Transcript of Jay Laga'aia chat
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. Listen to the Jay Laga'aia chat podcast (58:24).
Jackie – The following podcast is brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team from Secondary Learners Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. As we commence this podcast today, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands on which this podcast will be played around New South Wales. Their art, storytelling, music and dance along with all first nations people hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. Let us acknowledge with honour and respect our elders past, present and future, especially those Aboriginal people in our presence today who have and still do guide us with their wisdom.
Welcome to the Creative Cast podcast series. My name is Jackie King, and I'm a creative arts project officer with the New South Wales Department of Education. Today I'm excited to be having an industry chat with one of Australia's most recognised faces, having performed in Star Wars and featuring in iconic Australian shows like Water Rats, Home and Away and Play School. Please welcome Jay Laga’aia.
Thank you so much for joining us today Jay. I'm really looking forward to having this chat to discuss your journey in the arts and how your education and schooling has sort of moulded where you are today. I'd like to start right at the beginning, though. I have done a little bit of research and I see you were born in raised in New Zealand with six brothers and sisters and two half-brothers, and I love watching the Laga’aia family each year at the carols do their thing. And so, I was wondering, did music play a really big part in your upbringing in New Zealand? And what was it like growing up as a kid, obviously in a big family, and in New Zealand?
Jay – Music is always a big part in any ethnic family, mainly because it was the first form of communication. I mean, in Polynesia, we didn't have a written language. So, our stories are always told in song and dance and verbally as well. So, you'll find that a lot of Polynesian and ethnic performers started out performing, or we got our performing chops from church, you know, in the choir and doing nativity plays. And then from there you get the confidence to perform. You know, once you go to high school, the opportunity of being in the school play or doing certain things arises, and that's when you start to latch onto them. So, from my point of view, it was very much music was very much part of lives.
You know, we grew up with all of the families. We grew up with the Osmonds and the Bradys and the Jacksons and the Partridge Family and the Carpenters. So, we grew up with, you know, all of these, whether they be on screen or off screen on, through the sixties and seventies. You know, that's when songs and had melodies. I mean, nowadays, you know, you're beaten to death by musical phrases and beats, whereas in those days you were quite happy having A C A B A. You know, it's just an introduction, middle bridge and about something really simple. A song about I saw a girl, I fell in love, we lived happily ever after.
Jackie – Yeah, that sounds so much more simple than some of the pieces that were here today. Although some pop pieces can be pretty simple in their structure.
Jay – Yeah, I think that people have to also acknowledge the fact that what is now has come from beforehand. You know, you look at that experience and then they build on. That's not to say the music nowadays isn’t great, because there are some fantastic composers and musical performers as such. But for me, you know, my brand is back there. You know, I quite like what I like. And my kids like what they like.
Jackie – Yeah, yeah. Fair enough. And, I think every family is probably the same like that. Do you remember what your first performance ever was?
Jay – Oh, yeah. My first performance was actually leading the choir. My brother, who's a year older than me, he was always the leader of the choir. He would get up there and sing, and so I was always in his shadow. You know, we're matriarchal society. So, my sisters are older and so we had to fall in line. If they said come in here, we’d have to go in there and wash the dishes, do this or that. So, we were rehearsing one day for a big, huge festival and my brother decided he was going to go out and play with his mates. My brother was probably 15 at the time. So, you know, he thought he was Leif Garrett. He thought he was Peter Frampton, you know, and he was out there playing. And my sister said “get in here because you've got to learn this stuff,” and he wouldn't. And there was like probably 30 people in the choir, these were a youth choir, and we’re all learning the song. So, my sister said “stuff that! Jay, come and learn the song.” And so, I learned this Andre Crouch song, To God be the Glory and we performed it. He came in later on in the afternoon goes “Alright. Okay. What’ve I gotta do?” She goes, “there's your part.” He went “Hold on. This is harmony part.” She just said “Yes. You stand with the boys over there.” He, was not happy. Then we went to the competition and we won and all of a sudden we were performing next Sunday. My mother was full of pride and my brother never let me down. From then on, I realized, you know what, I quite like seeing the world from in front. I might get used to that.
Jackie – It's a nicer place to bay, that's for sure.
Jay – Well, you know, there's the old phrase that once you go to the top of the mountain, it's very hard to go back to the valley.
