wilderpeople-posterRaised on hip-hop and foster care, defiant city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) gets a fresh start in the New Zealand countryside. He quickly finds himself at home with his new foster family: loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), and Ricky’s dog Tupac. When a tragedy strikes that threatens to ship Ricky to another home, he and Hec go on the run deep into the Bush. As a national manhunt ensues, the newly branded outlaws must face their options: go out in a blaze of glory or overcome their differences and survive as a family.  Equal parts buddy road comedy and rousing adventure story, director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows and the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak) masterfully weaves humor with riveting, emotionally honest performances by Sam Neill and 13-year-old Julian Dennison. The hilarious and deeply moving Hunt for the Wilderpeople reminds us about the journey that growing up is (at any age) and the importance of those who help us along the way. I sat down with New Zealand’s rising star Julian Dennison during his first trip to Los Angeles.

Danny Miller: That was such a fantastic star-making performance, Julian. How did you get the part in this film? Was it a long casting process?

Julian Dennison: No, I didn’t even have to audition — Taika gave me the part! I made this “don’t take drugs and drive” commercial with him a few years ago that went pretty viral in New Zealand and Australia. Taika kept saying he wanted to put me in one of his projects so when this film came along, he told me he thought I was a perfect fit for the part of Ricky Baker.

There aren’t that many movies where someone your age is in virtually every scene. Did that make you nervous at all?

Yeah, definitely! I was pretty nervous the first few weeks and kept reminding myself to take it slow and steady, but I did feel like I had a lot on my shoulders during the shoot.

Ricky goes through a lot of heavy emotions, too.

Absolutely. I was lucky because I got to spend a lot of time with Taika and Sam before we started shooting. We talked about all the difficult experiences Ricky Baker had gone through before we meet him and how this was kind of his last chance. Taiki and Sam really helped me get into character. I also worked a lot with my dialogue coach, Rachel House, who plays Paula, the social worker in the film.

Oh, she was great in that part!

Yeah, she is an amazing lady who helped me a lot.

I was about 40 minutes into the film when I suddenly said, “Oh, THAT is Sam Neill? I didn’t even recognize him at first! His New Zealand accent sounded very authentic.

Yeah, but he actually IS from New Zealand! I thought he was British myself because he plays a lot of Brits and seems very posh but his dad was from New Zealand and they moved back there when he was a little kid. Sam is a really chill guy and he helped me so much, it was great working with him.


Were there any scenes in the film that were particularly difficult to shoot?

The most challenging scene was probably the one on the waterfall — we were harnessed on the top of this 100-foot waterfall and I’m not really a heights person so I was scared to death. Sam was great and just kept saying to me, “Nothing is going to happen, Julian, you’re completely safe, you’re not going to fall. We’ve all got your back.” It was just awesome getting to work so closely with Sam and Taika, I totally felt like I could trust them.

Were you familiar with the book that the film was based on?

Yeah, Barry Crump was a very well known author and Bushman in New Zealand. This movie was based on his book, Wild Pork & Watercress. One of his sons was actually in the film so I got to talk to him which was cool. Taika had to change some things from the book, especially to make it into a family film, but he did a great job capturing the spirit of the book.

It’s great to hear how successful this film was in New Zealand — wasn’t it the largest-grossing film in New Zealand history?

Yeah, it was incredibly well received at home and in Australia, and now we hope people around the world will like it, too. And it really shows off our beautiful country which I’m happy about.


I would so love to visit there some day. What’s it like starring in the biggest film in the country? Do people recognize you in the street now?

Yeah, I’ll be walking down the street and hear people shouting, “Ricky Baker!” And some people still recognize me from the commercial I did with Taiko years ago. My friends at school make fun of me a little bit. They’ll walk up to me and say, “Oh, you didn’t come to school in your limo today?”

How are you enjoying the United States? This is your first trip here, right?

This is my first time in Los Angeles but earlier this year we took the film to Sundance which was awesome. It’s been a great experience, I love this country. We showed the film here last night and during the Q&A this guy who used to be a Foster kid told me that I really captured the pain of that experience well which made me feel really good. I was really stoked about that, because we wanted to get that right.

Would you like to make an American movie?

Oh yeah, I’d love to, that would be awesome. I’m still working on my American accent. I would love to be in a Marvel film, me and my friends love those. But any film would be great, I’d love to see how they do things here. 

So you see yourself staying in the movie industry as you get older?

Oh, definitely, I’d actually love to be a director at some point. During the making of this film I was able to see all of the things that go into making a movie and that really fascinated me. Taika had a very clear vision and it’s amazing to see that vision come to life. He really inspired me to want to be a director.

Didn’t I hear that Taika was directing the next Thor movie? There’s your chance to be in a Marvel film!

Yeah, I’m super excited for him. And you’re right — maybe I could play Thor’s long-lost younger brother or something!