With a new role on hit US show 'Sons of Anarchy', Kiwi actor Joel Tobeck is riding high. He tells Alan Perrott why his aim is to make it for those he's loved and lost.

Turning 40 ... popular wisdom has made it as much a signpost as an occasion. If your inner child hasn't become an astronaut, princess or Spiderman by now, then sorry, time's up.

Unless you're someone like Joel Tobeck. Then life becomes a numbers game - the longer you stick at it, the closer you get to your goal.

And this brand new 40-year-old has chased more than his fair share of goals. Take your pick from actor, musician, radio personality, dancer, stand-up comedian and dad. So, how is he doing?

"I'm feeling a lot of guilt ..." Not because he's postponed tomorrow's birthday cake, candles and fuss, but because he's returning to Hollywood the day after and that means leaving wife Yvette with the three kids. Again. But there is also excitement.

Tobeck's an itinerant actor, and every call moves him closer to the one that will change his life forever, so his fingers are permanently crossed.

Which brings us to anxiety.

Acting jobs are temporary and while the chase - and, let's face it, the LA nightlife - can be addictive, Tobeck has a family to feed. So, there's no forgetting he's chosen an unpredictable way of life, one that creates its own stress.

But Tobeck projects a laid-back, self-effacing confidence that says a job's a job, don't make a big deal about it. Which meant we almost forgot the purpose for our chat, his biggest coup from a recent lean spell. A coup that began in neither New Zealand or LA, but in a Melbourne theatre.

"I was watching this movie and wondering about the lead actor, says Tobeck. "He was on Sons of Anarchy and I thought "that's a strange name for a show, I wonder if I'd ever get to audition for it? Then within a month I'd not only had the audition, I was acting in it. That was pretty weird, but that's how fast these things can happen. Hollywood's a machine."

Okay, his character has only a first name, which is fine if you're Madonna or Jesus, but when you're a new character in a Sopranos-on-bikes ensemble drama, it usually means you're passing through.

No matter, it's the numbers that count and those four SoA episodes Tobeck stars in pulled an average American audience of around 4.5 million. On top of that, the pay was better than excellent, a few more powerbrokers know his name, and he got another chance to hone the bad boy image that so bothers Yvette.

We'll get to see what he made of the opportunity when his character, Donny, appears in the Sons of Anarchy episodes screening here from next Wednesday.

But as I say, the subject almost didn't come up. Tobeck is no self-promoter, which is why you won't find his patented Blue Steel glare on red carpets, gossip pages or checking into rehab clinics.

If anything, his early brushes with household fame have put him off it for life.

First, there was a stint on Shortland Street in the 90s where he created one of the show's more memorable characters, a bad-ass, wheelchair-bound drug dealer. But becoming a five-night a week, soap celebrity in the Auckland fish bowl made him uncomfortable: "Walking down Queen St on a Friday night ... I'd get a lot of 'where's your wheelchair?' and 'oh look, he's walking'. That might be fun for some people, but I'm no show pony. Going out quickly became hard work, so I just stopped doing it."

Then came the swords and jandals fantasies, Hercules, Xena et al, and his manic character, Strife. This job should have been the perfect blend; the shows were steady earners and he was showing his skills to a huge audience in a completely different country. Everything was kept at arm's length until he attended a convention.

This sounds fun, he thought, it'll be happy people dressing up like us, just like Star Trek fans.

Then the first woman whose hand he shook dropped in a dead faint. "I just looked at the other [actors] like, 'what the f***, I'm just some guy from Ellerslie doing my job, so what the hell are you doing?' Then this other woman got me to sign her stomach and went off to have it tattooed. It was just crazy stuff, and that was fine in the beginning, but it got a bit heavy, especially for someone like [late actor and Tobeck's good friend] Kevin Smith ... we really had to look after him because he was always the kind of guy who would say gidday and chat with anyone. But these people were following us everywhere. They'd follow us to our hotel then camp outside and wait until we came out again."

Still, it probably would have sounded like the most exciting thing in the world when he was a young teen and wagging school to hang out at the old Auckland Youth Theatre with his drama classmate and fellow former Shortland Street actor Danielle Cormack.

"I think we were just getting the taste for what it is all about," says Cormack, "but I remember Joel then most for his obsession with Prince, and his fantastic impressions ... but this was all before drama was part of the school curriculum, so you had to seek it out. I think acting was something we felt compelled to do, even if my parents said it was more like acting up."

It was Tobeck's parents who helped set him on his acting path, but they hadn't been convinced it was his best career option.

Liddy Holloway and Bryan Tobeck had been a fixture at Remuera's Central Theatre before Holloway's career took off with her work on Shortland Street and Hercules.

Their son was dragged to a few rehearsals before he saw his mother performing under lights at the Mercury Theatre. By then, he'd already had an involuntary cameo as a 5-year-old in a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - such are the hazards of being raised in a theatre family.

The couple had separated when Tobeck was two, and he spent the next 12 years living with his father in Mt Roskill. It was during this period that he found his first dream.

"That's one of my earliest memories," he says. "Dad was working at Radio I and I went in to meet him. Peter Sinclair was on air and I remember standing there watching him pushing buttons and talking into the microphone. That was what I wanted to do too."

Then, at 14, he moved in with his mother in Herne Bay and announced he wanted to become an actor - a big call in the late 80s when there was little work outside of live theatre. Even then you'd be lucky to earn $300 a week.

"'Why don't you get a real job? Are you sure you don't want to be brain surgeon?' I got that for many years," he remembers, "but God bless Mum, she supported me all the way."

