Twelve Questions: Jay Laga'aia

Actor Jay Laga'aia left New Zealand almost 20 years ago and forged a career as a children's entertainer and TV star in Australia. Last year the father of eight spoke out about racism on TV after a stint on Aussie soap Home and Away. He returns to NZ later this year playing the Wizard of Oz in hit musical Wicked.

Jay Laga'aia says there was a lot of community spirit in Mangere in the 1970s and it became a melting pot for artists.
Jay Laga'aia says there was a lot of community spirit in Mangere in the 1970s and it became a melting pot for artists.

1. You've described your return to New Zealand in Wicked as a great role for a prodigal son. What do we need to forgive you for?

Every Polynesian boy asks for forgiveness for leaving his parents behind. It's in the genes.

2. Describe your South Auckland childhood.

It was an adventure. My family was one of the first to move to Mangere, in the 70s. It was prickle bushes and vast tracts of land. There was definitely a community feel to it and obviously it also became a melting pot for artists both musical and otherwise.

3. Do you still feel Samoan?

I'm always going to be Samoan, but it's like asking, do you get seasick? Unless that question is raised you never think about it. My 6-year-old asked me the other day where she was born and we struggled to think who was where for a while but I said 'yes, here', and she said 'oh, so I'm Australian' and I said 'yes, you are unless I tell you otherwise'. But to be honest, race doesn't really come into my sphere.

Of course I'm Samoan. I carry my father's name. But these things don't matter to me because they don't affect me.

4. Unless it's about Australian TV not hiring brown-skinned actors?

Well it's about the opportunity to ply my trade. I was saying why brush with only those [colours] when you could have a much grander palette?

5. Were there work repercussions for you after you tweeted about the networks casting only white actors?

What I said was true but continuing to talk about it isn't going to change it because it's just the way it is. Channel 7 has just launched a new show which is a period piece - apparently there weren't any brownies in the old days either. It's about making relevant TV. About the people in my street. About homosexuals and lesbians. When you have a show like All Saints that has been going for 10 years, you ask how many Chinese or Indian doctors do you have on that show? How many Chinese or Indian extras as doctors do you have on that show? Am I sorry I said it? No. Because it was true. When you point out the emperor has no clothes you're going to get a reaction.

6. You make albums for children now and have been on Play School for 13 years. What's your best tip for relating to children?

Talk to them and not at them. Listen to your child and don't have anywhere else to go to. Don't have the TV on or your phone with you when you play with the kids and, most importantly, try to give your child the best advice you can. I always believe that children will take within them bits and pieces of advice from their parents. If that advice or interaction is truthful and honest, in their best interest and comes from a place of love, then it will always be quality. But if we don't watch what we say and do, if we just say things to shut the child up, then we will suffer the consequences.

7. You're a father of eight and your eldest son is now 29. Were you always a good dad?

No, I was terrible. I became a father a week before my 21st and a week before I started rehearsals for my first theatre production at Mercury Theatre. I didn't drink, smoke or do drugs because my mum would have killed me but I was all about getting my career going. I wouldn't have recommended myself as a babysitter let alone a dad.

8. What's your best Star Wars story?

I was in Star Wars. It can't get any better than that. The force is always strong with that one.

9. You seem to have been around forever - but you're only 49. Has the entertainment business changed much over your career?

Yeah, well I began in '82 and I think the industry has gone backwards since then. It's not just pay rates but moral standards too. Reality TV has been a cancer for a long period of time now. It's lulled us into this false sense of security and we're all becoming voyeurs instead of participating. People go to events or shows and instead of watching and experiencing it, they pull out their cameras to film it and see the whole thing on a four-inch [10cm] screen. That moment you're trying to capture will be defined by the edges of your frame.

10. And the pay rates are worse?

We think what I do for a living is really easy because 'I saw it on Jersey Shore'. Then people think 'well I paid $15 for those guys, why do I need to pay this much for you'?

11. Feeding those eight kids can't always have been easy?

We struggle every now and again but I look at my household and it's loud and messy and creative and wonderful and for me that's my blessing. And it fuels me. That's why I get these amazing offers for work - that's my ancestors sitting up there saying 'that boy needs a job'.

12. Do you worry about getting older?

I think people who fear ageing are people who haven't done anything significant with their lives. Choose a job you truly enjoy and you will never work a day in your life. Chase your dreams.

- NZ Herald

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