David de Lautour: Playing the field

By Leena Tailor

Kiwi actor David de Lautour has no regrets about missing LA’s pilot season to take up a ‘once-in-a-lifetime role’ portraying World Cup star Stephen Donald in The Kick, writes Leena Tailor.

New Zealand actor David de Lautour. Photo / Ethan Pines
New Zealand actor David de Lautour. Photo / Ethan Pines

David de Lautour can vividly recall where he was during every Rugby World Cup final since he was a kid. There was 1995, when he sat at his grandparents' Gisborne home frustratedly watching the "bloody drop goal" that saw New Zealand declare defeat to South Africa.

Four years later, he wagged school to watch the All Blacks lose to France at the London semifinal. At 20, he was crushed when Australia swiped a chance at World Cup glory from us, but 2007's loss to France was the biggest kick in the gut.

"I was back in New Zealand at my brother's apartment, so confident we would win," recalls the LA-based Kiwi actor. "Even when France reneged, I was like, 'We're definitely going to win'.

"It was such a shocker ..."

Despite playing a season of club rugby at 9, then moving on to tennis and soccer after "losing every game by an average 60 points", de Lautour's passion for the sport never dwindled. A lifelong fan, he grew up idolising Sean Fitzpatrick and can name all the pubs in LA that screen matches at often-ungodly hours, so when the 2011 tournament rolled around, he didn't think twice about heading home.

"I was at a bar at the Viaduct for the final and it was the most agonising thing I've ever watched. I remember being flabbergasted as Stephen Donald jumped on to the field. I thought, 'How is it even possible to have so many injuries in one position?' It was unbelievable.

"But after the game it was such a surreal and amazing feeling. My favourite memory is going to the big parade the next day and seeing a guy standing in the crowd with a sign that said, 'Donald for PM'.

"That made me go, 'Wow.' Suddenly, he was like a favourite son after being on the outs not only with selectors, but the whole New Zealand public."

What de Lautour, 31, didn't realise was that two-and-a-half years later he would help bring 30-year-old Donald's story to life on the small screen, nabbing the lead role in the NZ On Air-funded telemovie, The Kick.

The film chronicles Donald's life and dramatic turnaround from national scapegoat to hero - nicknamed Beaver - following his crucial penalty goal, during what has gone down as one of the greatest events in our sporting history.

The project, which will screen in TV One's Sunday Theatre slot, will also explore New Zealand's "rugby psyche".

De Lautour swapped US television gigs on NCIS: LA, Beauty and the Beast and Mom to return home for what he believes is an important story for Kiwis.

"Rugby's such an ingrained part of our culture and it's a big part of our identification. It's something we can hold our heads high about around the world.

"More specifically, the story of Stephen Donald is that perseverance pays off."

What does such a story say about our fixation, some might say obsession, with the sport?

"It is a pretty big obsession for this country ... and you have to be careful with obsession and sports. It often goes too far, but this movie shows that and even pokes fun at how far we go.

"It's amazing how quickly people turn on you when you miss a kick and how quickly everyone's back on board when you slot one - especially an important one."

Overnight sensations are nothing new to de Lautour, who was immersed in the fickle world of acting at the age of 10.

Following theatre work and roles on Xena: Warrior Princess, he landed the part of Adam on Being Eve and became hooked on acting. He was drawn to America after family stints in California with his pilot dad when he was younger and decided to set off to New York to audition for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy - an audition that landed him a US$50,000 scholarship.

"I moved from Titirangi to Manhattan at 18 and it didn't faze me. I just went, 'This is what I'm going to do,' and left.

"I look back and think, 'holy moly,' but it's that youthful exuberance and ignorance."

The cultural mecca of New York proved to be a school as valuable as the academy itself, but four months into his move, de Lautour was in the middle of a stage combat class when the Twin Towers collapsed.

His first thought was that a two-seater plane had lost its way amid the New York skyline. "It's that New Zealand mentality - I didn't even know what terrorism was."

Watching the city come together was an eye-opener, but when his course ended de Lautour left for Hollywood, like the Kiwi actors his nurse-turned-wedding-planner mother had been sending him newspaper clippings about.

"One of them was about Martin Henderson and had his agent's name. I emailed him going, 'Martin's a New Zealand actor, I'm a New Zealand actor - you should meet me!"'

