New Zealand entertainers don’t come much more lively, versatile, musical, or busy than Madeleine Sami. An actress, comedian, musician, and writer, her talents have been on display for more than 20 years — well before she was out of Onehunga High School in Auckland, and then in all sorts of shows from Shortland St, Xena and Bro’Town, all the way through to Sione’s Wedding and her latest film, The Breaker Upperers, which she and best friend Jackie van Beek wrote, directed and starred in.
Here she and Dale find they have some common interests.
Kia ora, Madeleine. We’ve had
a great range of whakapapa among our E-Tangata guests through the years. But none quite like yours — Irish on your mum’s side and Fiji Indian through your dad. Can you tell us a bit about them?
I don’t know a huge amount about my dad’s side. I know that Indians were brought to Fiji by the British in the late 1800s to work in the sugar-cane fields. But I can’t remember where exactly in India my dad’s family came from. And there’s some mystery around our Sami surname too.
A lot of people thought I was Sāmoan when I was growing up because “sami” means ocean in Sāmoan. I remember in my schooldays at Onehunga High, in Auckland, some of the cool Sāmoan kids used to tag the word “sami” on the back of their bags.
And I just felt like they were my fans. So that was pretty cool.
And your Irish connection?
Mum’s family identifies as Irish. They’re Kiwi, but sometimes when the Irish migrate they become more Irish than the Irish. Both of her parents had Irish-Catholic ancestry, so they grew up with a strong Irish connection — and I did Irish dancing when I was a kid.
My mum and five of her sisters all married either Māori men or Indian men. They had one brother who married a lovely Pākehā lady. So most of my 23 cousins — and I’m really close with them all — are either half-Māori or half-Indian.
We’re a very mixed up, multicultural family of Indian and Māori people.
And what about the Fijian connection?
Well, my dad was from Fiji. But his whakapapa is Indian, not Fijian. His family lived in Suva originally, but then he came over to New Zealand in the late 1970s.
And your mum?
My mum, Christine, is actually originally from Porirua. But she moved up here, and met my dad at a Peter Frampton concert, and they raised us four kids in Onehunga. My two sisters, Anji and Priya, and an older brother Daniel.
And you girls were The Sami Sisters? Singing great tracks from The Sound of Music?
Yeah. That’s me and my sisters.
Oh yes. There was a lot of singing in our family. Everyone could play the guitar. Everyone could sing. There were lotsa guitar parties, that sort of vibe. And very long evenings of karaoke when my cousins are around.
We’d sing when we were doing the dishes. My mum would sing all the time too. We used to just sing to entertain each other. And, at the big family parties, everyone would try to out-sing each other. Or do harmonies. Singing was always a part of the fabric of my life.
And I guess a lot of early confidence came from performing for my family. I’d do impressions and stuff. Our families would often get together for Christmas and the kids would put on a show.
I remember, when I was probably about 10 or 11, being obsessed with Kylie Mole. Remember Kylie Mole from The Comedy Company, that Aussie TV show? She used to do a schoolgirl monologue, and I can remember, at my uncle’s house in New Plymouth one Christmas, doing my Kylie Mole impression for some nuns who were there. I’m sure they were very impressed. I don’t think they knew who Kylie Mole was.
I was probably stoked to be doing impressions for nuns because I was so obsessed with The Sound of Music.
Fancy The Sound of Music being so influential in your family, too. It was in our household as well. I’m from a singing family and, in the mid-60s, our big sister went along again and again to viewings of that movie. And us three boys in our family ended up doing the backing vocals for her. That musical had a massive influence.
Well, it’s about a singing family and that’s what my family was. And even though it’s set in Austria at the beginning of World War II and it’s all white people, we saw a bit of ourselves reflected in them. It’s a great movie. It’s got everything. Nazis, clothes made of curtains. It’s so good!
How did you fare for teachers when you made it through to Onehunga High? Did you get some encouragement for your musical talents there?
I had a lot of good teachers. They encouraged everything I tried. And, at primary school, me and my mates would do the plays at the back of the School Journals. We’d put those on for anyone who’d watch. Which was usually no one, really.
But there were more opportunities for school plays at high school where we had a great English teacher, Mr Paul McCloskey, who’d take us along to improvising and theatre sports groups, and get us gigs, and teach us to back ourselves.
I was really lucky to have such good support at Onehunga High from the English and drama department.
The whole way through, they were really behind me and a bunch of my mates who were showing promise in acting. That was my training ground because I didn’t go to drama school. I went straight into the industry after high school.
Theatre sports were really quite a phenomenon when it came through. It’s developing improvisation skills, although not everyone responds well to that. I’m picking, though, that you probably did. What was it about theatre sports and improvisation that attracted you? I’m assuming you’re pretty good at it.
It’s great to be able to think on the fly. That’s what theatre sports teaches you. But, looking back, I think it all just comes from your background — I was so lucky to grow up with my 23 cousins, a lot of whom were the same age as me. We all liked to joke around. I was used to banter and coming back with one-liners, and being a smartarse with my cousins. And that came into play when I started doing improv.
It was mostly about building up your confidence. I started doing the Auckland Theatre Sports programme, which was great. And they took me and other Auckland students who were showing promise and put us in with the professionals.
So I used to do improv shows when I was only 14 with people like Kevin Smith and Cal Wilson and other great improvisors. I was learning all this stuff at a really young age.
I know that many Fijian Indians consider themselves Pacific Islanders. Do you identify as a Pacific Island person? How do you describe yourself?
I don’t know. I just say I’m Kiwi, Irish, Fiji Indian. I think the correct term now is Indo-Fijian. I grew up saying Fiji Indian and it’s quite hard to break out of that habit.
