I don’t know many prime ministers. Actually, just one, John Key, who has been prime minister of New Zealand since 2008. So I was chagrined to see that Key is planning to resign his post as of December 12, clearing the way for a succession vote, and capping the political career of The Hobbit‘s best friend.
In 2010, Key re-wrote the book on international film incentives by striking an agreement under which New Zealand contributed more than $100 million in production and marketing funds for The Hobbit series, from native son Peter Jackson and Warner Bros. When a labor dispute threatened the deal, Key persuaded his conservative-leaning National Party to back a re-write of the country’s labor laws, to make things easier for the producers. Ultimately, Warner spent at least $500 million on the films in New Zealand, and created thousands of film jobs. But the bigger coup for Key — whose free market philosophy had been tempered by a pragmatic realization that New Zealand wanted those movies, at almost any price — was the wave of enthusiasm that greeted New Zealand’s renewed identity as the real-life version of Middle Earth. He was re-elected twice, in 2011 and 2014.
Somewhere in between, I met Key twice. The first time was in his Wellington office, where he started an interview by swinging a mean-looking Hobbit sword around his head. He said it was used in the movies by Frodo Baggins, and had been given to him by Barack Obama. How Obama got it was never quite clear, but Hobbit things and rings have a way of making the rounds. More memorable than his economic arguments for the massive film subsidies — a tiny country of just 4.4 million, New Zealand was slashing its education budget even as money flowed to Warner —was Key’s self-deprecating charm. He was completely earnest, given to little flashes of self-doubt, and, somehow, sort of funny.
He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t pin it down. Not Bill Clinton, though he had that good-looking politician-thing going. Not George W. Bush, though almost everyone in New Zealand has a certain down-home quality.
It was only when I saw Key again later, this time in a Universal City hotel suite, where he was just back from some grueling visits with various studio chiefs, that I finally got it.
Key’s tie was off. He was rumpled and exhausted: When you run a country with barely more people than the city of Los Angeles, you come to Hollywood, Hollywood doesn’t come to you.
Political opponents had been accusing him of kow-towing to the studios in handling the Kim Dotcom extradition case. Some even accused him of turning New Zealand into the “51st state.”
But Key was in good cheer. And he graciously found time to freshen up his earlier, sword-swinging interview, which had become outdated as the New York Times, my then-employer, left it sitting over-long in an editing hopper.
In that hotel room, it hit me. John Key was Hugh Grant — the one in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. Remember, Grant played a hopelessly charming British prime minister named David, who was trying to stand up for his smallish nation, without ever standing too tall.
“I’m very busy and important,” Grant’s David once answered his own phone. “How can I help you?” That’s John Key.