Hayden Tee grew up in small town New Zealand but he tells Dionne Christian he needed a bigger stage to play on
It was a broken plate that changed Hayden Tee's life forever – and he wasn't even in the kitchen when it shattered.
Tee, now 40 and a bona fide Broadway star, was 13 and growing up in the small Northland town of Maungaturoto, where his mum Debbie and stepfather Wayne ran a local bus company – the family business since 1931 – and his dad John was a panel-beater.
"But I didn't know anything about motors or engines; it really wasn't my thing," says Tee, of Ngāti Kahungunu descent and only the second New Zealander, after Lucy Lawless, to land a Broadway role.
Instead, he was a shy and sensitive boy who would burst into tears and apologise at the sound of a plate being broken in the kitchen - even though he was in the living room. It was then that his grandmother, Joyce, by his account a formidable businesswoman, ballroom dancing teacher and family matriarch, took action.
Deciding Tee needed to come out of his shell and to develop some confidence and self-belief; she marched him down to the Otamatea Repertory Theatre, opposite the Maungaturoto Country Club, to enrol him in drama classes, where he found kindred spirits.
"Not that I was ever really bullied or anything like that," he recalls. "I just felt 'different' and like I didn't quite fit in. I was obviously gay but I didn't understand what that was."
Nearly three decades on, Tee says to see his name on a Broadway or West End show programme is strange indeed when you consider what an incredibly shy child he'd been but, to borrow one of his expressions, butterflies come from caterpillars.
He's now back home to star in Les Miserables as the fixated and fanatical police inspector Javert, a role he's portrayed in Australian, Broadway, West End and Dubai productions of Cameron Mackintosh's mega-musical.
Everything he owns can be packed into two large suitcases, a makeup bag and a carry-on but, for the first time in six years, Tee has a home.
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It's a tiny house, just 21sq m, on his mother's property in Waipu. "I wanted something I could buy outright because I didn't want a mortgage. As an actor, that's just stressful." He might unpack and hang some of the art he's bought – "I buy something in every place I do a show" - and has in storage lockers around the world.
"I'm really happy wherever I am as long as I am working. I love the energy of cities like New York or London but I am a country boy. It can be hard in New York where, with all the really tall buildings, you can only see a patch of the sky."
But there's more to coming home than a starring role and, timed to coincide with the show, the release of his second album. It's also about feeling at home, reflecting on how he wants the next chapter in a peripatetic life to be and saying, for the first time in his life, "This is me."
With some life lessons to share, he's especially looking forward to the Christchurch International Musical Theatre Summer School, where he's guest tutor at a summer camp started in 2014 to bring world-class musical theatre training to Kiwi kids.
Tee reckons things have improved since he was at Otamatea High School and had to campaign to have a school production, but the "be who you are" message still needs repeating. He points to the #cheerupcharlie campaign in the UK, started when former Wicked performer Jacqueline Hughes tweeted about one of her singing students, Charlie Kristensen, 9, who was bullied and beaten-up because of his interest in musical theatre.
Hughes asked fellow performers to send Charlie, who appeared in the Channel 4 doco When I Grow Up, messages of support. Encouraging messages, gifs, invitations to see shows and tour theatres quickly followed – with several performers noting they'd experienced similar treatment as children. The hashtag #cheerupcharlie morphed into an online anti-bullying campaign that urges kids to embrace their love of theatre.
"People didn't think it was cool when I was younger, but I didn't give a s*** about that because it made me so happy. You need to have supportive people around you and that includes teachers. It can be as easy for a teacher to put you off. When I was 14, I went to singing lessons and the teacher told me she might be able to get me a part if the chorus of an amateur musical if I worked hard - but I had bigger aspirations. I found another teacher."
He was trained by legendary Northland singing teacher Joan Kennaway who, before her death, saw Tee in leading roles around the world.
It's taken Tee longer to acknowledge another aspect of his life. As well as being an actor, he's also an accomplished makeup artist. During a two-year period in New York, he didn't book a single acting job, so he turned to his makeup artistry to make a living. He worked on New York Fashion Week shows, became the creative director for Polish brand Inglot Cosmetics in five countries and painted friends' faces.
But Tee never told business associates that he had another life on the stage.
"People don't think you can be good at two things at once. When I was doing makeup, I never told anyone because they'd think I probably wasn't a good performer but now I want to – and I can – live authentically doing both things.
"And, you know, a man who likes to wear makeup? So what? If you look at paintings from history, men used to wear it and dress very flamboyantly but then it became unfashionable, associated with being 'soft' but it's becoming more accepted now. For a large part of my life, it wasn't but I want to wear my artistry; I don't always have a female friend I can paint, so why can't I paint myself?
"Thankfully, we're now living a world where we can start to push the boundaries because there's a growing awareness, maturity, that just because you wear makeup, it doesn't determine your gender or sexual preferences. I mean, sexuality is not a fashion choice."
Tee made his most important choice as a teenager when, after finishing his schooling at Avondale College, he went to Sydney for a one-week training course at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. He thought it would look good on his CV.
Come the end of the week, it was suggested he should audition for NIDA's musical theatre course. By the time he left Australia, his future course was set. There were just five weeks between returning home, packing up his life and heading back to NIDA.
"I'm glad it was only five weeks because I think if it'd been any longer, I might have chickened out."
Many musical theatre performers describe themselves as triple threats – they can sing, dance and act – but Tee, refreshingly honest, calls himself more of a "park and bark" performer.
"You know, stand on stage, belt it out and leave the stage."
He doesn't consider himself a dancer, although he did a bit of that when he was younger, because, he says, it allows him to play to his strengths and hone his singing. That, he reckons, lifted him out of the chorus and into roles like Cable in South Pacific, Thomas Andrews in Titanic, Bustopher Jones in Cats, the wolf in Into The Woods, Matilda the Musical's mega-villain Miss Trunchbull and, most famous of all, Javert in Les Miserables. The character, played by Russell Crowe in the 2012 film, is a good deal more complicated than a cardboard cut-out villain, says Tee, and that suits him.
When he's not playing Javert, Tee misses the character whom he describes as an antagonist who does bad things rather than an outright villain.
"It's not interesting to play a character who's simply a villain. You need to find the complexities and the justified reasons for what people do. Even with Miss Trunchbull I tried to imagine there was more to her but that was a tough role, physically demanding, mentally challenging because it is so demanding."
His family has seen him perform before; they went to Broadway for his first New York Les Mis performances and his sister saw him in the UK in Matilda but he reckons there's something special about playing Javert on home turf.
"Performing at home is a dream-come-true," he says, slight hint of an Australian accent breaking through, "but I'm more nervous than I was when I knew Cameron Mackintosh was in the audience [in Australia] or doing it on the West End or Broadway. If I stuff up, all my friends and family will never let me live it down. I honestly think New York is not as scary as your mum; you want to make her proud."
Les Miserables opens on November 7 at The Civic. Face to Face will be released the following day.