The meeting led to many others, none of which helped, but having made an impression at a drama school showcase, de Lautour won a lead role on Simon Fuller's TV remake of The Monkees. Providing a work visa and generous pay, it was set to catapult him to stardom, but amid signing record deals and touring contracts, NBC canned the show.

Undeterred, de Lautour hit the LA audition circuit and landed sitcom What I Like About You, opposite former Beverly Hills 90210 star Jennie Garth and Amanda Bynes.

Although the 2007 writers strike forced him home, where he joined Power Rangers and Legend of the Seeker, de Lautour returned to LA and has been working consistently since, on shows including NCIS, Hart of Dixie and Touch, opposite Kiefer Sutherland.

But even with regular primetime gigs, the LA actor's life isn't without its challenges.

Twelve years since he left New Zealand, the knocks are just as hard to take and he says it's Kiwi resilience that helps him persist.

"I just got really close to a series regular and they cut it down to me and one other guy.

When it's down to two, that's the hardest. You look at your bank account and you can maybe get bread and milk on the way home, but meanwhile you're signing a contract for tens of thousands of dollars without any guarantees of getting the role.

"To be so close to that kind of security is tough. But there are so many factors that go into it and the smallest one is talent. You've got to look like someone if you're playing their brother, or someone else might be more well-known.

"That one [losing the series] did hurt, but you've got to sit in it for awhile then pick yourself up and go on. Right after that I got Mom."

The TV2 sitcom comes from Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre and, in a rare move, Lorre asked de Lautour to retain his accent for the guest role.

"My favourite thing on Mom was just sitting behind Chuck Lorre and seeing how these guys work. After one scene he sat there for a while then [said], 'The set is three-and-a-half-feet too wide.' Everyone went, 'Yeah!' while I thought, 'What the f***?'

"We come back the next day and it doesn't look any different, then you do the scene and he's right. Crossing from the table to the door is just easier. He's not just giving notes to actors and directors, but on sets and costuming. You can see why the guy has four [top 20] shows."

With one of his biggest aspirations - a role back home - now fulfilled, de Lautour ultimately hopes to land a regular US television gig, but has meanwhile been expanding his creative talents behind-the-scenes.

With his own production company, Tool Shed Productions, he has made several short films including The Brightest Sunday (which screened at Indie Fest USA) and recently completed web series Salon-O-Phobia with his Being Eve co-star-turned-production-partner, Fleur Saville.

"In LA, there's a mentality of, 'Why not? Let's do it. If you're going to fail then fail, but just try'. There aren't people offering reasons not to; there's just support. It's a very proactive city.

"And people have a different view of what 'making it' is, but if I'm surviving as an actor and able to do my own thing on the side, I'm stoked. Just being able to survive in LA is crazy. I've seen it before - people come up so excited and get chewed up and spit out.

You go through ebbs and flows and you have to surround yourself with a good group of friends, so the Kiwi contingent at the moment is great.

"The series I just did with Fleur, we auditioned hundreds of people then cast a bunch of Kiwis. We have five guys as leads on US shows right now. Kiwis are blowing people out of the water."

Yet, it was back home that de Lautour had been hoping to land a role. Before returning he transformed his diet to bulk up, eating every two hours, hitting the gym and having four protein shakes daily.

Currently in rugby training and spending time with Donald (a consultant on the film), he has no regrets about missing LA's crucial pilot season to film The Kick.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime role. Being able to put on the All Blacks jersey is awesome, even if it is for a film. I got really excited just going to a wardrobe fitting. And Stephen is a well-liked guy who has worked his ass off and loves New Zealand, so I draw some parallels with him. I'm a proud New Zealander, passionate rugby fan and like to work hard.

"You don't always get the call-up, but be prepared for when you do."

It's yet another parallel between the strikingly similar worlds of sports and Hollywood.

"There's a saying in Hollywood, 'You're only as good as your last job'. People suddenly get something and everyone's like, 'He was an overnight success,' but you don't see the five, eight, 12 years they've put in before that, struggling to get somewhere. Or your movie doesn't get reviewed well so you're down and out and all it takes is one role to come back.

"Someone like Mickey Rourke was on top of the world then fell off, but The Wrestler put him right back on the map. It's the same with Robert Downey jnr. He's in a heyday right now."

So perhaps, when it comes to rugby you're only as good as your last kick?

"Yep," he laughs. "That's very true ... just ask Stephen."

- NZ Herald

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