Jackie – That's true. So, did you do a lot of the choir performances like that throughout your youth?
Jay – Yeah, look quite a lot, and cultural performances. So, you know, we would do cultural dances from the different islands because it was a multicultural church as such, and that would bleed over into school where they would have Culture Club. So they would have a Samoan, a Rarotongan and Tongan club. The Kiwis then said “let’s have a Maori club” and all the white kiwis said “Well, what are we going do?” I said “you know, well, you could pick up rubbish.” So, it was always that you've got your culture. You know, you could go on, and play your music and stuff. But I don't think the teachers really encouraged us to play Thin Lizzy ‘The boys are back in town’, even though it was a great piece in that era, but it gradually came from the church and into school. And once it made that transfer tastes changed. All of a sudden, it wasn't acceptable from our parents’ point of view because it became entertaining for God and then, all of sudden, entertaining for the devil, you know, go out and perform. And so, I was a bit of a rebel, and I decided, “No, I quite like this. I might join this band and we're going to do clubs.” I was 17 and already doing the club scene. Much to my parents’ horror, I would sneak out and we would gig and I come back at one o'clock in the morning and then get up for school, which is just a bit crazy really.
Jackie – Wow, that is crazy. But it sounds like a lot of fun. Just to touch on that, your schooling was in New Zealand.
Jay – Yes, It Was.
Jackie – Fantastic. So you really started your career as a musician?
Jay – Look, I was I was a clarinet player. I am a clarinet player. Up until when our music director decided that we were going to play the theme from Hawaii 50. And right then and there, I made the decision to play sax because I wanted to play that really juicy part. Nobody hears the clarinets anyway and so I said to the teacher “Oh, so I'm gonna play saxophone” and he said “Okay, not a problem.” Then they handed out the music and I looked at the music and I went “Oh, wait, Hold on. Are you sure this is the music? Cause this one goes (sings) dum dum dum dum dome dome. Don't… Because….” “Oh, yeah, No. The trumpets play that part” and my brother laughed because he played trumpet. What the hell? You crazy? I was very disappointed. There's an old saying that if you're a Kiwi your badge of honour is that you can play three different instruments and harmonize. So, if you can't do that, you're Australian. So, in my family we all learned to sing in harmony. We all played various instruments, depending on who had what at any one time and so, we had a very musical household, and I have a very musical household as well.
Jackie – That's wonderful. Your career is so diverse that you've got television roles, movie roles, theatre roles. How did you come to go from being a musician? To, then moving into, say, television, movies or theatre? What came first?
Jay – My career was backwards. I went to television first. It's about opportunities for me. I would love to say that people head hunted me. They could see, you know, the talent. That was the raw talent that was in me and they were going to take me under their wings. But no, it was very much luck. I was working as a social worker in South Auckland. I had left school. I was about 18. Our job was basically to gather some of the young homeless into a hall that was in Mandara East and we would teach them stuff like guitar or just, you know, talk to them. We were trying to get them to get off the streets. In doing so, a director from Television New Zealand came down and they were doing a documentary on the plight of the homeless. And this was during the apartheid protest that they had in New Zealand. And so, I became the liaison. I mean, I was no older than the guys that we were pulling in, and so we would teach the guitar and on the bank of the stream, because they didn't like to go into establishments as such. And after three months of filming these guys, the film crew went away. But the director rang me up and said, “Look, we're auditioning for a new drama about four musicians who form a band in Auckland. Are you interested?” Look I couldn't act to save myself, but I thought, I'll come over. You know the phrase I'll do it for a laugh has got me into more trouble than then I'd like to say, but I went along. This was in 1983. I went along and in this room there were about 15 different instruments. And I played all of them because I knew that I'll never get to play these some of these things again. Then they gave me a script and asked me to read it. And I read the script like I was a three year old. You know, (trying to read) “when I went, I went down. This this kind just kind. What's that? What's What's that? Appeared, just kind of appeared.” I was terrible. I was shocking. I thought, ‘Well, I got to play that stuff’ and I went away. And about probably a month later, I got a phone call and they said “we'd like you to come in and just have a chat” and they had the potential cast there. And got me up to said, “Look, we're just going to get you guys.” some were musicians some were actors, “get you guys tolearn this song.” And it was, you know, James Brown's ‘I feel good.’ I knew that. They wanted me to play guitar on it, which was fine. But then we were playing it and the keyboard player was covering. He was genius. He was covering a lot of stuff. And I said “I want to play the sax” between the vocal phrases. So I ended up playing the sax on it, and in doing so, they basically said, “We've got a utility player here. Jay can not only play the sax, but he could also play double on bass for one of our girls who was an actress. And she's learning play bass, so he could play bass while she sang. So we've got this utility player that can play several different instruments here and cover just in case the actors aren’t up to scratch.” And so, I got cast and you know, I got to work with some amazing New Zealand actors. And that was the first time I realized how bad I was. You know, when the television series came out, even though I didn't really consider myself to be an actor, I knew enough to try and talk over my dialogue. Well, my mother would say “get away from the television. Get away!” I would say “Okay. No, no way.”
