TV & Radio
You can read Oscar Kightley's official biography on the NZ On Screen website, but his story's also written in tattoos.
He was born Vai Osa To'elau Mase in September, 1969 in Apia, Samoa ("Samoa" on his right arm; coconut trees and the five stars of the Samoan flag on his left arm). At four, after the death of his father (name on right arm) he was sent to Te Atatu in West Auckland to be raised by his aunt (dragon on his ribs) and his uncle (name on right arm). Osa became Oscar and he picked up a new last name. Desperately homesick, unable to speak a word of English, and missing his mother who wouldn't migrate to New Zealand until he was eight, Osa/Oscar would sit next to the big hibiscus tree in the backyard (hibiscus flower on right arm), "because it felt like being close to home. I'd look around and see concrete and houses, but sitting next to that tree offered me some degree of peace. I was a strange child."
Post school, he was a reporter on the Auckland Star, dabbled in radio and worked for teen TV show Life in the Fridge Exists. At 21, a trip to Samoa affected him deeply. In New Zealand, the Samoans he knew were the cleaners or the security guards. His adoptive father was a machine operator. Back in Samoa, "the doctors, the lawyers, the bankers - everyone is just Samoan and it's normal.
"After being away for 17 years I'd almost assumed the minority mentality of feeling a bit downtrodden. There's a certain amount of changing you do to fit in, and I'd gone quite far from myself. After I went back to the source and saw where I'd sprung from, I thought f..., I've spent 17 years pretending to be someone else."
Back in New Zealand he co-founded a theatre company, Pacific Underground, and wrote a number of serious plays addressing immigration and identity and such, "with just the odd funny scene for some light relief". In the late '90s he and four friends - Dave Fane, Mario Gaoa, Shimpal Lelisi and Robbie Magasiva - formed a theatrical comedy troupe ("Naked Samoans" tattoo, upper back) which became the springboard for TV's Bro'Town and the hit movie Sione's Wedding.
In 2009 he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to theatre and TV (whopping great tatt of the medal on his chest). And the wolf tattoo on his left arm? What does that mean? "I love wolves. That's all."
The rooster on his back is for the Te Atatu Roosters rugby league team. It also connects right back to his birthplace. "Coming from Samoa, if it's not jandals or people laughing, it's f...ing roosters you'll hear all the time - every hour of the day."Kightley has heard his share of laughter in New Zealand too, of course.
He can do scatological silliness (though he claims there are deeper messages beneath Bro'Town's poo and wee jokes). He can do touchingly nerdy, as with his gently underplayed performance as Albert in Sione's Wedding, and noisily anarchic, when on stage with The Nakeds.But Kightley's pretty sure no one's going to crack a smile at his latest role. In TV3's upcoming six-part cop drama Harry, he plays a talented but troubled Auckland police detective struggling to manage a methamphetamine-fuelled crimewave on the streets and a meltdown in his personal life that's left him raising his teen daughter alone.
Kightley co-wrote the show, which also stars Sam Neill. Going by the rough-cut first episode seen by Sunday, it's going to be gritty, downbeat stuff - something more for fans of The Wire or Cracker than of CSI, NCIS, "and all the other shows with initials". The crims are scary and their acts brutal. The first episode is filmed beautifully, but mainly with the lights off, and both Kightley and the city of Auckland look exhausted and miserable.
During filming, Kightley had to iron out his "natural impetus" to take the piss, instead getting all his "funny thoughts" out of his system during rehearsal. Still, it's easier, he says, for comedic actors to switch to serious roles than the other way round. Robbie Coltrane made a good fist of playing a cynical crime-busting shrink in Cracker. "Billy Connelly is another one."
In any case, "I got work in comedy because that was the work I was offered, but I'm quite a serious person generally. I'm not one of those guys who walks into a room and starts cracking a gag. I find that exhausting."
Kightley meets Sunday at a café in Auckland's Karangahape Rd, not far from a studio where he's editing the second season of Madeleine Sami's TV comedy Super City, which he directed. He turns down a beer, though you can tell he's tempted.
"I've got to go back to the edit. I'd feel bad for the poor editors stuck in a black box." A long black then, and later, a pineapple juice. He's 43. He's wearing jeans, a blue check shirt and a nice green Crane Brothers jacket. He has a vast collection of baseball caps but today wears a dark beret, which doesn't quite hide the fact that the close-shaved hair on his temples is turning white.
It's true - Kightley is a serious kind of guy. His default expression lies somewhere between hangdog and puzzled. His answers to questions are thoughtful and considered. He quotes Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw and whoever it was that said a work of art isn't finished until an audience has seen it. At one point he says: "I'm quite melancholy. I'm quite into the beauty of sadness."
