“I’ve been a creature, a monster or a superhero since 2010.”
It’s not a comment you’ll hear very often, but for Wellington man Allan Henry (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Ruanui), it’s his normal.
“I am a creature performer. Motion capture performance is my kind of flavour — I enjoy performing, and I love being an actor, but the times when I get to be something not quite human gives me that extra bit of enjoyment.”
His latest work sees him play ‘Cokey’ in the new film ‘Cocaine Bear’. Directed by Elizabeth Banks, this comedy thriller is inspired by the true story of an American black bear that ingested 34kg of cocaine dumped by drug smugglers.
“It’s definitely the most outrageous film I’ve worked on. We had the funnest time,” says Allan.
Over the past decade or so, Allan has played numerous ‘creatures’, including King Kong, apes, trolls, ogres and superheroes in films like ‘Godzilla vs Kong’, ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘The Hunger Games’.
Despite his years of experience, playing a black bear, let alone a coke-fuelled bear that goes on a rampage, presented a new challenge.
“Other roles I’ve played have been more humanistic, whereas Cokey is a straight-up black bear. It’s an animal that actually exists, so all movements had to be authentic.”
Before he headed to Ireland for five months of filming, Allan spent countless hours researching all things bears.
He watched nature documentaries, CCTV footage, camera footage, and paid numerous visits to observe sun bear Sasa at Wellington Zoo and listen to zookeepers’ talks.
“There’s a level of ease and presence that a bear has — they’re just present in the moment. And with Sasa, I observed the way she moved through her enclosure, the way she interacted with food and her surroundings.”
On set and ready to put his learnings into action, he donned tight black Lycra, matte black sneakers, a balaclava and gloves.
To complete the look, he had a helmet with a large silicone snout and metal extensions attached to his forearms so he could take the same shape as a bear when running on all fours.
“On the side of a mountain in a warm Irish autumn with the sun blaring, here I am wearing black Lycra,” laughs Allan.
“I’ve been wearing Lycra for so long now it’s incredibly comfortable, but at first on set, it’s very confronting, and the crew had to get real comfortable with a lot of stuff real fast.
Running as a quadruped for often lengthy periods proved challenging.
“The hardest scene was where I maul the hiker on the side of a mountain — I did the initial drag, then it was literally me just picking up another human being and trying to thrash them around as powerfully and as quickly as a black bear would, while they were struggling to get away from me.
“Add to the mix the very technical aspect of keeping this person safe, keeping myself safe on the side of a mountain, throwing them on the mat, not the rocks, and it’s a really complex situation to be in.
“And there’s no deviating from bear positions because everything I did went back for post-production work by the artists at [Wellington-based] Wētā FX.”
Allan has since seen the movie, which he is super proud of, not from status but because it was such a fun project.
“I had a blast. I loved reliving those moments, and there were scenes when my body literally twitched from remembering having to climb, run, jump...”
Born in Patea, Allan has always been active and physical. Growing up he’d skateboard, ride bikes, climb trees, leap off walls, jump off sand dunes and got into martial arts. In those days, he also wanted to be a cartoon character.
“Cartoon characters get to do anything they want. They can have fun falling off cliffs and or being run over by a train and be fine.”
Allan eventually got to play his cartoon character equivalent in his first performance capture gig working for Wētā on Tintin in 2010. A few decades on, Allan says his dream continues to manifest.
“There’s still more I want to do — recently I started doing cinematics for video games. That’s the next level of the dream.”
But as he tells his 10-year-old son Gus, who has already played a few creatures like his Dad, dreams must be fought for.
“I grew up in a low socio-economic neighbourhood with few opportunities for young people, so I had to really fight for the dream and fight to make the dream work.
“Life isn’t easy. If the dream job lands in your lap, you’ve still got to work hard and keep that momentum going. Dreams don’t self-perpetuate. You’ve really got to put the work in.”