To make matters worse, I was learning to drive. And I was a courier driver with the Bedford truck for the show. That was a manual. So, the amount of times they would call action do do (engine stalling sound). I would have one of the car wranglers say, “Listen, if you're going to sit on the clutch for that long, you're gonna have to buy it, okay?” So, yeah, that was my first sort of foray into it. I went backwards and I realized the power of television, you know, it was one of those things. It was a job. That was a great distraction, you know there were great people, they feed us well and I get paid. Oh, my goodness. Gracious me on.
Then when I finished that, I answered an ad in the paper for the Mercury Theatre. Now, at that stage, this was beginning of 83 going 84, Mercury Theatre was is equivalent to the STC here. So, it was the top theatre company in Auckland at that time, and I answered the ad that they were just looking for bodies/chorus members. They were doing Sweet Charity. And so, I went along and sang and I did a bit of dancing, badly, but I got cast. And I remember on the first rehearsal day a great multi actor named George Kennedy, who played Dumbledore in the Harry Potter played down in Melbourne, and he was there with another New Zealand icon, she's passed now, the late Lee Grant, and they were doing this Fandango ballroom. I never even heard of the Fandango, let alone know what it was, but I was watching them, and in the rehearsal room they were in plain clothes, but he was sitting and said “You don't understand what we're doing here, my darling.” And for some reason I just got this tunnel vision and I just went in and I was in the Fandango ballroom and I saw Victoria Vidal. I kept looking at everyone else and they were watching it, but I was discovering it. And, you know, people say you have an epiphany when you find something that you love and think this is it. And that was my epiphany. That was when I went “I don't know what it is, but that's what I want.” And then I went about just stealing people's ideas and trying to imitate people purely because I thought that's how you acted. But it was great because the director for that piece, Jonathan Hardy, took me aside and said “what you guys, what you have to understand is this; acting is like standing up naked and turning around slowly. That's what acting is like. It's awkward, it's frightening, it's confronting, and what you're doing at the moment is understandable. But what you are physically doing is you're jumping faces and grabbing shirts because you think that looks great. I'm gonna put that those shirts will never fit you. What you have to do is you have to take the essence of what you see on then you have to mould that essence and turn it into what you can use because you can't be them. You can't be like the wonderful Nat Lees. His voice is too deep. The presence that he has, the stillness that he has, you could take that essence and slow yourself down” because I was a firecracker man. Man, I was just turning 21 at the time. I understood what he said, and so slowly I just became this owl and I was just watching everyone and what they did because, you know, obviously I wasn't formally trained, so I was just stealing ideas and going into a corner and trying to work it out. Where does she say that without going into your throat? And then you would ask questions from other actors and they'll go, “Oh, no, no, no. You have to do it like this. You have to bring your voice out. You have to use your theatre voice.” I go “why do people look up?” “Because if you look up, just people could see your this. This is your money so people could see your face.” And in the old days. People used to walk around with your hands like this (out) because that's how big you would be and from the view of the gods. There, they could still see you because you're that big. But if you had your hands down by your side, you disappeared. And I was just filing this stuff away. Look, I could have gone to drama school. I didn't know that there was such things as drama school. So, I could have gone to drama school, but the best education I had was the idea that you have to fail to succeed. And one of the great actors, I asked “why? I don't wanna fail.” And he said “because we don't save up your mistake's for this stage.” Don't not say rehearsals is about going. In the workshops that I take I keep saying that this is where you make your mistakes. You have to make your mistake's here. People ask why and it’s because if you don't make a mistake, you can't replicate. If you don't make a mistake, you can't go back and fix it. You know, you bake a cake and it rises to go. How did that work? I have no idea.
