Long roads, lost words: James Rolleston on his crash recovery

Photography/ Josh Griggs

Actor James Rolleston spent five weeks in a coma last year after a serious car crash. Now, sometimes struggling for words, he’s combining a slow-but-steady recovery with a national road trip to promote his latest movie.

When news broke last July of an accident in Ōpōtiki in which two 19-year-olds had to be cut from a mangled car on Ōtara Bridge, it was only three days after the film The Rehearsal’s world premiere in Auckland.

James Rolleston’s performance in the film as Stanley, a wide-eyed student in his first year of drama school, further cemented his role as a crucial player on New Zealand screens, adding to an impressive back catalogue that includes his imaginative and open-hearted Alamein (in Boy, 2010); his vulnerable, soon-to-be-patched son of a gang leader, Mana (The Dark Horse, 2014); and Hongi, a fierce teenager avenging the murder of his Māori chieftain father (The Dead Lands, 2014). Exceptionally chosen, his roles have been characterised by a playful intelligence and an understated strength of spirit.

As most people know now, Rolleston was in that car that night. He was flown to Waikato Hospital’s intensive care unit and placed in an induced coma with a long list of injuries, including fractures to his lower left leg and broken bones in his right arm, pelvis, thigh and knee. He had multiple brain bleeds. Days went by. His childhood friend Kaleb Maxwell, who had been in the car at the time of the crash, sent him a letter from his hospital bed. “We still have plenty of memories to make,” he wrote, “so keep being a stubborn hua aye.”

It took five weeks for Rolleston to come to, followed by months of intensive rehab. He had to learn how to walk and talk again. When we meet at his publicist’s office on Karangahape Road, it’s been six months since the crash. He’s walking with a slight limp and there are moments when he loses his train of thought, but his eyes glint mischievously as he jokes about the extensive rehab he’s been doing. “It’s similar activities to physio,” he explains. “Lots of stretches… just getting back on the bench-pressing, pushing a few weights around.” I nod with dumb enthusiasm and he laughs. “Nah,” he says. “It’s all really soft and light.”

He doesn’t remember anything from the time of the accident. “The only thing I remember is having that premiere for The Rehearsal,” he says. “And then I woke up in hospital four weeks later.” He was confused about why he was there. “I didn’t know I’d done any damage to my body.” He wasn’t in pain. He didn’t know he’d broken anything – he’d never broken a bone in his life (“I did a pretty good job, I must say,” he jokes). All he knew is that he was feeling a bit ill.

“I was questioning all the nurses about how I’d got in here, and they were telling me that I was in a car accident, and I was like... who was driving the car? And they said

I was. And I was asking if there were any other passengers in the car, and if they were alright.”

He visibly perks up when I ask about Kaleb. “He’s back at work,” he tells me. “Yeah nah, he’s doing awesome.” The pair spent New Year’s together, and Rolleston has spent the weeks since then making little trips around New Zealand with his girlfriend.

Although the accident has had a momentous impact on his life, he tells me nothing’s changed – he’s the same old James, though he feels particularly lucky. “This has been my first really big barrier I’ve had to work through,” he says, “in terms of my career. I feel like I got it quite easy compared to a lot of people.”

Rolleston and his two older brothers grew up in Ōpōtiki and Auckland, moving between their mum, their grandmother and their uncle. He never knew his father (“I’m not sure if he knows about me”) and he tells me that probably the biggest challenge he had growing up was having a mother with bipolar disorder. But, he clarifies,

“I wouldn’t even call it a challenge. She’d be well one moment,” he remembers, “and then she’d get sick, and she’d be a whole different person. She’d be a whole different person for a month or so until she got well.” 

He learned to recognise when she wasn’t well. “There were little things she’d do. Just watching videos, she’d turn the music up real loud. Or she’d begin talking to nobody, or hearing voices, or you’d notice her looking into nothing. Just staring into a corner. She’d snap out of it and then carry on doing what she was doing, but we noticed the small things before it got real heavy.”

He speaks about his mum with a deep affection, and tells me he had “an awesome upbringing” surrounded by his family. His grandmother has played a significant role in his life, and he smiles broadly when I ask him what she’s like. “She’s a funny old lady,” he tells me. “She’s the best. She’s been part of my career since Boy, and she’s been my number one supporter.”

His mum has been with him in Auckland through his rehabilitation, and has been driving him around while he recovers. I ask if he’s nervous about getting behind the wheel again and he shakes his head. “I think it was a good thing I don’t remember a lot of what happened.” He’s half-joking, but he’s half-serious. “I’d probably be traumatised.”

Rolleston’s year has been marked by two road stories: the one he can’t remember, but feels traces of everyday, and his latest project, which he can remember – although even here, truth is relayed with uncertain faith. 

“Pork Pie was shot early last year I believe,” he says, as though he doesn’t trust his own memory.

Directed by Matt Murphy – son of Geoff Murphy, who directed the original – the film is a modern take on the 1981 classic Goodbye Pork Pie. It sees Rolleston join Dean O’Gorman and Ashleigh Cummings as they evade the law in a bright yellow Mini. “I love comedy films,” he says, “and this was my first since Boy. That’s what caught my eye: that this was such a funny, joyful film.”

Rolleston tells me it’s his favourite film he’s worked on so far. “It was an awesome cast and crew,” he says. “Dean and Ashleigh are awesome people to work with. Just travelling the length of New Zealand together and seeing all these beautiful parts of the country.”

They’re doing a nationwide tour, driving throughout New Zealand to promote the new film, and then he’s devoting the rest of the year to his recovery. “Just so I can get to 100 percent.” His goal is to get back into work next summer. “I still want to make movies here in New Zealand. It’s a massive goal of mine. But at the moment, I’m just trying to focus on getting better and getting my confidence back.” 

It’s been a big part of his recovery: accepting there are things he can’t do. “The thing I’ve most struggled with since the accident,” he tells me, “is my speech. My speech has been a massive struggle.” Five months ago, he found it difficult to complete a sentence. “I couldn’t read a book without having to pause for a few seconds every line, because I needed to practise pronouncing words. I needed to think about it in my head.” In addition to going to physical therapy three times a week, he’s constantly reading out loud, practising his pronunciation. “Articles, books, any small thing.” He’s reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist to his girlfriend at the moment. “My typical day,” he grins, “is not a very exciting day.”

I ask him how he’d describe the year that’s just been. He thinks about it for a moment. Seconds go by. “Gee, I’m sorry,” he says eventually. “I’m trying, but I can’t find the words.” The photographer arrives at that moment, so we decide to take a break. Rolleston jokes with us as we weave our way around the back alleys of Cross Street. “You gotta watch out for me,” he says as he stands in the middle of the road for a photo. “I don’t want to get into another accident.”

When we’re back in the office, I ask him the question again: How would he describe his year? He nods, and stares at the ground. His silence stretches across the room, and in that space I think about how far he’s come, how rapid his recovery has been, how graceful he is in his determination and how – in the middle of it all, in the little time that’s actually passed – he’s still processing everything that’s happened, and everything he can’t remember, searching for words that don’t yet exist.