What’s Hot New Zealand catches up with Kiwi actor Jay Laga’aia about being ‘the first Samoan in space’ in Star Wars, his craziest fan requests and how fatherhood has shaped him as an actor ahead of his performance in Peter Pan Goes Wrong this month.
How would you describe Peter Pan Goes Wrong?
The great thing about Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that as an actor – I mean I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed – to have a show that tells you what it’s about in the title … winner winner chicken dinner! It’s a ‘dad show’, you laugh at the most stupidest things and, for kids, it’s a visual show, for example Mr Darling walks in with his jacket over his arm and goes to hang his jacket up on the hook and then the jacket falls down, then they all turn around and look at the door and the hook is actually just painted on! Anyway, stupid things, just little things like that, but they’re magnified. It’s organised chaos. I think the biggest thing with Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that if there is an actual accident we won’t know. I can see myself going “Wow he is a great actor, he looks like he’s really knocked out and that looks like real blood too! Bravo bro, bravo!”
You really have to be a talented actor to pull off a part in the Goes Wrong plays – how do you prepare for such a role?
Firstly, make sure that the contract is signed! You can never celebrate until the contract is signed. Sign the contract, then we’ll dance. It’s difficult when it’s a show you’ve never done before, I’ve never done comedy as such, I do theatre sports and other dramatic stuff, but to do this kind of physical comedy which is sort of old vaudevillian comedy all-in-response kind of comedy, it’s fast, you know it’s Fawlty Towers meets Spike Milligan.
Tell us about your Groundhog Day technique.
It’s the idea of remembering to forget, every night. For us as actors, we have the same text, the same cues and the same scenes, so the trick is to always try and forget as much as you can so you still have a genuine reaction. For me it’s always about ensuring everything comes from a place of truth. Audiences are not stupid, they’ll know if you’re phoning it in and if they don’t feel it, they will not come on that journey with you and our job is to make people forget their lives for three hours. At the end of the day, you have to be able to tell good stories, but you have to be relatable.
You’re pulling double duty as both the narrator and a pirate – which character is most like you?
I think a little bit of both. As much as you are a storyteller, you want to be a player as well. But sometimes you just don’t have the bones for it. I play various characters, but my role as the narrator is a bit like the Rocky Horror narrator and my job is to advance the scene to explain stuff, and ring the fire department if something happens, but it’s a great and pivotal role that allows us to advance if we need to as far as the story is concerned.
With eight children you’re obviously well-versed in multi-tasking – how has being a father shaped you as an actor?
What parenthood has done is allowed me to pretend that I know what I’m doing. My wife goes “I carried them for nine months”, yeah but I’m carrying them for 25 years financially and they just won’t leave the house! It’s also allowed me to, in certain times, lose my ego because you have to get money for that school uniform, a trip or, you know, lunch or anything. For me, I’m a father first and foremost and when people go “I want to do what you do, I want to be famous” I tell them, “If you want to be famous, rob a bank.” Because what I do is a job, 95% of our work is unpaid, it’s training, it’s rehearsals, it’s flying up to do things, it’s freebies, it’s all of that stuff and nine times out of ten, you have to go sideways to go forward. People go “Well, what did you want to do when you were young?” Well, I wanted to be an astronaut – you know, and I’m glad to say that I achieved that. First Samoan in space. And if you don’t believe me, have a look at Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Has anything gone wrong when you’ve been on stage or in front of the camera?
When I did the opening of the Lion King, I had to stand on Pride Rock with Simba and say “Everything the light touches is our kingdom. A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun”, and as I was going through that spiel, an idea popped into my head … did I lock the car? Oh crap! And then in my head I go, I’ve stopped talking, I looked around and I’m still up there, well … what the far out?! All the other characters in the grassland scene were all standing there with boards of grass on their heads and because we’re up high, we can see the grass down there and I’m going where am I? How far along am I? And I look down and all I can see is the grass swaying as they’re laughing and I look down out to the orchestra who are still playing and I could see our conductor looking back at me through the monitor and he’s going “What?! Round! Round again! What?!” and in the end, I had to bite the bullet and I went, “As I said, everything the light touches is our kingdom. A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun”.
You’ve been in two of cinema’s biggest blockbuster franchises, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings – what was it like making these and being part of their legacy?