So, you make it again, but it doesn't rise. You can't replicate. So, for me, it's always trying to get into people's head that failure is part and parcel of success. It's the hop in hop, step in jump. And if you fear failure, you will be mediocre. You know when people say, “Oh, you know, my wife and I, we've never argued our entire lives.” I say well, then you have never had a marriage, you know, because you have to argue whether it be loud or soft or big or, you know, physical. You have to have some kind of disagreement. Otherwise, you are not being changed by the situation you're placed in. You're not learning something because you're set in your own ways and you're if you're both set in your own ways, then you're two different vessels going in the same direction. That doesn't mean that you have any relation to each other. It's used to, I am used to you, not in love with you. And so, from my point of view it was always that thing of learning this way was great because it was visceral and it was tactile. And I would ask, and the actors around me were so gracious that it was something that I took on myself and making sure that I go ask because you don't know. And don't start with I'm sorry, but because if you don't know the question or, you don't have the answer to your question. Then don't apologize for it.
Jackie – So I really love that idea that failure is a part of the learning process. It is so important. And so many people fear failure.
Jay – It is important you grow from failure. You grow from making a mistake because you're not going to make that same mistake again. You know, there's that old saying, don't hold on to your mistakes just because you took so long to make them. So, with kids, it's also drumming into their heads that rehearsal is about making mistakes, because if you don't make mistakes 9 times out of 10, your director will recast you because he will think what am I doing here? If you already know what you're meant to be doing, what am I doing here? You need to be the director’s vision. It's not the other way around. And so, it's getting them, especially students to understand it's okay to fail, because failing means that you're trying, you know. But the thing is, is that if you don't fail, then you're never going to go forward because you're never going risk. So, you're always going be meat and three veg. You're always going be regular, and then at the end of that, you're going to turn around and go “I didn't have a life at all. I didn't live a life I watched the life on.” I think, especially with young people, it's getting into their heads that you have to fail because society has it earmarked that it is something negative when it isn't. It's part and parcel of success. And they've got to understand that, because, at the end of the day, we don't learn new things unless you crack an egg. You don't learn new things if at first you go “well, I thought it was this, well, actually, no, it isn't. It's this. Oh, alright. Well, now I know.” That doesn't only apply to acting. It just applies to life. In general, it applies, especially applies to relationships. Yeah, and so people have got to understand that I'm not expecting Superman. I'm just expecting you to understand what your job is. And if you don't ask, you know that not an indictment on your I Q. It's simply that you're asking what should you do? I'll give you the answer and then we continue on that way.
Jackie – That's fantastic. So, touching on successes, you've obviously had quite a lot of success in your career since then. Once you've started to learn the road. I just want to touch on some of those successes and what it's like in the various industries that you've worked in. Well not really industries, but genres that you've worked in. So, you obviously graced our screens for a long time a senior Constable Tommy Tevita in Water Rats and you've been in Home and Away. Can you tell us a little bit about working on television in Australia?
Jay – Working on television? Australia is interesting. I came over in 95 to work on Water Rats I had just finished touring Jesus Christ Superstar, the Harry M. Miller production. So, that was a great juxtaposition. I also just finished filming in New Zealand, the first episode of Xena, the Warrior Princess. So, when I flew over I thought, you know, I'm gonna be here year, two years. I've never been to Australia for a long period of time so two to three years. And then, you know, I would go back. I’d already been working in New Zealand for nearly 15 years. So, the training I had over there put me in good stead. When I came here, I made a conscious decision not to be the all smiling, all playing, brown skin guy. I would be that quiet guy who people would turn to for information and in doing so turned my character into a dramatic character and not so much a comic foible. And in doing so, what it did was allow people to see a different side of me.
