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Oscar Kightley: True Detective

Oscar Kightley: True Detective

The Harry star on leaving the laughs behind.

Oscar Kightley has lived in the City of Sails most of his life and he’s never been on a yacht. He moved to Auckland from Samoa aged four, grew up in West Auckland and lived in Grey Lynn. He has been to a Westie gang headquarters and hints that he’s seen inside a P-lab. The city slicker stereotype of an Aucklander is foreign to him. “I don’t know how that whole Jafa thing came about. Maybe someone from Christchurch went to Parnell 25 years ago and went back and went, ‘Oh, fuck,’” says Kightley. “I love Auckland and there are lots of different corners to Auckland.”

Harry, a new television drama that Kightley co-wrote and stars in, spans the city, lifting the veil on what the news­papers call “the war on P” and what the rest of us call life in this diverse, multi-cultural city. Kightley plays the title character, Harry Anglesea, a detective tormented by personal tragedy while dealing with what Kightley says is his “really interesting job”.

The action starts with a brutal holdup by drugged-up crims in Otara, and over a six-episode season tracks the tentacles of the drug industry stretching throughout the city: Newmarket, where the Chinese importers hang out; a meth lab in Alfriston; Remuera, home to crooked businessmen; Penrose, home to a gang; and K’ Rd, for a brothel.

Playing drama on screen is a new direction for Kightley, who is best known for jollying it up in comedies like Sione’s Wedding. Producer Stephen O’Meagher of Desert Road Films had an idea for a television series about a Samoan cop and must have spied Kightley had a darker side. He approached Kightley after seeing him perform with his comedy troupe The Naked Samoans in 2009. “I loved the idea of a title character who is less than perfect and just happens to be Samoan, as opposed to he catches crooks by being super-cop,” says Kightley.

The pair had many knockbacks in their quest for funding but determinedly kept the show in development. Gradually writer/director Christopher Dudman and former top South Auckland detective Neil “Grim” Grimstone joined the creative team.

What they have ended up with is a cracking character drama with a level of authenticity rarely seen on New Zealand television. The action zig-zags across the city with many scenes shot on location — a production hassle that’s often avoided because of cost — which gives the story a great sense of gritty reality. Kightley mentions hard-hitting cable shows such as The Wire and Boss as inspiration. “One of the goals was to make a show that the police would watch and go, ‘That’s not too far off the mark.’”

Mining the experience of Grimstone, who worked the beat in South Auckland for 28 years, was vital for that degree of realism. Having a real copper on board also helped Kightley’s performance as he nervously negotiated the switch from comedy to drama. Through getting to know Grimstone and his former colleagues he had a window into the world of policing. “In the end I realised actually they’re people,” says Kightley. “It’s obvious. Don’t try to be a detective — be this guy who happens to have a job as a detective.”

Kightley prepared for the role by “exercising in earnest”. Not only did he need to be fit for the three-month winter shoot, he wanted to transform himself physically. It worked. His face is thinner, with a mournful hangdog quality that comedy fans won’t recognise.

Kightley’s performance is supported by one of the best in the business. Sam Neill makes his debut in a New Zealand television drama playing his kindly boss, Detective Senior Sergeant Jim “Stocks” Stockton. Kightley has known Neill for a while — since the movie star rang Kightley to congratulate him on Sione’s Wedding. “I didn’t believe it was him,” he laughs, miming the phone call into his curled hand with an incredulous look. “Did the whole: ‘Fuck off, Dave. Very funny, Dave.’” Eventually, Neill persuaded Kightley it was no prank, and then sent him some wine from his vineyard. “We got quite friendsy.”

Kightley tentatively wrote to Neill inviting him to be part of the project, “dreaming more than anything”. Neill liked the idea, had a window in his schedule and voilà. “It was hilarious because we had a few days before he came on set and everyone was in the rhythm,” says Kightley. “Then when he came everyone shut up and was really serious.”

Having an experienced actor of Neill’s calibre is a great coup for the production, but the large local cast shouldn’t go overlooked. Matthias Luafutu (brother of rapper Scribe) gives an electric performance as the chilling baddie in the first episode. With a cast of more than 100 actors there will be more new faces to check out as the season unfurls, giving viewers access to Auckland’s underbelly in a way not previously seen on screen.

“For people who won’t ever experience these worlds but read it in the paper, maybe it will give a degree of insight into what’s behind the story without having to spend time in a motorbike gang club house or garage where people are smoking crack or some clandestine meeting between businessmen planning dodgy stuff,” says Kightley.

“That’s why you watch TV, don’t you? To experience stuff that probably in your life you won’t. That’s why I watch travel shows, to see where I might want to go but also to see places I will never go.”

Harry, TV3, Wednesday 9.30pm.

Photo by Stephen Langdon.

Film & TV