When we first met Beulah Koale in 2016, he told us he was going to be the Samoan Cliff Curtis. The young South Auckland actor (he's 25 now) had a five-year plan: his dream was to be in the US, in a film or on TV, within that time.
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In the coming weeks, Americans will see the work of Beulah Koale, a young actor of Samoan descent who was born and raised in Auckland. He just became a regular cast member in Hawaii Five-O, and stars with Miles Teller in Thank You For Your Service, the Jason Hall-directed fact-based war drama about a group of US soldiers who return from Iraq with severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and struggle to reintegrate into their old lives.
That film, which opened in the US on October 27 (there's no New Zealand release date as yet), is a searing indictment of how the lack of proper funding and staffing at Veterans Affairs has left adrift traumatised returning soldiers ill-equipped to deal with enormous problems. The film is moving on every level, down to the end credit song producer Jon Kilik got Bruce Springsteen to write and perform, based on the marching cadence relayed to him by Adam Schumann, the ex-soldier played in the film by Teller.
A real revelation in the film is Koale, who, by the estimation of the film’s director, “puts the movie in his back pocket and walks out the door with it.”
He plays Tausolo “Solo” Aieti, an American Samoan soldier who saved the lives of two platoon mates but was haunted by injuries and the memory of the death of a third soldier in combat he could not save.
Hall, who revealed to Deadline a great story way back when of how he gained the trust of Chris Kyle for American Sniper, and all the adversity encountered on that film after Kyle was murdered, felt Koale had a worthy story.
Here it is.
After Jason Hall completed his Oscar-nominated script for American Sniper, Steven Spielberg handed him the David Finkel book Thank You For Your Service, and suggested he continue to explore the themes of PTSD that were part of the Clint Eastwood-directed tale of the Navy SEAL sniper.
“Growing up, Steven lived down the street from [Harold Russell], the injured soldier who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in The Best Years Of Our Lives,” Hall said. “Steven was moved by that film, watched it constantly and wanted me to tell a personal story from the ground level on what it’s like to come home from war, now.”
The main focus of Finkel’s book is Schumann, but one of the main characters is his platoon mate Aieti, an American Samoan who enlisted in the military to become a US citizen.
How hard could it be to find a Samoan actor to play him? Hall soon found out. “I told my casting director, let’s take a look at some Samoan actors and she said, well, I know The Rock, and that’s about it,” Hall recalled. “I said, ‘there has to be more.’
"We went on an exhaustive search and she brought me 1200 guys. Only one or two were Samoan but they weren’t right. One was 38 and looked like he could be our character’s grandfather.”
Hall even reached out to his old pal Peter Lenkov, the exec producer of Hawaii Five-O, for candidates, because he uses many actors of different ethnicity. Nothing. “So we sent people to New Zealand, Australia and American Samoa,” Hall said.
“And out of all those tapes that came back, I got the one from Beulah, and I knew he was right, in about 37 seconds, before he got done with his first scene.”
Key to the Aieti character is a dark energy mixed with an inherent charm that keeps him a sympathetic figure even after his efforts to self medicate and manage the onslaught of battle memories leads him into an association with criminals. Though a complete newcomer to Hollywood, Koale had no trouble finding inspirations for the dark emotions that plagued Aieti.
“I grew up in a place called South Auckland, which is basically the ghetto of New Zealand,” Koale told Deadline. “I had a pretty rough childhood and this acting thing was to vent. I was a rugby player who played just to let out my aggression on what I was going through, on other people. It was a legal way of hurting someone without getting in trouble, or getting hurt yourself. Then I found this acting thing and thought, this is a different way I can tap into more of what I’ve been through in my life, without hurting anyone.
“I have four brothers, one sister and my mum,” he said. “My dad was in our lives, but he kind of left a year before this film happened. He didn’t die. He just left. We were poor. I’d go to school and if I was lucky, maybe I’d have two dollars. That was a lucky day. If not, I’d be hustling people all day, to buy some lunch. Which is normal for where I come from. Everyone did that and I wasn’t looked down on. Everyone I asked for a dollar was asking me for a dollar.
