Oscar Kightley swaps gags for grit

HARRY: Oscar Kightley swaps gags for grit in his new crime drama.
HARRY: Oscar Kightley swaps gags for grit in his new crime drama.

"Comedy is the truth in disguise. Drama is just the truth."

Oscar Kightley is becoming uncharacteristically serious. But it stands to reason because Kightley, better known for his laugh-a-minute work in the likes of bro'Town and his Naked Samoan shows, has gone all heavy duty on us with a new gritty cop series, Harry.

"Comedy lets you take the piss out of real-life moments. Drama - you have to feel it and dwell in it, which I found quite challenging. The reason I do comedy is that I find it hard to take things seriously.

"I'm always looking for ways to make light of things, " Kightley said.

Samoan-born Kightley stars alongside Sam Neill in the series set in Auckland amid the dark world of the users and dealers of P.

Kightley plays Harry, a solo father struggling with his own demons while trying to solve two murders committed by a P-fuelled gunman.

You won't get many laughs, Kightley admits, but it's a real show about real issues.

"Often the stuff that happens in real life is more interesting than the stuff that you draw up at a scriptwriting table. If the stuff you're making up is about the real world, then it's even more rewarding." he says.

"One of the writers was Neil Grimstone, who was a top detective in South Auckland for 28 years. We had all his experience that we could draw on."

Indeed, the storyline drew on the real crimes of Ese Faleali'i, who committed two execution-style killings in Auckland in 2002.

Kightley says he's known people who have dealt with the struggle of P addiction, so understanding the material was not difficult.

"P is prevalent. It's not locked away to a certain section of society. You can't close your eyes to the issue. I know how real it is, so I knew we were making something that was real and scary, and I don't have to imagine what that would be like," he says.

It's Kightley's first foray into serious drama on screen, and was more an opportunity that came knocking rather than something he sought out.

"[Producer] Steven O'Meagher came to me in 2008 with the character of Harry, and it appealed to me straight away. He had seen me in the Naked Samoans, and somehow, from that, he thought I might be able to do something with the character.

"It was never my intention to be a dramatic actor.

"I just loved the idea of this character so much and I thought it would be a cool thing to have on New Zealand TV.

"As a kid growing up I used to watch detective shows and I thought they were pretty cool - old-school shows like Kojak, The Professionals . . . I never thought I'd have the opportunity to do it."

O'Meagher wanted Harry to be a conflicted central character in in the same vein as comedian Robbie Coltrane playing a serious character in Cracker.

"With Harry, we wanted it to be as much about the central character as it is about the crime unfolding.

"What I like about Harry is that he's a normal person trying to deal with his job while other stuff in his life is f . . . up. To me that's something quite universal. I think regardless of your occupation, we're always battling on a few fronts in our lives - with relationships, parenting kids - at the same time there's this bloody big chunk of your day where you're working, and sometimes it's a struggle to keep it all on an even keel."

As serious and hard-hitting as Harry is, Kightley, 43, still likes to keep things light on set. If you keep up the intensity, your performance would suffer because you'd just be too stressed out, he says.

"You gotta be able to turn on when they say action, and turn off again when they say cut. You can't let your energy be dragged down by the nature of the material you're working with."

Kightley, whose successes in the industry have earned him an NZOM and an Arts Foundation Laureate Award, reckons he's never worked so hard on a role.

"When you're the lead you're in just about every scene, so I got really tired. I would try and snatch sleep at every opportunity. I often had to play Harry being asleep, and most of those scenes I was asleep for real.

"I once had to do some off-set lines when Sam Neill was meant to be talking to me on the phone. I thought I'd do it lying under this table off set, and while I was waiting one of the lovely costume ladies offered me a pillow to lie back on. By the time Sam 'called' me I'd fallen asleep. Lucky he's such a great guy. He had a good laugh."

Though Neill had once guest starred in Kightley's bro'Town they had never had the opportunity to act together.

Kightley had to get over his fan status to be able to do the job justice, he says.

"I had to get over that mode of admiration when I was doing scenes with him.

"I had to do my job and play this character truthfully.

"I had to try and stop being a fan and actually try and be a good colleague. Sam is such a nice guy and so experienced at the highest level. It's pretty cool to be working with someone operating at that level. Every day with him was a learning experience."

Harry 9.30pm, Wednesdays, TV3

The Press