Comedian Oscar Kightley is behind a new crime drama which teams him with Sam Neill. Scott Kara reports
Lately, comedian Oscar Kightley has been far too busy being a serious actor to have a laugh with his boys. The boys, of course, are the other Naked Samoans with whom, over the past 15 years, he has had many laughs and wreaked comedy havoc.
But his lead role in new six-part crime drama, Harry, is no joking matter. He reckons he's never worked so hard in his life - physically and emotionally - as he has as Detective Harry Anglesea.
"I'm in every scene. I had two days off in nine weeks of filming. It kind of chewed me up, and I only started emerging once we finished shooting. I've hardly seen the boys," he says in his laid-back, almost lazy, lilt at a cafe overlooking Myers Park in inner city Auckland.
"But as David Duchovny's daughter says in Californication, 'Sometimes you grow up whether you're ready to or not', and doing Harry is a little bit like that," he says with a laugh.
Kightley always was the most serious of the Naked Samoans, and even when he was being funny he would do it in a straight-faced, almost melancholic way, with the occasional flash of a smile. Still, the transition to dramatic actor, and co-writing the Harry script alongside series creator Steven O'Meagher (Out of the Blue, This Is Not My Life), director Chris Dudman, and former high-profile cop Neil Grimstone (who Kightley says sorted "the bullshit from the real crime drama"), was a hard one.
"The whole reason you do comedy is so you don't have to be serious. There's just something in your make-up that means you are unable to take things seriously. You look at a lot of people who do comedy, it's a lot about keeping the world at bay, and comedy allows you take the piss out of the moment whereas in drama you have to live in it, suffer, and dwell in it.
"And the hardest part was doing stuff in public that I just wouldn't do normally, like cry, or get angry, or feel hurt. So this is a big deal for me," he says.
Based on real criminal cases, Harry, which received $3.5 million from NZ On Air's special Platinum fund for programmes with a cultural and historical significance to New Zealand, is confronting and gripping.
Set in Auckland, it delves into the city's many different suburbs, from the leafy Ponsonby street where Harry was brought up, to the rougher, tougher streets of Manukau. Funnily enough, the scenes inside the Major Crime Unit where Harry works were filmed at 155 New North Rd, the old offices of the Auckland Star where Kightley was a reporter 20 years ago. Though by then, he says, his journalism career was about to come to an end because "my penchant for making shit up kept sneaking in, and that's not good".
The first episode of Harry starts in Manukau, with young P-addict Lua forced to do a series of armed robberies by bullying drug dealers Afa and Joe. They're two nasty pieces of work, especially ringleader Afa, who is played with ruthless intensity by Matthias Luafutu (who also stars in upcoming film Shopping). In the process of the robberies, Lua kills two people, sparking a police hunt led by Harry. "But there is more to it than that," says Kightley. "It's this grey area and we want to make the audience feel for him instead of just going, 'Baddies, goodies'."
And that's what makes Harry so good. It goes deeper into the reason why Lua is on drugs and, ultimately, on the run for murder, by focusing on a different part of the P supply chain in each episode. So it moves from Lua the user, to the dealers and then on to the "cook" and right through to the origins of the drug smuggling ring in China.
O'Meagher likes to think of Harry as "the anatomy of drug importation".
"We wanted to take a story from the headlines, so we open with this shocking crime, and it's through the investigation of that, that the causes of how that murder happened [are revealed], and it goes through the different levels of a major crime, which in this case is the importation of methampetamine."
But alongside the crime and police action runs the personal story of Harry, who has just returned to work after his wife's suicide. As well as struggling with his own demons, he also has to bring up his teenage daughter Mele (played by first-time actor Hunter Kamuhemu).
"He's a little bit damaged," says Kightley. "To me he's just a guy who tries hard to do the right thing but it ends up being f***ed up, and who tries hard to have a good life but work just keeps getting in the way. And it's that thing, our work faces and public faces compared to what's really going on in our lives. He's more than just a cop, he's trying to keep his life together as things are falling apart. Like we all do."
Harry was inspired by classic British crime series like Cracker and Prime Suspect, as well as shows like The Wire, and, for Kightley especially, Boss, because star Kelsey Grammer is a comedian who made the switch to a serious role.
"And I loved Prime Suspect," says Kightley, "because it was about a woman in charge, which is something you hardly ever saw, and it was about her, not just her job."
For O'Meagher, it was Cracker that was most influential. "You've got a central character who is totally conflicted, and their motivation is good but their personal life is a shambles, and where the crime is part of the reason you're drawn to a series, it's also about the individual and how they cope with a variety of everyday life situations." So he set about using Auckland's often gruesome day-to-day criminal activity, along with the story of an "emotionally stunted human being trying to cope in a high pressure job" to make a compelling and powerful drama.
A coup for the series was securing Sam Neill as Harry's boss, Detective Jim "Stocks" Stockton, with the veteran actor even growing a traditional cop moustache for the role.
Kightley: "The moustache was his idea. After he came on board we Skyped him and we saw the moustache and we thought, 'Oh yeah'. Now it's just weird seeing him without it."
It's fair to say Neill does "mate's rates" when it's a New Zealand project with a limited budget. "Sam and his agent did all that they could to make Harry work for us and them," is how O'Meagher puts it.
It might seem all rosy now but Harry has been a long time in the making. After finishing 2006 film Out of the Blue, about the Aramoana massacre, O'Meagher started exploring his idea for a character-based crime show.
"All I knew was his name was Harry, and I don't know why it was Harry, but Harry had to be a Polynesian because Auckland's the biggest Polynesian city in the world."
He was watching The Naked Samoans Go Home at the Auckland Town Hall in 2008 and noticed Kightley had "a bit of a dark streak".
Kightley remembers it well: "He was in the front row and he was the only one not laughing."
Soon after, the pair met over a coffee to discuss the series and O'Meagher put it to him: "Let's make you into a TV detective."
Even Kightley thought it was a little crazy. "It was about a Samoan detective called Harry. And I'm thinking, 'Yeah right. The public won't buy that'. But I loved the idea of the character, and the aspirational aspect of it, because the two shows he talked most about were Prime Suspect and Cracker."
NZ On Air turned down the initial approaches for funding ("we got two of the harshest rejection letters I have ever read."), and O'Meagher admits as a writing team they "lacked major dramatic skills". But with Dudman and Grimstone (aka Grim, who according to O'Meagher "drenched the show in realism") on board, they persevered by getting the character of Harry spot on and balancing it with hard-hitting real-deal crime stories.
Kightley just hopes the show offers a real insight into contemporary society and what goes on in Auckland's fascinating underbelly. "Without dressing it up with jokes and costumes. Because we're actually making drama about what's really dramatic. If you do the real stuff it's more compelling than some writer making it up, because there is nothing more interesting than peoples' real-life struggles."
What: Harry, new crime drama
Who: Actor Oscar Kightley as Detective Harry Anglesea
Where and when: Wednesdays, 9.30pm, TV3