"I didn’t have any male role models I could look up to, no father figure in my life. People in my blood-related family are like, criminals.”
While he admits sometimes being on the outskirts of trouble, Koale said the crowd he rolled with took the weight; maybe they saw something in him and hoped for better things for the young man.
“I never had acting training, but acting has been a way for me to release what I need to release, and create characters based on what has gone on around my life,” he said.
“Especially this film. I mixed in my own darkness, what I’d been through in my life, what I’d researched about Solo and the soldiers and what they’ve been through. I put that all together and made this dark potion and lived with it for three months while I was shooting.”
Koale almost didn’t make the audition tape Hall watched.
“I couldn’t afford to pay the guy to do a self tape,” Koale said. “He was asking for fifty dollars and I was like, dude, I haven’t got it. I’m struggling to find the money for dinner. He said, that’s what it costs and I thought, guess I’m not eating this week.
"I was going through a tough time in my life right then, and this was a good thing to vent out this anger. I did the audition. I couldn’t do an American accent. Anyone who was brown in New Zealand did this self tape and my friend did it the night before in my house and was really good. I tried to copy how he was pronouncing his words, and added my own flavour. I sent it away thinking, aw man, this is a waste of fifty bucks, and now I’m not going to eat. Turns out it was the best fifty bucks I ever spent in my life.
“Two weeks later, I got a call, Jason wanted to meet me and we had a Skype session and another audition and I thought, this guy gets me,” Koale said.
“I was shocked the guy who wrote American Sniper even wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘Why don’t you fly to LA and meet Miles and have a chemistry read.' I said, ‘Who’s Miles?’ He said, Miles Teller. I said, ‘Who’s Miles Teller?’ He told me his movies, I watched them and said, 'dude, this guy’s awesome, he’s the next Tom Hanks.’ So they cast me in this film, and I just lost it.”
Hall said it wasn’t that simple.
“I had to sell him to the people paying for this movie,” Hall said. “Beulah just had this rawness, this openness in his eyes that let you see everything that was going on inside this kid. That is a quality of Samoan culture, unique to them. On top of that vulnerability was this exterior toughness, and there was a beauty to the components of everything he brought together. I gave him notes, and he did back flips with them and showed me everything I needed to see. I told DreamWorks, I think I found the guy. And they said, ‘Calm down.’
“Everybody from top to bottom encouraged me not to hire him,” Hall recalled. It was understandable; they could have plugged in another ethnicity that would have led to a recognisable and perhaps bankable actor.
“There were other guys who were going to be hot,” Hall was told. “This one was going to be in this film, this other guy is doing that film. There were other commercially appealing options. But I dug my feet in.
"Even my producer who’d been with me every step of the way, this was the one thing we didn’t agree on. I got it when he said, ‘This is the co-lead of the film and you are casting an absolute unknown we’ve met twice, from another country, and no one has ever heard of him. If this doesn’t work, nobody will ever hear of him again. You are betting the entire film on this guy, because that role is the heart and soul of this movie.'
“I basically bet my job on it,” Hall said. “If I’m doing this, I said, I’m doing it with him. God bless Steven [Spielberg] who maybe didn’t think it was the right choice, but said, ‘Okay, Jason, I’m going to trust you on this. Let’s move forward.’ This was after I talked through what I thought was the emotional availability needed in playing a guy who was lost.
"What I found in Beulah that I didn’t see in any of the other actors we auditioned was a present-ness in being lost. It’s not dementia; it’s a traumatic brain injury. There is something about trying to reach for words, memories and thoughts that I could see happening in his mind, the reaching back for something he couldn’t grab onto. I told Steven, ‘I think this kid’s a movie star, a sweet humble kid who has this power that comes through. It’s a unique opportunity for us. This kid comes from the streets, from a family of criminals, from a very tough situation in Auckland. He brought all that emotion to the work.’ "
If it seems a blessing from Spielberg should mark a happy ending, not so fast.
“We couldn’t get him here,” Hall said. “A customs agent decided he was not giving Beulah a travel visa, telling him he was not extraordinary.”