As a child growing up in South Auckland in ’77 I saved up refundable bottles with my brother so we could go to The Civic to watch Star Wars and I just fell in love with that genre, so working on the series itself was huge for me because I got to meet up with my good mate Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen and I’d say to them, “Don’t stand together, we look like a gang!” We spent most of our time doing shallow stuff like what’s your costume like? And then you walk around and it’s one of the biggest sets I’ve ever worked on where you have 450 on-set and 600 off-set, so when you had lunch it was like a small nation. You had different food all over the place and you’re sitting on-set next to the big blue guy and you eat your meal and everything was confidential – and you end up getting an action figure out of it as well. I was shooting Street Legal and it was hilarious because Hasbro rang me up and said “We can deliver a box to you, and could you sign another box?” And I said, “Oh yeah, sure”, so they deliver this box and I open it up and go “Wow” and the other cast members come around and go “Ohhhh, you got a toy?!” And I went “Oh, oh now you respect me.”
And how about watching these movies with your family?
Kids are always really hilarious because they will watch it on their own and only acknowledge you when they’ve got friends around. My nine-year-old acts like my publicist, she goes “Yes, this is Jay Laga’aia”, it’s funny when you go out with your kids and people are like “Are you Jay Laga’aia?” and they interject and go “Yes! This is Jay, you’ve probably seen him on shows such as Home and Away, Nim’s Island …” and I go “OK, OK you need to be quiet now”.
These films have a very specific fan base – what’s been your most unusual fan request?
Doing Star Wars you have some crazy convention goers and I do some big conventions like [Star Wars] Celebration and with doing Star Wars and Xena and all of that stuff, the fans do go a bit crazy. We had fans in Manila who were just wonderful. They’d come to the stage door, get signatures and give you gifts like dried shrimp and packaged things, and the cast would go “Why are they giving us this crap?” and I go “You need to understand, they would have had to have paid money for this, they bought you something instead of buying something for themselves”. Or you have those people like when I was doing Water Rats that come up and go “Will you sign my breasts?” and I go “Yeah, no”, and you realise that you have to represent people and you have to have your own code of conduct. Grab a piece of paper or your hand, I don’t sign butts and I don’t sign breasts – I don’t play rugby league.
What was the career plan when you started out on Heroes?
Well it’s interesting because Heroes was the first production that I did for TVNZ and with director Mike Smith, working alongside Margaret Umbers, and they said they were looking for musicians so I show up and I played like eight or nine different instruments and I thought I was pretty cool and then they gave me a script and I read it like a three-year-old and I thought well, there goes that idea. You just go in for a laugh and you don’t expect anything. I mean, I wasn’t an actor, but I got a phone call and they were like “We’d love to cast you in a role” and I went “All right”. So I went in there and I did the first series … I was terrible. I saw some of the snippets and I just went “Holy moly”. It’s one of those things where you just want to talk over yourself.
What has been the most surreal moment in your career to date?
Every day is a real surreal experience for me. A friend who was a professional driver for international guests rang up and said, “Guess who I’m driving?” and I go “Who?” and he responds with “Sam Neill, he’s doing this whole series of the new James Cook travel show”, and I go “Sammy! Say hello to Sammy for me all right and send him my best”. I did Daybreakers, which is a vampire movie, with him, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe and we had a great time. I’d go next door because I was doing Nim’s Island at the time with Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler. And we went over there to scare them because we had our fangs and eyes in and it was lots of fun. It’s funny, because I’ve had people like Russell Crowe ring me up and leave a voicemail. I go to my wife “Someone just did the greatest Russell Crowe impression on my cell phone”, and she goes “Well, did you ring him back?” And I’m like “No?” So I ring him back, reach his voicemail and I leave a message: “Yeah Russ, uh, you rang me, just drop me a line … mate” and I went, “Russell Crowe rang me and he probably wants me to be in a movie, no hold on, what’s the lowest common denominator? He’s got a rugby league team”. Sure enough, he says “Bro, is it possible to get you up? My team is coming up to Coffs Harbour, I’d love you to come up and just do some inspirational stuff with them you know, have a chat with them”. And I go, “Sure bro, not a problem”.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t let your acting get in the way of the story.
Favourite way to spend a Sunday afternoon?
Kicking back watching the All Blacks playing somebody, with a cup of tea and maybe some apple pie or a blueberry muffin and all the kids somewhere else.
What TV show are you addicted to?
I’m not so much addicted to a lot of TV shows but I do love the idea of Netflix, the idea of streaming and the idea of being able to just go back to a show and it’s waiting for you, it’s stopped where you left it. I think one of the biggest things that really annoys me is when my daughter starts to like the show that I’m watching and changes the episode to her episode and then you open that up and go “Hey, wait hold on … I’ve seen this before”.
The Civic, Auckland, Oct 31– Nov 18
Opera House, Wellington Nov 21 -15
Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, Nov 28 – Dec 2
Hero image credit: Brian Geach
Last image credit: Jeff Busby