This time last year, few people had heard the name Julian Dennison. While not quite an average teen – the young actor from New Zealand had made a couple of film appearances, of varying size and substance – most moviegoers would have struggled to pick him out of a line-up.
Then came Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a lauded Kiwi comedy-drama in which Dennison takes the lead alongside Jurassic Park star Sam Neill. It has been a hit with critics and audiences alike – it has a 98 per cent approval rating on review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, and won audience-choice awards at festivals from Edinburgh to San Francisco.
In its home country, the film is a bona fide phenomenon, officially the highest-grossing New Zealand film to date.
All of which means that this precocious 13-year-old is suddenly an unlikely superstar. What’s the worst thing about this sudden rise to fame?
“The hardest thing is when you’re in public and you need to go to the toilet, and someone asks for a photo,” says Dennison. “And their phone is either flat, dead, or they’ve turned it off completely. You’re trying to rush to the toilet and they want your autograph – and I hate saying no, I feel so bad.
“[The film] has changed my life. I’ve realised that it is pretty awesome that people recognise you – but you’ve also got to keep grounded. I do miss being able to just walk down the street with my friends.”
Dennison was in Dubai last week, celebrating the film’s UAE release, which was marked with a red-carpet premiere at Vox Mall of the Emirates on Wednesday, hosted by the Dubai International Film Festival.
A touching buddy comedy-drama about a rebellious hip-hop-loving orphan (Dennison) and a grumpy father figure (Neill) on the run in the New Zealand wilderness, the film is on general release now.
Dennison arrived in Dubai fresh from his latest round of promotional duties, in London, where he embarrassed Neill on national television by admitting he had not heard of his veteran co-star before filming – and had fallen asleep while watching him in dinosaur adventure Jurassic Park.
When we spoke to the teenager, he had been in the Emirates less than 36 hours and was looking forward to a trip to the capital and visits to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Emirates Palace. However, he was already deliberating whether Dubai might be his favourite city in the world.
“It’s in the top two – it probably is the top. Probably,” he says. “Number one? About a week ago we got back from London and a few days later we’re here. It’s so hard – definitely Dubai is, yes, it is the top, actually. Maybe. It’s so nice here, the weather’s always good and sunny.”
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the latest film from celebrated Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi. It broke the record for New Zealand's highest-grossing film, which was set by his 2010 movie Boy. He also co-directed the 2014 cult vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, alongside Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement.
Dennison says he would “absolutely love” to work with the director again, describing him as a role model and mentor. The youngster is also already talking about moving into directing himself, saying his ideal project would be something similarly “funny but on the meaningful side”.
But for all his success, charm and confidence, Dennison is still an adolescent – and he admits his biggest acting dream is to appear in a superhero movie. Then again, that might be many an adult's dream, too. He should have a word with Waititi, who has been filming Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel.
“Before I found out you couldn’t get bitten by a radioactive spider and shoot webs out of your wrist, I wanted to be a superhero when I grew up, until I was, like, 8,” he says. “It would be a really great to do a Marvel film – not even playing a superhero, just being part of that universe would be amazing.”
Aside from this, where does he see himself in five years?
“A little bit taller, maybe driving a car,” he says. “A lot of people have been asking about Hollywood – we have been getting stuff sent over from America we’re looking at, so we might have some stuff over there.”
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in cinemas now