Yet always there's a good-humoured warmth just below the surface which occasionally breaks through, as a huge face-splitting grin, or a high, husky giggle. He seems a thoroughly nice guy. Halfway through the interview, a woman who's been sitting at a nearby table comes over to ask if she can take a photo of Kightley as he talks. Sure, he says. She asks for his name so she can caption him on her website and when he writes it down the penny drops. "Oh you're that animation man!... I'm so proud that I wanted to photograph you because of how you looked, and not because [you're famous]."
"I'm really proud of that too," says Kightley. I think he actually means it.
In Harry, Kightley mooches about looking lean and drawn. It's not just acting: in the grand Hollywood tradition, Kightley has resculpted himself for a role, by finally taking the advice his Adonis-like friend Magasiva (most recently seen as Shortland Street's Dr Maxwell Avia) has been giving for years. Two years before shooting began Kightley headed for the gym, and cut out the sausage rolls and whole packets of chocolate biscuits.
"You can't have a fat cop running around representing New Zealand police." Once, he had "a bit of a siege mentality" about the police. Pacific Islanders have unpleasant memories of the dawn raids of the 1970s and 1980s. As a young brown Aucklander, Kightley was often pulled over when driving. It still happens.
"Sometimes they'll just see the cap and think, 'Oooh, hoodlum' and pull you over." He's mellower now. It has helped to have friends who joined the police. Making Harry, he hung out with real-life cops and liked their style - literally.
"That's what you notice about New Zealand detectives; they have a dress code that's sharp. If I was a crook I would shit myself if I had to be interviewed by these sharp-dressed guys." As well as gym workouts, he's been swimming, taking lessons as part of a Water Safety New Zealand publicity campaign.
"I'm learning swimming, and I'm learning piano. Total midlife-crisis stuff." Is he really having a midlife crisis? "Yeah. Some people buy Harleys, others join the gym."
Kightley drives "a sensible silver car. A Mitsubishi something." He used to have a lovely blue 1996 Mercedes with lowered suspension, but "a motorbike crashed into me and the insurance company wrote it off. I loved that car." Isn't his bank balance healthy enough for nice new wheels? "Not as healthy as I would wish. Not at all. I'm still renting." What's he spent all his film and TV earnings on? "Living. People think because you're on TV all the time that you must be raking it in, but often well-known actors are actually counting their coins on the way to an audition, hoping like f... they'll get a job."
A few years ago, says Kightley, he tried to get "all Buddhist, and try not to attach myself to any outcomes. To remove that 'I want' part of your ego. "It's going really well." He laughs in a way that suggests it isn't. "You know. If you don't want stuff, you don't get it."
Kightley used to rent in Auckland's arty central-city suburb of Grey Lynn. His housemates were musician Scribe and Shortland Street actor (and one-time girlfriend) Teuila Blakely. Now Scribe's in Wellington, Blakely's out west, and Kightley lives alone in an apartment in Kingsland. He's single. "My mum has been hassling me since I was 10 for a grandchild and I would like to give her one - a few - at some stage. I'm not averse to it. I'd love to. Just other stuff's been happening at the moment."
Getting Harry off the ground was tough. "I don't know whether it was trying to sell the idea of me having a dramatic role, or a story with a Samoan character as lead, but NZ on Air took a whole lot of convincing and pushing and pitching." To the excitement of all involved, Sam Neill took a key role as Harry's boss. How does it feel to have a bona fide Hollywood star as your supporting actor? "I never saw him as secondary," says Kightley. "He's a truly legit, heavyweight star. It was hard being in scenes with him because I wanted to watch him work, then, 'Ooh f..., I've got a line.'"
Everything about Neill was cool, says Kightley. "How he would enter scenes. How he would move. Just his cool voice." He hopes Harry is a success, but has given up second-guessing the public. He was part of the comedy "dream team" (including Jemaine Clement, Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi) that created avant-garde sketch show Radiradirah. Kightley still likes it, but viewers mainly didn't.
Bro'Town was meant to be for adults - a subtly subversive show about brown boys adrift in a world of useless adults and low expectations - but was a hit with surprisingly young viewers. "A woman came up to me on Mt Eden Rd and said, 'How am I meant to explain erections to my six-year-old?' I was like, 'Don't let him watch it!'" With Harry, he and his co-creators have just tried to make something good - the kind of TV they'd like to watch.
Recently, Kightley gave a speech to pupils at his old high school, Rutherford College in Te Atatu. He talked about the school motto, based on a Maori saying. "The saying wasn't 'Hit the sun'. It wasn't 'Shoot for the stars'. It was 'Strive as you would strive for food when you're hungry'. When you grow up knowing sometimes what being hungry feels like, you really relate to that."He told the audience he'd applied the motto to his life. "It wasn't about being a success; it's about just trying. Even if you don't believe in yourself, you still try. That was the guts of my speech.
"Did the kids clap? "Yeah. Especially when I showed them my stomach tattoo, which said 'Westside'. That's how I finished my speech.''
- Sunday Magazine