As for his father? "I guess I took the attitude that acting is fine," says Bryan Tobeck. "We all have those aspirations I think - I'd done a bit of amateur stuff myself - and he'd only done a couple of semi-real jobs in the meantime. But he's stuck at it and he hasn't neglected his family, so you've got to be very proud of him."

His decision looked like paying immediate dividends when he was cast in a big role alongside another teen actor, Martin Henderson, in The Strangers, one of those kidult dramas we used to crank out regularly. If his star quickly shone, it faded just as fast.

With no work on the horizon, he began looking for part-time jobs. He was ushering at the Mercury Theatre in 1988 when he met the former bFM station manager, Jude Anaru.

He applied for a job and was soon photocopying playlists for the DJs before writing commercials and jingles, and appearing on-air as a newsreader and the Tobeck Weather Centre for Marcus Lush's breakfast show. Once established, he took a year off to apply for drama school. Which was a great idea, except that he wasn't accepted.

"To be honest, it was Mum who said I should have a go at dance. I didn't know what to do." As it turned out the Auckland dance academy was short of men, so he was in and soon stretching alongside the likes of Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter and future Black Grace dancers. "That was incredibly hard work, but I cherish it. I learnt so much about how my body works and moves; it's served me really well. I got a lot of confidence from it."

He was also taking music more seriously. "I had a go at an open mic night at [former Ponsonby jazz and blues club] Java Jive. I wasn't really that good on guitar yet, but I wanted to start playing. I was terrible. I was just so nervous."

No matter, he was good enough to join up with some mates - including Yvette, his wife (they aren't married, he just likes the word) for the last nine years - to form The Applicators.

He's since appeared in other groups such as The Wide Lapels, Splitter, More Bard's Band, TV3's Ice As house band, and with Darcy "Jesus I Was Evil" Clay when he supported Blur in 1997.

And if all that wasn't enough, he also tried stand-up comedy.

"I had dreamed of being a great comic like Eddie Murphy ... anyway, I had a couple of fantastic nights, and a couple of real shitters. Not being a particularly overt kind of person I had to wonder why I was doing it to myself, and I gave it up ... I did have one more go later on at the Classic, at one of their amateur nights, and bombed pretty badly. So that's that."

Then came TV show Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. He was reunited with his old mate Danielle Cormack and back on track to becoming a serious actor.

If his career sounds rudderless, that was his cunning plan. Holloway always told her son that New Zealand was a hard place to earn a living as a performer, so it was wise to have a go at everything.

"You could say I was whittling down what I was good at," says Tobeck, "and that's how I found acting really ... I'm probably more comfortable behind a mic, but there are moments when I know I was born to do this. It just took me a really long time to believe I'm good enough. I was always kind of worried people would think I was a faker. My approach was fairly laid-back, I didn't live and breathe it like some people."

It took some years to add some steel. First, his grandfather died at the start of 2002. He had been a bassist in the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and a great role model for Tobeck. Then, two months later, his great friend and fellow actor, Kevin Smith, died.

Smith seemed a safe bet for stardom after his role as Ares on Xena and Hercules. The pair had played in bands together, acted together and were going to conquer the world together.

"When he started to make it," says Tobeck, "I started thinking 'if he's doing it I have to do it as well'. Then he got his big break in a Bruce Willis movie ... and then he died."

Smith died on a Beijing movie set in 2002 after falling several stories, suffering severe head injuries. "I miss the guy every day. I was so distraught when I heard ... just clinging to the sides of my bed. And I never got to say goodbye properly, the last time I saw him he was off to do the movie. I hugged him and said 'love you bro' and then he was gone ..."

He got to pay a tribute of sorts when he replaced Smith as Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "We saluted him and had a little cry at the curtain call, that was special. I miss the big man a lot."

Two years later, after Tobeck had moved to Australia, his mother fell ill.

"The worst time was when we found out she had cancer. I was in the room when the doctor told her she had eight months. Then I was there when she came out of surgery, looked at the clock to see she'd only been in for 20 minutes and realised they couldn't have got it out ... I felt so terribly sorry for her, she'd only just got herself together financially and spiritually and then this happened. I just wish she'd been able to meet my daughters ... she'd have loved that."

In many ways Tobeck began working on behalf of those he'd lost. If they hadn't quite made it, he would make it for them.

Which only added to the responsibilities he carried with him to Hollywood in 2005. Even so, he said no to his first job offer on ethical grounds.

It was a role in a movie starring alongside legendary actor Omar Sharif but Tobeck says he didn't feel comfortable about the financial backing for the project coming from an evangelical broadcasting network.

Since then he's starred with Nicolas Cage, Geena Davis and Cate Blanchett, is best mates with both leads of the Hawaii 5-0 remake, swapped war stories with veteran character actor Hal Holbrook, and - possibly most importantly - scored an autograph from the first America's Next Top Model for his daughter.

Based in the California valley, he commits himself to stints of about six full-on months before returning to hug the kids and plan the next campaign with his agents. It's a strategy that's proved lucrative enough for Yvette to stay home in the Waikato as a full-time mum.

"When you step back and look at it, I've had a great, blessed life ... I just never want to sound like I'm big-noting or that I take anything for granted. I never dreamed I'd get this far, but you can never sit back and relax, I know I haven't seen this thing through. Acting is a lottery, and you have to keep turning up every day prepared for whatever happens."

Tobeck says if he has any advice, it's to "take risks and trust yourself, that's the only way you'll grow. If my mum had any great advice to add, it'd be 'always make sure you're drinking enough water'. Ha."

Sons of Anarchy, 9.30pm Wednesdays, TV3.