. “If you can find something you love doing and someone is willing to pay you for the privilege, you are lucky. I’ve spoken lots to my own mother about what I was like as a kid. I remember I was always entertaining all my friends and family – and Grace was the same.”
While Janine (52), the “organiser” of the household, has never fronted the camera, she founded the production company Whitebait TV, behind weekly shows What Now? and The 4.30 Show, which she and Jason now co-run, in 1998.
The couple, who celebrate two decades together next year, met on Son of a Gunn (Janine as producer, Jason as host) in the 1980s. Their
four children have all inherited singing, acting and performing talents.
With this family now veritable television royalty, Janine is not at all surprised by Grace’s desire to follow Jason into the spotlight.
“Since she was a little girl, Gracie would walk into any room and light it up. She’s a terrific communicator. She has a propensity to step out of her comfort zone and be absolutely fine – she’s never been rattled.
“Although,” the devoted mum adds, “she does get homesick! When she first moved to Sydney, she clung to me as she went through Customs!”
Grace still misses her family, even now that she’s based in Auckland. “It doesn’t matter where I am, I always feel this way. My family ranks amongst my best friends – we have so many laughs!”
So what are mealtimes like around the Gunn family table?
“There are no shy ones in this family – anyone who joined us for dinner would probably think we were from an asylum!” Grace jokes. “I’m probably the craziest in the family but we all get along really well and, for an 11-year-old with three older sisters, Louis is very patient.”
Grace, who understands the highs and lows of the industry, hopes to remember Jason’s wise words as her profile grows.
“When I was younger, I read an article about a woman who said she wished she could shove a tennis ball in Jason’s mouth. I asked Jase, ‘So are you going to stop [presenting TV] now?’ He replied, ‘No! It’s like ice cream. If one woman doesn’t like hokey pokey, they are not going to get rid of hokey pokey! Some people love it, some hate it – no flavour, or person, pleases everyone.”
And the former What Now? sports reporter and The Erin Simpson Show fashion reporter, who insists she’s gone through the same audition processes in life as everyone else, says she has a fair amount of Jason’s gumption in her, along with qualities from all the other members of her family.
“I think I have a little bit of everybody in me – Mum, Dad and Jason. They’ve been really influential,” says Grace.
“I’ve never had another career in mind – acting is all I ever wanted to do. I’ve still got lots to learn but my ultimate goal is to star on the big screen. If I believe in myself, it will happen.”
Janine nods assuredly. “Grace said to me one day, ‘Mum, what’s my Plan B?’ I told her she’s too young to have a Plan B – at 19, it’s A all the way!”
So does their mutual desire for acting careers mean a collaboration between Jason and Grace could be on the cards? “We have talked about it,” says Jason. “We share a great love of comedy and I always thought Grace would do something from that point of view, as she’s so funny.
“I’m so proud of her being on Shortland Street and I know whatever happens, Grace will be fine. She will fly, but with her feet firmly on the ground because, through me, she’s seen the positives and negatives of having a profile in a pretty small country.
“Over the years, people have often asked if I would put my children off getting into showbiz. We’re very proud of all our kids and will be right beside them wherever they choose to take their talents.”
And while Jason continues to support his family, they will be right behind him too as he ventures towards the big screen.
Take a look at Hilary Barry’s family secret here.
About Linda Shackelford
Linda has worked as a journalist for New Zealand’s best-selling weekly women’s national mass market magazines, leading national and regional newspapers. She has also worked in public relations, digital communications, web content writing and marketing, social media and event management roles for a range of companies, entrepreneurs and publications, including technology start-ups. Linda has always been keen to embrace new challenges, learn as much as she can and expand her networks and contacts both in New Zealand and internationally.more of this author