Born in Lancashire, England in 1957, Michael moved to New Zealand with his family in June 1966. He grew up in Christchurch, attending Papanui High School and Canterbury University.
In 1976, at age 18, Michael began an acting apprenticeship at The Court Theatre. Two years later he moved to Auckland to work at Raymond Hawthorne's Theatre Corporate, where from 1979 to 1983 he performed and trained with a permanent company of actors and directors, exploring everything from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Kafka and Arthur Miller; Gilbert and Sullivan, Brecht and Tennessee Williams; Commedia Del'Arte, Restoration theatre, musicals and children's theatre. It was an intense and fruitful period during which he gained skills and insights which have served him as both actor and director to this day. Notable roles were Joseph K in The Trial, Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, The Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Macbeth, and Arnold Beckoff in Torch Song Trilogy.
From 1983 he worked with Mercury Theatre and performed roles such as Mozart in Amadeus, Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Koko in The Mikado, to great acclaim. It was here that he directed his first major production, The Merchant of Venice, in 1991. The following year he directed Lysistrata at Downstage Theatre.
In 1990 Michael was one of the founders of Watershed Theatre in Auckland's Viaduct Basin, where he directed and acted in many productions including Hamlet, Cabaret and his own children's pantomimes Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk. He also performed with acclaimed alternative theatre group Inside Out Theatre, and starred in their 1992 production of The Holy Sinner. It was a sensation, and was re-staged at the NZ International Festival of the Arts in Wellington in 1994. In 1992 and 1993, he directed Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet for the Herald Theatre, productions that defined his approach to Shakespeare and were totally sold out.
As well as acting and directing, Michael was involved with The Performing Arts Centre, teaching drama to teens and helping to fundraise for what is now The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC).
In 1993, Michael achieved international stardom playing Iolaus in the 6-year run of US tv series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. In 1996 he was given the opportunity to direct a Hercules episode, and went on to direct more than a dozen episodes of Hercules and companion series Xena: Warrior Princess and Jack of All Trades. He received two NZ Film and Television Awards for Hercules: Best Supporting Actor (Drama) in 1997, and Best Director (Comedy) in 1999. In 1999 he also directed his first feature film, Jubilee, for South Pacific Pictures, followed by the tele-movie Love Mussel for TV3 in 2001, and two children's feature films in 2004.
Once Hercules ended, Michael turned his attention back to theatre. He worked extensively with Auckland Theatre Company, playing lead roles in productions such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Waiting For Godot, The Rocky Horror Show, Goldie, The Duchess of Malfi, and Blackbird. In 2006 he directed a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which Listener magazine named "best production of the year". Recent ATC productions were both very successful: playing the roles of the Emcee in Cabaret (which he also directed), and Mark Rothko in John Logan's brilliant play Red. He also created a theatrical production of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, directing 33 volunteer cast members over age 65, many with no experience. It met with high critical acclaim.
Michael has been very involved with Silo Theatre, starring in highly popular and critically successful productions of The Mystery of Irma Vep and Edward Albee's The Goat, as well as directing six plays, including two that were part of Silo's innovative young actor training initiative, The Ensemble Project. He was a Silo Artistic Associate from 2007-2011.
In 2003 he co-founded theatre company The Large Group, which staged Hamlet as its first production. Michael was producer, director, and star, and it was, according to the Sunday-Star Times, "the finest Shakespearean production in a decade". In 2008 he directed The Threepenny Opera, a Silo Theatre/The Large Group co-production; Metro named it "Best Play" of the year, and Michael "Best Director". Also in 2008 Michael directed his first opera, Hansel and Gretel, staged by NBR New Zealand Opera.
Michael has still been a popular screen actor since Hercules, with numerous starring, core cast and guest-starring roles on television, as well as major roles in six films.
Beginning in 2008, Michael was once again heavily involved with making U.S. television, directing seven episodes of Legend of the Seeker and six (so far) of Spartacus. He was also a producer for Spartacus' second season.
In 2010, he became Chair of the AUSA Outdoor Shakespeare Trust, and in 2011 was one of seven actors to co-found The Actors' Program, a rigorous, practice-based, year-long course to train adult actors for stage and screen.
Michael received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2003, and an ONZM (Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit) in 2005 "for services to film and the theatre".
He is happily married to actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand and they have two sons. In 2003 Michael and Jennifer were made the Patrons of The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC). In 2005 they became Champions of Auckland's New Theatre Initiative (now Q Theatre) and in 2010 they were named the Patrons of Q Theatre.