Losing her hair to play a monk was freeing, Luciane Buchanan tells Angela Barnett.
After a screening of the television series, The New Legends of Monkey, in London, lots of kids raced up to its star, Luciane Buchanan, yelling "Tripitaka! Tripitaka!" having no idea this character was traditionally played by Chinese males. For 500 years.
Buchanan, 24, seems happy to be their reluctant kung-fu fighting hero. Growing up in 90s New Zealand she never saw herself — half Tongan, half New Zealand European — in the superhero shows she watched. "It's important to see yourself represented, especially if you hope to become an actor," she says over the phone from Los Angeles.
If you don't know Buchanan you soon will. And landing a leading role in the remake of the 80s cult show, Legends of Monkey, is no small thing. Based on the 16th-century Chinese fable, Journey to the West, there's an arrogant, punky Monkey King (who's got some mean moves), demons, fallen gods, chaos and some secret scrolls that need fetching by the chosen one, Tripitaka, who goes incognito as a monk.
To achieve her monk disguise — where it's quite obvious she's a young female — Buchanan had to shave her head. She'd had long hair all her life, which, she says is considered beautiful in Tongan culture "it is part of your femininity." Was it hard to shed those locks? No. "It was one of the best feelings letting go of all that hair. And one of the last steps to becoming my character."
As in the original Monkey show, there's lots of martial arts and humour but the remake doesn't have the shoddy dubbing this time around. The cast includes two New Zealand comedians, Rachel House, who plays a tough bar owner, and Josh Thomson, as the troublesome fallen god, Pigsy.
Working with House and Thomson meant there was a lot of humour on set. "It was hard to keep a straight face sometimes," says Buchanan.
Tripitaka, like many chosen ones, doesn't do jokes. "I'm not a funny character and that ground my gears sometimes but I'm the one who has to rein everyone in."
Along with Australian Chai Hansen, who plays Monkey, Buchanan did her own stunts. "After most takes, he'd get a clap from the crew and I'd be like 'why didn't I get one after my half-assed stunts?' My character's the one who gets captured and watches the fights. The only clap I got was after crying scenes."
Buchanan seems determined and is currently fighting her way around LA. I have to ask about the Hollywood scene, being alone, and female, in the smokin' city of actors and monsters. "LA's not what it was three to four years ago; it wasn't safe," she says. "The industry's at a turning point, everything's been brought to life, including who gets more roles. So the timing's right, now, in terms people being open to how women can act."
Acting has always been Buchanan's goal. "Growing up, my brother and I watched a lot of TV. I wanted to do everything so I figured if I was an actor I could pretend to do everything. It was a far-fetched dream until I got an agent." At 17.
By 21, she was on Filthy Rich then went on to Baby Mama's Club. And then Tripitaka. She's hoping for another good part from LA. "I'm seeing women who have written and directed their own content and the industry's looking at that seeing how well it does in sales and social media, finally seeing this is important. It's a huge change."
That said, she's suffering from the hardest part about moving countries — the dip after the romance has worn off and before the good part where you feel like you're getting somewhere. "It's very hard with a very big pool of actors and a big learning experience."
Having The New Legends Of Monkey come out globally on Netflix will help. But that's also daunting. "This is a character loved by a lot of people and I was quite nervous — was I doing it right."
I tell Buchanan my father was a big fan of the original show, busting out the kitschy 80s song Monkey Magic, and he's hoping it will be as entertaining. "It will be interesting for the older generation, who might find it weird and a different take," she says. "But it will introduce Monkey to the younger generation."
She's not spinning a publicity line there. Her honesty also comes through on her Instagram page. "I'd never think as a young, half-caste Tongan I'd get the opportunity to play an intelligent female hero ... I want to acknowledge the Chinese community who've loved this story for centuries. Your voices are heard, may our industry and choices only progress from here. Ofa Atu."
Said like a hero.
The New Legends of Monkey premieres Friday, April 20, on TVNZ 2 at 8pm and is available to stream at tvnz.co.nz