Said Koale: “The DreamWorks lawyers sorted all the paperwork and told me they’d done this a million times to get a certain type of visa. They said, ‘It’s simple. We do all the work and you show up and sign the paper and say, yes sir.’ The person before me, I overheard her going through the same thing. She was a model, not doing anything big, just going over there to work. He gave it to her.
"I walked in, he looked me up and down and said, ‘Yeah, buddy, you’re not going to get this. Are you a Nobel Prize winner or an Academy Award winning actor?’ I said, ‘nah, man. I’m a dude from South Auckland who’s going to work in this DreamWorks film', and he said, ‘well we’re not going to be able to give you this visa.’ "
Mindful of what he had just observed, Koale told the agent: “I just watched this girl before me, who looked 17, and you gave her the same visa. He said, well, we’re not giving you one. I said, ‘I’m one of the lead characters in this film. It is Steven Spielberg and Jason Hall, who wrote American Sniper.’ He said, ‘No, sorry.’ I didn’t realise how big the problem was but it got to the point where they said they were going to have to recast the role.”
Said Hall: “Beulah is a tough kid who grew up on the streets and if someone pushed him around, he would take care of himself. I said, did you go in there and bully this guy? Did you have a drug conviction you didn’t tell me about? Were you arrested in the past? What the f*ck is going on? I just put my job on the line to hire you and now you can’t get into the country? Beulah said no to the questions and said, ‘I swear, this guy looked at me and decided he didn’t like me.’
"I think this was some white guy we put there in New Zealand to decide who gets to come into our country and he didn’t like this burly brown guy and was going to keep him out. We found out he let in six models that day, but he wasn’t letting in Beulah, despite the fact he was going to star in a DreamWorks movie.”
The lawyers got involved and eventually they found a way that involved Koale flying into Canada first, a solution that happened just days before Hall would have had to recast or postpone. As it was, the production was postponed two weeks.
Koale arrived finally, days before the other actors so he and Hall could work. He’d never been on a plane before, let alone a guest in a five-star hotel. He was alone, with seven New Zealand dollars in his pocket, and five in his bank account.
“I was there three days before anyone else and I remember crying into the phone to my girlfriend that I didn’t know how I was going to do this, when I had no money to eat,” Koale said.
“I went to the gym, to stay fit for the character. I saw at reception they had these green apples and you could grab one. I am not a fan of green apples but I thought, ‘I guess I’ll be eating these.’ And I did. For three days. That and water was it. I went down to the gym three times a day, just so I could have an apple to eat and water to drink. I was too prideful to ask anyone for help. I’d grown up to be the type of person who thinks, I don’t need help, I’ll sort this myself.”
Finally, hunger got the best of him.
“That third day I was really suffering,” Koale said. “I went down to the reception area, almost in tears. The woman asked if I was all right. I said, if I order room service, can I pay you back later? I’ll get paid in a couple of months and I’ll give you all my details and make sure I come back and pay you guys. She was like, ‘you can order whatever you want, it’s on the production and all paid for.’
"I walked to the elevator and just got on it before I started crying, just bawling my eyes out. I ordered everything on that list and called my girl and said babe, I’m finally going to eat some food.”
While most of his cast mates benefited from set visits from the real ex-soldiers they played, Koale’s character initially wanted no part of that. “I called him from New Zealand and the conversation lasted 30 seconds and Solo barely said anything,” Koale recalled. “I told this to Jason who said, ‘Welcome to my world.’ "
Turned out Koale was perhaps the only actor who could have gotten to Aieti, who was still bearing the psychic scars from his military service. Koale tried twice more to call him, and estimates each one-sided conversation lasted a minute.
“He didn’t want to be involved,” Koale said. “He’s this really shy, big Samoan boxer who fought in the military and is a hero, but who barely talks and didn’t want to look back at the crappiest period of his life.”
Koale gave it one more try. The moment is reminiscent of a story Hall told Deadline, when he was trying to no avail to get Kyle to trust him so he could write American Sniper. Kyle ignored him until Hall got into a brawl with one of Kyle’s protective SEAL mates and wrestled him to a draw. Hall felt that marked the first time Kyle really looked at him with anything resembling respect, and considered trusting the writer.
