Timaru's 'little ambassador'

FUNNY KIWI: Josh Thomson on 7 Days.
FUNNY KIWI: Josh Thomson on 7 Days.

He's been the Cash Converters guy, has appeared on the panel of 7 Days, and featured in the series Hounds. But he's also proudly Timaru-born and bred. Features editor Claire Allison talks to actor, writer, director and stand-up comedian Josh Thomson.

There are clues all through Josh Thomson's work about where he's from.

Every chance he's had, he's brought Timaru into the spotlight; writing it into scripts and putting it out there on screen.

BIG PROSPECTS: At Timaru Boys' High School Josh devoted himself to rugby and acting.
BIG PROSPECTS: At Timaru Boys' High School Josh devoted himself to rugby and acting.

He seems most widely known as "the Cash Converters guy" - from the television advertisement that showed him and his impressive head of hair rolling around in a mountain of cash and his line "you get niiiiice crispy cash!", but has been long mistakenly identified as the Tongan guy on the Shapes Roadies "feed the manchild" ad.

If you thought that was him, don't feel bad.

"My own parents thought I was the guy from the Roadies ad."

Josh Thomson
Josh Thomson

So, apparently an easy mistake to make.

He's not "the Cash Converters guy" any more, but still has that yelled at him, and a Fresh Up ad has also stuck in the New Zealand psyche.

It's kind of a weird situation; it was just a day's work for him.

"People go on about the Cash Converters thing. For me, it was one day's work. I spend so much time doing other stuff."

And he says the further away from Auckland he is, the more available he becomes. Islanders in Auckland may comment about whatever advert he'd just been on, but that would be about it.

"But the further away you get, it becomes an everybody thing. Timaru's my home town . . . I don't get a hard time, but it's a bit odd though. You go shopping at Christmas, and you go into Dick Smith to get a USB drive, and it gets mentioned then, and then the next place. Everyone's really nice, but it's like someone yelling out 'journalist!' or 'plumber!'.

"Some people do get too excited. One person ran up to me and said "funny guy!", and then just stood and stared at me . . . he was quite a large man . . .

"The only hard thing is if you are having a bad day, something horrible's happened and you don't want to talk to anyone, but if you say 'I don't want to talk to you right now', they'll go and tell everyone you're a dick."

Born in Timaru in 1981 - "I'm a Jean Todd baby" - Thomson grew up in South Canterbury, attending Springbrook School, Waihi School, and then Timaru Boys' High School. His father's an engineer, from a local family, and his mother's Tongan. The couple met in Tonga, moved to Australia, and then to South Canterbury to buy a farm.

There wasn't really the Island population in South Canterbury when Thomson and his two brothers were growing up.

"When mum first moved here, there was a census, and there was one Tongan in Timaru - her."

Thomson's now based in Auckland, one brother's a plastic surgeon in Wellington, and the other is working in the fishing industry, still based in Timaru. It's a diverse range of careers.

"But we can all drive a tractor; we all grew up in Timaru."

He doesn't put tractor driving on his resume - like some actors will put "horse riding". Instead, he offers an impressive range of instrumental skills; clarinet, piano, drums, guitar, sax and bass guitar.

He laughs when I ask whether they've ever been needed for acting roles. No. Not so far.

Timaru is still home. Although his mum died recently, it's still a family tradition to return to the home town for Christmas, and at other times when he can.

Thomson stood out at school. It's not difficult to identify him in issues of the Timaru Boys' High School magazine The Timaruvian.

While he played rugby at school, and showed some promise, he's somewhat pragmatic about the reasons why.

"I was OK at rugby, mainly because I was enormous . . . but size only took me so far. Eventually skill came into it."

Acting was an interest from an early age.

"I became quite obsessed with Arnold Schwarzenegger when I was about 10, and so I decided I was going to be Arnold Schwarzenegger."

He borrowed a video camera from a friend, and created a ninja documentary at 13.

"My parents thought I was insane for a while. I think they were mildly concerned . . . I had pictures of all male film stars on my wall . . . I remember I got a shotgun and a fishing rod one Christmas . . ."

Drama continued through primary and into secondary school. As skill in rugby became more important, drama came more to the fore, coupled with a growing interest in the fairer sex.

"With drama, we got to rehearse at Timaru Girls' High School."

