Rene Naufahu gave up a promising rugby career and became a household name as ambulance driver Sam Aleni in the original Shortland Street cast. This week, 17 years after he left the show, he's back and about to release his first feature film, a thriller set in Auckland, which he says the Film Commission hates

1. That's a pretty unusual name for a big, burly bloke: who called you Rene?

It's a totally girly name. And so was Sam! It's like my curse. I went to primary school in Otara and my name was weird from day one. Kids just thought it was weird that I wasn't called Sione or John. I was named by (Tongan) Princess Pilolevu. My dad's father was married to the sister of the Tongan Queen. Dad was the black sheep in the family because he was born to another woman and let's just say he could have been treated a lot better by his family. And so (the naming) was a make-up kind of thing. My nickname, though, was Rhino.

2. What was Otara like in the 1970s?

It was just really exciting. There were family get-togethers all the time and parties and drinks and V8s and stone wars against the neighbours' kids, running from the neighbourhood gangs. I've been all over the world and when you're in those big cities you have to be on point. I could do that because I walked around those South Auckland streets. I knew how to walk. Even as a little kid if you are seen as weak, man, you can't show what's going on inside. It's not like you had to walk around with a knife but you had to have your game on. Walking around London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Queens — it's the same. Otara was tough, but it was a great neighbourhood.


3. You're the eldest of five kids — did you look after them?

I had a lot of responsibility from an early age. My sister and I were often taking care of them, getting them ready for school. Mum and Dad were often juggling two or three jobs. Dad was doing everything from working as a waiter to selling insurance, and Mum would be at the Bendon factory, cleaning, whatever they could. They had high expectations for our whole family. We knew we were different from the other kids in the neighbourhood. We were always the ones who had to go home early. My mum's Samoan, German, Irish. Man, even the gangs were scared of her. She'd tell them to turn down their stereos and they'd go, "Yes Mrs Naufahu".

4. You got a rugby scholarship to Auckland Grammar — was that a culture shock?

There were like two whiteys in my school in Otara and I got [to Grammar] and it was all whiteys! My first day this guy comes up to me and says, "Is your name Rangi?" and all his friends were laughing but I didn't realise he was taking the piss. I was like, "Nah man, it's Rene". It took me 'til fifth form to work out why he'd called me Rangi. I went home that first night and said "I made a friend!"

5. How did you get into acting?

My girlfriend was a model and she got me into a music video and then I was asked to audition for Marlin Bay 'cause they wanted a Pacific Island guy.

6. You were young when you joined the original Shortland Street cast — was that a big deal?

The first night it came on we had family over and there were balloons and streamers and everyone's sitting around the telly. The ambulance pulls up and I hop out, say my line and there's just this dead silence in the room. Then my kid brother Joe went, "Oh man you suck!" And everyone cracked up laughing.

7. Were you bad?

I had no right to be on that damn show. All I knew about acting was to read and learn my lines and say them at a certain time. I was slow. Sam Aleni was a great listener. Ha! I just wanted to be good at it. A lot of people thought (the fame) went to my head but it was because I was s******* my pants on the inside about it. I'd put on the South Auckland swagger but it wasn't a big head.

8. You've had years away writing, acting in other shows, studying in Holland and now you've come back. Does that feel odd?

It's great. I learn something on set every day, watching the other actors, the directors. I like watching the crew. I can see Sam being there in 10 years' time. I love it. It's weird. And now I can see the responsibility I had all those years ago, being the first Pacific Island character.

9. Your debut feature film, The Last Saint, is almost ready for release but the Film Commission hasn't been forthcoming with funds. Why is that?

They hate it. Theoretically I know (chief executive) Dave Gibson likes it but the rest of them hate it. No, it's not overly violent. It's entertainment. There's one scene where a Tongan gang is beating a guy and they sing a lullaby in harmony. It's a tough film — it's about noble crime. About a boy who commits crime to get his mum off P. Other than having my kids, it is the work I'm proudest of.

10. You worked on the film when studying in Amsterdam's Binger Institute: how did that come about?

They take a dozen people a year into their script development programme and I applied. It was incredible. I'd never been in a learning place like it and I soaked it up. I had to grow up really. One of the guys in my class was one of Time magazine's top five emerging novelists. And there was Sam from Shortland Street.

11. Do you ever regret not continuing with rugby?

When I first started acting, I'd go and watch the ABs and there were all these guys I'd played with in secondary school. I was like, "You made it man, you made it into the All Blacks!". And they'd go, "Ren, what's Shortland Street like man?". They were just as interested in that stuff. I'm happy reminiscing about what could have been. I smile when I think about it.

12. Has Sam changed?

You know he's a good guy but he's fully messed up. You know Sam has got good, big balls but, well, it's a soap. It's all this "will I, won't I, shall I?" stuff about women. The indecision and the verbalising of it. When has a man ever said, "I'm a mixed-up mess"? Unless he's trying to get out of seeing a chick flick or he's trying to explain the Showgirls' money in his pocket, he's never going to say "I'm a mixed-up mess". Sam, man. Where are your balls?