“I spoke to him in Samoan,” Koale recalled. "I said, ‘Solo, it’s Beulah. Before you say anything, brother, I want to tell you my story.' I talked for 30 minutes, told him my hardships and where I’d come from and what I was using to make this real for myself so I could relate to his character. I don’t usually open up about this stuff I’d been through, but I did to this guy, to see if I could earn his trust. As soon as I was done, there was a minute of silence. And he said, ‘Okay, I’m ready. I’m going to tell you what happened.’ We talked for two and a half hours about the book, and everything he’d been through.
"Before we hung up he said, ‘When can I fly down? I am ready.’ I was like, what? Jason couldn’t believe it. Solo was still hesitant and even though he was being put up in this five-star hotel, he slept on my couch mostly. We hung out and formed a bond that remains. And Solo is now a totally different dude than when I first spoke to him.”
Koale said he could not in good conscience have taken the game-changing benefits of playing Solo, without seeing his friend derive the benefits. So he worked to get him a job with Ray Sefo, a legendary Samoan mixed martial arts fighter, who’s building a kickboxing league.
“Solo, who had been a couch potato, is training with some of the most elite fighters in the world, and helping set up fights and security,” Koale said. “He used to be down about not being able to support his family, but not anymore. I couldn’t live with myself if I was benefiting from Solo’s story and that guy was stuck in the same place, and I made it my mission to find him a job.
"Ray Sefo couldn’t believe it, but it turned out that before Solo headed out on these dangerous missions, he would watch a reel of Ray’s fights to pump him up. Ray was Solo’s idol. Solo’s turnaround says something about these soldiers. They can heal and find new meaning in life. They’re not broken. They’re heroes, and you hope they and everyone else just realise how heroic they really are.”
Hall said that right after Koale completed work on the movie and returned to Auckland and his job as a trainer at a local gym, Hall got a call from Hawaii Five-O‘s Lenkov.
“Lenkov says, ‘How did that Samoan actor work out in your movie,’ Hall told Deadline. “I said, ‘Yeah, buddy, I’ve got the best Samoan actor you could find, on the planet.’ I sent him stills and the trailer and Peter was moved by what he saw in the actor’s eyes and the incredible emotions. He calls back and says, ‘We need a new series regular and I’m making him an offer.’ I say, ‘You don’t want to meet him first?' He says, ‘You told me he’s the prize of your movie? I believe you.’
"I told him, the decision to hire Beulah was the most important, best decision I made on this movie.’ Then I said, ‘Is it a good offer? This kid worked his ass off and I’m not telling him to do your series unless he’s going to get rich. He grew up in the slums. Make it worth it. He said, ‘Don’t worry.’
"And the deal was done and [Lenkov] saw the movie the week after and said, ‘You were totally right and if anything, you undersold him.'”
Koale spoke to Deadline from Oahu, where he has been filming Hawaii Five-O in his role as a Navy SEAL-turned-cop. It's a role he feels an affinity towards because of his association with Aieti and other vets he met through the movie. He just debuted on the CBS series. Already, Koale’s life has changed in remarkable ways.
“I don’t think anyone gets stressed here in Hawai'i man, because if you have a bad day, you just open up the door outside and see the ocean, and you are all good,” Koale said.
He was in an apartment overlooking the seaside, living there with his longtime girlfriend and their 9-month-old twin boys. Koale is determined to use his good fortune to break the cycles of his own Auckland childhood, most particularly what it means to be a good father to his sons.
“I have enough money to send back for my brothers, sister and mum, help them pay the mortgage and give them a better life,” he said.
“My goal is to be a good man, a good father. Jason has been my angel, even while I was going through all that darkness in this film and sitting with all that darkness was tough. I told him, you have the key to take everything going on inside me right now, so pull out whatever you need for this character.
"Growing up, I had no male role models in my life and this is my chance to be the man that every other man in my life was too scared to be. Even though I don’t really know what it looks like, I think that is the definition of being a man. I’ve had only the women in my life when the men weren’t there, my mum, my girlfriend, my agent, and they are the ones who’ve helped me become the person I am today.”