Interview: Jay Laga’aia

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By Andra Jenkin

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is a play I've been dying to see, being a huge fan of comedy and having loved J.M. Barrie since I was a child. I'm excited at the opportunity to interview senior lead Jay Laga'aia, who plays Francis, the narrator of the play within a play, in which, as the title suggests, everything goes wrong.

Laga’aia acknowledges that there is danger of overlooking a genuine problem during rehearsals. ‘It’s not so much what’s gone wrong, it’s simply that thing of going, if it goes wrong, do we recognise it? Do we think, are you acting, or are you really in trouble? So, the potential for things to go wrong is huge. In most shows you allow nothing to go wrong, but with this show you have that space so, this is the wrong bit, if it goes out of that then something is definitely wrong.

He adds that the bad acting is definitely deliberate. ‘I think, what I wanted to really stress to a lot of people is that it takes really good actors to play really bad actors because it is about timing, a lot of it is about timing.’

The narrator is one of the few serious characters in the play. Jay, used to being the comedian, was reluctant to take a step back from the joking. ‘It’s funny because it is a comedy, but I’m probably the straightest person on there. Only because my job is to do the narration. But in talking with Adam, our director, and the original director of the show, you realise really quickly that the straighter you are the funnier it is, because you’re trying to cope with the mayhem that’s happening in and around you. As a father of 8 you’re constantly trying to have to work out…’Sorry? What do you mean he did this? What? Let me just sort that out’. Things go wrong all the time. So instead of commenting on it, the humour of this show is simply about trying to get through that to complete the scene or the sentence or the story. All of a sudden I became the straight guy. I would like to think that I have natural comedic timing; I’ve done improv for many, many years. But I realise that I’m a necessity to highlight the craziness that goes on around me, so I take that mantle on begrudgingly but happily as well

Laga'aia has a long and illustrious career. Some of his roles have had gravitas, as when he played Mufasa in The Lion King. He speaks highly of the director. ‘One of the most impactful directors I ever worked with was Judie Taymore on Lion King, because she’s not only a director, she’s an artist, she’s a performer so you know, she not only directs but she also makes the costumes and the sculptures, and from that point of view she’s my idol, because in children’s shows you have to make your own stuff.’

He refers to his career working in children’s television. ‘I worked for nearly 20 years in early education as well. Doing Playschool for 16 years, I have my own, produce my own kid’s show for channel 7, Jay’s Jungle for the last 5. And I write all the music and stuff. I think I am the poster child for, I don’t know how to do it so I’m just going to do it anyway.

He’s worked a lot, playing roles in New Zealand and Australia such as Xena Warrior Princess and Water Rats, and playing Captain Typho in Star Wars Episode II- Attack of the Clones and Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. He speaks of the trouble with being a role model. ‘People talk about role models and such, and that’s a difficult task to undertake, purely because there’s no rule book, and role models tend to fall off stuff.  I’m no better than you are. You may see me up there, or you may see me doing this or that it’s because I choose to do that, because success is really easy, we tend to forget that if we wake up in the morning and smile that’s success, We tend to forget that as a child, if a child can get a spoon into their mouth that’s success, that’s a huge success. So why is that changed when we grow up? Because we measure our successes in inches then every day is a success. And I believe that we may not be able to change our past, but we can change how we start each day. My job as a senior member of this company, is not so much about going, I’ve got to be the role model here it’s always about living by example, it’s always about looking at the joy of stuff, but also understanding that some days are diamonds, some days are stone, but you know this is what I love, I love being able to come back home and say, ‘Listen, you can do this, you can travel the world, you can.’ Last time I was here was 5 years ago with Wicked. So, ‘You can be a wizard, you can visit the city of Oz all you have to do is dream.  Dream big.

Laga’aia would prefer to live by example. ‘I always say you’ve got to live by example, you’ve got to go, ‘What do I want out of this life and where have I come out of this life?’ Every now and again I go back home and say ‘This is where I am, this is where I grew up, but this is not the be all and end all of who I am.’ This is like me going out into the world. I know that I’ve chosen an industry that does not cater for my colour, so my job is not to rage against the machine, my job is to change their minds. My job is to cunningly like a thief in the night, climb through the window and go, ‘You need me,’ and they go. ‘I need you Jay.’ I go, ‘Exactly.’  And from that you feed your family. That’s my sole purpose in life.

Laga’aia talks about his roots. ‘I grew up in South Auckland so I know where I came from. South Auckland is the Tatooine of the world. It’s sort of the back end, even though it is rich in culture, for me it is always about knowing where you come from but also knowing where you want to get to. Trying to instil that, in not only in the jobs that I do, but also in the people that I come across, so when I go on tour I do a lot of teaching. I’ve been teaching at the Auckland Drama School down in Western Springs, and it was great you know, 7 year olds, 14-16 year olds which is fantastic, also throughout the people say ‘Why do you do that?’ You know. But when I was in school a touring group came through and there was a Polynesian guy there Nathanial Lees and we became really, really good friends, but he was one of the catalysts, that I was ‘There’s a brown face In that troupe’. And it’s not called showing off, it’s called acting. And so I had a direction to go to which is great.’ 

He wants to ensure that he gives a good impression. ‘The idea is always about just going if I leave a good imprint, then you’ll go ‘Those guys over there, let’s try this other guy, I know he’s a little out of the norm, but you know what, the last one we took a risk on was fantastic’. And that’s all you can do.’

For Jay, finding out that he could fulfil his dream meant it was important to give back. ‘I’m as good as anybody else if I put the work in. And it is about putting the work in, it’s not a fluke. I started in ’82, and I have a varied career and background.  I guarantee you that if my name was mentioned, people would smile. I’m one of the lucky ones, to be in that situation where there isn’t too much controversy and that’s because you’re constantly going, ‘How do I give back to the community?’ How do I do that? When I teach, people always ask, ‘What’s your fee?’ and I go ‘Well, it’s standard right across the world, it’s a hot latte and a blueberry muffin, and if you can’t afford to get that, then, you can’t afford the get.’

‘I’m teaching down in Wellington at the performing arts down there and also Christchurch and I get the cast involved as well. And trying to get them to understand it’s not about chasing the money, it’s about chasing the joy and that’s with anything, so for me, if a child comes to see the show and has a good time or a parent comes to see the show and has a good time, then that’s great, because my job is just to get you to forget your life for 20 minutes, for 2 hours, for three hours, that’s my job, and if I do that then, well, job well done.

I asked Jay where his joy was. ‘My children are my joy, my wife was always my joy, I know that I would be dead by now, because you have someone that is just fixing all your rubbish up, because you’re just sitting there going, ‘Look how fabulous I am.’ But in the background they’re going, ‘I’m just going to do your belt up.’

And what is he doing in the future? I got an email yesterday to ask if I’d be interested in, a three day concert at the Sydney Opera House, music from The Greatest Show, where I play senior lead, singing the Barnam songs. So you know, for me it’s like, ‘Ok, I think I’m free’. And then afterwards you go, ‘Oh, I better learn those songs.’

For now you can see Laga’aia in Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Civic Theatre in Auckland for the first two weeks in November, then Wellington the week after that, then it plays in Christchurch for the last week of November before heading across the ditch to delight Australian audiences. Lets’ hope that everything that is meant to go wrong, does.

PETER PAN GOES WRONG

Auckland | The Civic | From 31 October | Tickets: Ticketmaster

Wellington | OPERA HOUSE | 21-25 November | Tickets: Ticketmaster

Christchurch | Isaac Theatre Royal | 28 Nov – 2 Dec | Tickets: Ticketek