Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Meet Madeleine Sami's many faces

Madeleine Sami has drawn on rich personal experience to create a fresh new line-up for Super City's second season, writes Lydia Jenkin.

Continue with tried and true successful characters, or take a leap and create new ones?

It's a question many television creators have faced over the decades and it was certainly at the forefront of actor-writer Madeleine Sami's mind when she found out Super City had been given the green light for season two.

"It sort of opened up a can of worms, but not a can of worms - a can of worm lollies that were all delicious problems. Obviously we didn't know there would be a season two when we were writing the first one, so we felt like a lot of the stories had ended in quite a satisfying way in season one ...

"Hopefully the audience will fall in love with these crazy people as well."

The first series, which was directed by Taika Waititi, garnered critical acclaim along with a cult following in New Zealand and also sparked interest in the United States, where ABC asked Sami and producer Carthew Neal to create a pilot with characters that had been adapted to a Los Angeles setting (they're currently waiting to hear whether the show will be picked up).

Those eccentric individuals from season one - homeless girl Georgie, cab driver Azeem, Pasha the cheerleader, personal trainer Jo and keen arts patron Linda - clearly struck a chord, and fans can rest assured they're not gone forever.

"We don't have a plan for them as such, but the first characters aren't dead to me - they could have a spin-off, or they could just turn up somewhere," says Sami.

"We did think about incorporating them into this season with the new characters, but that got a bit tricky because a 30-minute episode is actually only 22 minutes."

This time, with the help of new director Oscar Kightley, audiences will be introduced to young Levi Tutaima, a naive 20-year-old Niuean who's dead keen on making his way as a semi-professional rugby star but is a bit too concerned with getting his hair right and fitting in. Then there's 26-year-old Ofa Faka'apa'apa, a benefit case-manager who's got little sympathy for those who need state help and is always ready with some unorthodox advice.

Next is Mary Dalziel who, at 45, might not be on the path to pop stardom anymore, but that won't stop her from awkwardly flirting her way around the local covers band scene. And then there's Ray Donaldson, a bumbling 62-year-old British panel beater with a heart of gold who does his best to teach his immigrant employees while also supporting his bodybuilder wife Tiffany. Plus there are some excellent character roles from Urzila Carlson as Ofa's manager and Elroy Finn (son of Neil, brother of Liam) who managed to take a break from touring long enough to play Mary's son.

So where did these characters come from?

"First off, Tom [Sainsbury, co-writer] and I just try and think of people or situations that we might find funny, or personality traits that we might find funny. Later on, we'll think about balancing them, you know, characters that we feel are different enough in age and socio-economic background and lifestyle, but in the beginning it's just about what makes us laugh."

When creating the first series, Sami had more time to do extra research on her characters, but with tighter deadlines on season two she opted to create characters which she already had some decent knowledge about.

"Obviously with Ofa, everyone's been on the dole or experienced a Work and Income office, so lots of people have stories about someone like her, or about crazy things that happen at Winz, or in any office anywhere really.

"And with Mary, my sister and my best friend used to be in a covers band, so I've been around the world of covers bands a lot and you see all types in that kind of world.

"So I was drawing on people and environments that I grew up [with], just gathering memories and things that you see in front of you when you're walking down the street, too."

Ray and his bodybuilding wife were somewhat inspired by a documentary Louis Theroux made about the female bodybuilding industry.

"Tom and I both saw it independently and we loved the dynamic between the husband and the wife in that world, we just thought it was so odd. And we had this idea for a mechanic character, you know, struggling small-business owner guy, and we thought, what if we combine that into a guy who's trying to juggle his small business with his wife's bodybuilding dream? We also liked the idea that people usually think of Kiwi mechanics as being quite masculine, so it was fun to screw with that stereotype. That's kind of what we try to do - confuse people a little bit, maybe make them take a second look at someone."

Playing four different characters is an exhausting task, of course, but Sami revels in the opportunity to play with so many different traits.

"I love being able to transform into all of these people, and get to say the things they get to say in the crazy situations they get themselves into. I love playing Ray because he's all about the Dad jokes. Mary is obviously super cabaret cheesy, but really ambitious and determined underneath it all - she just keeps getting it wrong. Levi is just working out how to be a man. Is being a man listening to Justin Bieber or One Direction? And Ofa's just a big bitch, she's horrible.

"But all of them sort of have their heart in the right place, but at the heart of them all is a delusion. And I think we're all a little bit deluded, but these people especially. They all think they're something that they're not, but they're all gonna go for that thing anyway."

Who: Madeleine Sami
What: New series of local show Super City
Where and when: TV3, Friday, 10pm

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