But I’ve always felt I’m from the Pacific. I’ve always felt Polynesian. I grew up in South Auckland.
There’s a lot of crossover between Fijian and Indian culture. My uncles would wear sulus and drink kava. So I grew up never thinking they weren’t Fijian and Indian because of the customs. And I’ve always identified as being from the Pacific and being proud of that and being very proudly from Onehunga.
Then there’s my mother, Christine, who’s a white woman, but is probably the brownest white woman you’ll ever meet. She was real strict about pronouncing Māori correctly. She’s a teacher at Onehunga Primary and has three half-Indian, half-Irish daughters. And our older brother, our half-brother, is half-Māori and half-Irish.
From an early age, I think Mum was aware of her brown kids getting treated differently and all that kind of stuff. She recognised the racism that we faced — and that she faced. She’s one of those who’s never stood for people not saying or doing things the right way.
I guess, with your brown skin, you can play many characters in many cultures. Even in the same production. That’s a real skill. But what do you like most about being able to play so many characters?
Voices and accents are things I’ve done since I was a little kid. Then being able to take it to the next level, and create characters around it, is an amazing thing to be able to do. It’s especially satisfying too because, as a person of colour, you just get typecast all the time.
I get frustrated at the kinds of roles you get offered unless you’re making the work yourself. They often have quite a narrow perspective. Not at all complex. Caricatures or just stereotypes.
Whereas, when you make your own work and you’re in control of the narrative of the characters you’re writing, you get to delve into more interesting territory.
That’s why I wanted to make Super City. I wanted to be able to show that I can step into those characters and give truth to them — and a different perspective.
You played nine different characters in the two seasons of Super City. And they were a pretty diverse bunch — an ageing cheerleader called Pasha, a Niuean rugby player, a British panel beater, and so on. How are you able to step into so many different characters and play them so convincingly?
I don’t know really. I just observe people and love all the little characteristics that make us so different. I like the challenge of creating a character that is so extremely different from me and trying to pull that off convincingly.
Who’s your all-time favourite character?
Maybe Ofa or Pasha from Super City. They’re both outrageous and deluded. Deluded characters are my favourite.
A good many people think of you as a comedic actor, but the truth is that you’ve done heaps of other interesting roles. You’ve had a great range of experiences in front of the camera as well as in front of a live audience in the theatre. Do you have a preference?
I really enjoy both. I started out in theatre so I think theatre will always be that first love. It’s one of those things that I feel like I need to get a fix of every few years.
But, as you get older and you get kids and stuff, it’s a bit hard because it’s quite an intense commitment in theatre. You have to rehearse for six weeks and then your nights are pretty much done once the show starts.
To be honest, I love working. And, if it’s theatre, TV or film, I don’t care, as long as I’m working.
Because of the work you’ve done, you’re very familiar with the Māori, Pasifika and indigenous film and television scene. And, no doubt, you have a good grasp of how the stories we see on our screens are able to lift the spirits of the people. They can give us great pride, can’t they?
I think the success our Polynesian artists are having on the international stage has just been amazing. And it’s been great for the self-confidence of our young rangatahi coming up. But, also, for anyone in this country.
If we look at our top ten highest grossing New Zealand films of all time, we’ll see, I think, about three of Taika Waititi’s are in there. Sione’s Wedding is there as well. The Dark Horse. These are films that all New Zealanders are responding to. That’s really exciting. Not only for Polynesian New Zealanders, but all New Zealanders too.
And they’re saying that these are the best films that we’ve made. That’s really stunning. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where indigenous, Polynesian filmmakers have films in the top ten like that. They’re pretty amazing stats and are a testament to those artists in those fields.
But it also points to our willingness to embrace our identity and our diversity. And that says something quite nice about New Zealand.
I’m getting inspired by a lot of the younger artists coming out. The Parris Goebels and people like that. They haven’t had to grow up with that cultural cringe that we had to fight because there wasn’t much confidence in the industry for a long time. They just come in and take the bull by the horns. Then the internet has connected them up to the rest of the world and they’ve been able to spread their talents way faster than ever before.
Looking back to your early days, were there books or shows or movies or people that gave you some special inspiration?
I’ve got such eclectic tastes. I love The Sound of Music, as I mentioned. And Westside Story. I love a lot of old-fashioned musicals. My grandma used to play them for me.
And what about the old line that comedians are inclined to have a melancholy streak. Is that true of you?
I don’t know if I’m melancholy but I’m definitely not afraid of being sad. That’s part of life. I grew up with some adversity in my life. My mum and dad split up when I was young and Mum raised us on her own. And she struggled. So we weren’t rich and we had our share of challenges when we were growing up.
And, of course, the life of an actor can swing from big highs to massive lows, just in terms of when you are or aren’t getting work. So I think that always informs your life. But I don’t think I’ve ever been melancholy.
I happen to be a bit of a foodie — and I’m definitely a chilli man. And that sets me wondering if, because of your Indian whakapapa, you have some special tastes in food.
An admission: I hate cooking. I’m a shocker. I started doing theatre straight out of high school and then I started touring theatre, so I’d get these per diems in my hand every day. That would be like $50. Often I’d be in a hotel, so I’d just go and eat somewhere.
I reckon I missed that kind of cooking apprenticeship where many young people, at university, for example, learn to cook because they’re broke. I’m gonna blame it on that anyway. But I’m only just starting to get my confidence in the kitchen. I can do a mean lamb roast.
Shockingly, though, as a half-Indian woman, I can’t cook a curry. I really need to go and hang out with my aunties and get a few things passed on down to me. When my aunties cook me a curry, it makes me want to cry because it’s just the best tasting curry. Ever. In the history of the world.
But I do love a good lamb roast. What does that say about me?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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