Thomson finished school, then moved to Dunedin to complete a degree in theatre and film at Otago University. His stand-up comic career began there when he entered a competition - his complex motives involving the potential to attract women, and other basic desires.

"I got a free beer . . ."

Throughout the interview, Thomson's taking the mickey out of himself.

Auckland followed Dunedin and the comedy career continued.

"When I moved up to Auckland, my first job was doing stand-up comedy and working in a fish and chip shop."

He's still based in Auckland, writing, directing, editing and acting when the work comes up.

"While I'd like to think of myself as an actor, I don't generate most of my income from that."

The industry can be a hard one to make a living from; hence diversifying into other aspects of the business; writing, directing, editing.

"Unless you have regular work like Shortland Street or another long-running series, it's quite hard to keep afloat. If you're passionate about it, you keep doing it, but even people who you think might be quite high profile, it's still a struggle - especially if you want to buy a house in Auckland."

He doesn't do stand-up any more, but his comedy talents have been put to use on the TV3 show 7 Days - both behind the scenes through his work with production company thedownlowconcept, and occasionally as a member of the panel itself.

Is it as funny being there in person as it is on our TV screens?

"It is fun to be involved in. It's cut down from a much larger show. It's a three-hour record, so you get the very best stuff. It's fun, but it's just terrifying. Your brain shuts down, you're not even sure what's coming out of your mouth . . . You have to think fast and just have the confidence to keep throwing stuff out. The people who have been on it much longer than me are very supportive and can help you out."

The TV industry is quite a convivial one.

"It's weird, even though all the production companies are different and are all trying to get funding, we are all friends, we all hang out . . . well, maybe not all . . . But we're just the same people, just trying to make something that's not a cooking show or a house renovation show. We want to make something really exciting and new . . . but you follow the trends."

His parents were always supportive of his acting dreams, although in a somewhat bemused way, he feels.

"Like, that's cool . . . but what are you really going to do? At one stage I was really broke, and I was painting my agent's house, along with a bunch of other out- of-work actors. School kids would walk past, saying, 'there's the guy from the Fresh Up ad! And the guy from the AMI ad!"

For Thomson, it's never been about being famous.

"I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be good at what I did."

The comment about cooking shows and home renovation shows is a common frustration among those trying to pitch new ideas for television.

"A lot of the people who are making stuff don't necessarily get to make what they want, because TV's a business, because shows about cooking are popular, and there are five million different house renovation shows. So it's not good business to fund a show about greyhound racing (referring to the series Hounds).

"But eventually there will be enough attempts to pitch fresh, alternative ideas, rather than older stuff that was popular a decade ago. It's quite an exciting time to be part of it."

Thomson's throwing some ideas around at the moment about filming in the islands, a couple of films and another TV series on the boil. But it's an odd business.

"You pitch an idea, and then a year later, they'll say, 'We'll do it'. You get a network on board with an idea, and once they are on board, you go to NZ On Air . . . unless you are advertisally skewed, like The Block."

The hours he works can vary.

"It depends on how good you want something to be, when is something finished? It can range from being pretty average to, say, if you get up at 8am, and you get home at midnight, and you do that for a week. I used to do two days in a row without sleep for the first few of Jono's Show. That was getting a bit weird, but that was because I was the only post- production guy."

Editing himself can provide tricky.

"I don't find myself as funny as other people seem to . . . and I mumble; I've always mumbled. Sometimes I can't even understand what I'm saying when I'm editing a scene. I should really work on it."

And while he's working with Auckland's up and coming - "I'm a Y list celebrity; because I've done some acting, that entitles me to go to some big swanky dos" - Timaru is never far from Thomson's mind.

"On every TV show I have ever been on, I've managed to work in a Timaru reference . . . people come from small towns all the time, so instead of Bryan from Whakatane, he's from Timaru.

"Timaru's great. It's my favourite place. Yes, I'm a little ambassador - the more people who are saying it, the better it will get. I'm very proud of it. And it's often an excuse for making fun of people from Auckland - 'I'm from Timaru, I don't understand that' - People have quite unrealistic lives in Auckland."

"So, if anybody has been following my career, they would have heard it. My dad was even in Hounds. He came up from Timaru to visit me on set, so we put him in a scene, in a bar, eating a banana."

The Timaru Herald