And then I was able to add the musical flavour to interviews and stuff. I remember being invited onto Roy and HG for the first time. And I was in the green room and I was a mess because I kept listening to them, and I'm going, I don't understand what they're saying, you know? I was going, um?? So I have to really concentrate when I went on there, but we had such a blast, and it was one of the breakout sort of interviews that I ever had because he was going right. They said “So, Jay you know, you must be really excited about Water because it goes right around the world, including the Pacific.” And I went “yes, my relations in Samoa are looking forward to a to seeing Water Rats.” They said, “I suppose you're sending them over televisions.” And I said, “Well, yes, I am, and the next year electricity.” Then I also realized that I was an exotic, because you can always tell the rhythm of a city simply by what you see on the television, you could tell what kind of country it is when you have a look at the television because their television normally reflects the communities you've got. New Zealand, it's multicultural, you know. There's Brown, there’s Asians, there's Indians, there's, Europeans and they’re all there fronting shows or reading the news or doing stuff. But here in Australia, its mostly Caucasians, you know, with the occasional brown skin or token Italian here or there. And so, for me, when people say, has it changed since 95? I go “Well, no, it hasn't.” And that's the reason why we've had so many issues with, you know, the Rob Lowe Endowment Awards that they, of course, the big stink when they came out and musical theatre casting at the moment that theatre producers have to adhere more to giving our people here more of a chance to get in the jobs and sending them overseas.
So, I think, you know, for me, as far as television is concerned. I mean, what I loved about it was the immediacy of it. People would call me by my character name. So, I ended up having to make a deal with my wife to say, “Hey, call me Tommy or any other names. I'm not gonna turn around.” Then, when people call out and say “I was calling you back there, you know?” “Oh, you told me. I'm Jay.” “Oh, yeah, Jay Yeah. I love your show”. And when I was in doing Home and Away, I mean, I was in a relationship with Ada Nicodemou, and it was the same sort of thing, you know. People are hell. Or A Bed of Roses with the ABC. Harry Armstrong. And our characters had an on again, off again relationship and I had old women come up to me in the aisles and movies and go “You should marry her.” “Marry who?” “You should marry it. I think you two would make it great couple.” And my character was a mechanic, so you'd have guys, you know, road crew guys would stop. “Hey” “Do you reckon I should change the air pressure in my tires back like two.” I like “I'm a pretend mechanic.” Clayton's mechanic one that you get when you don't have a mechanic. You know, that's the nature of this beast of television itself, it's immediately impactful.
But, you know, you have to make sure that whatever you leave on the table as far as recording is concerned, that you're happy with it because you know that in the editing suite that they will chop around and chop it on. So, you have to be really happy that whatever they left, you know, it's quality.
Jackie – There's no way I can do this podcast, actually, without talking about Star Wars, because I have a Star Wars fanatic household. My son actually begged if he could stay home today and be involved in this because you are Queen Armidala’s personal security guard as Captain Typho. Do you get the same kind of recognition from having done a huge film like that?
Jay – Star Wars is part of the social fabric. I mean, you go anywhere in the world and they know what you're talking about. You talk about, you know, R2D2 or CP3O people know what you are talking about. For me, all of a sudden as an actor, I mean, I was just no actor, but you raised above all of that because you worked on that hallowed turf. You worked on that. You know, even if it was for 15 seconds or, you know, 15 minutes or 15 hours for me, you know it's a job. I've always been a Star Wars fan. You know, I collected refundable bottles with my brother to take them in to get four cents back on the bottle so we could save up enough money to go to town and watch New Hope for the first time. So, you know, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. And when I got to be part of it, you know, I was blown away and then being on set, it was just the coolest thing people go, “ What was it like? Was difficult?” No. It was cool. It was so cool and George Lucas was great because he wanted to start working at seven to finish at five. Unlike most directors who would wanna push past that. No, we started seven working at five because we worked in studios. We could create night all day. And then one day I got tapped on the shoulder and they said, “When you are finished here, they need you in the studio 48 which is the back studio. There's a photography studio. They want to take your photo for your toy.” And I went “Sorry.” “Uh, then we're gonna take a photograph for you for your toy.” Right. And so, I walked into this room and there was this big, huge table with post four posts down one side with lights on them. Okay. And I was in costume. They said “alright. You got to stand up on there, Jay, and I want you just to take a pose and hold that pose” and what they did was these laser lights would come down and they were basically take these photographs of me. Then I would sit down in this chair and they would take a laser print off my face and this thing would just move around my head like this. I asked what was all that for and they said basically you know the Hercules and Xena series? Yeah, well all of the toys look like Hercules. Even Xena looks like it, they put the same head on with a long long hair and called it Xena. So, this time around that has very developed it on and to the point where this is me, can you see it.
Jackie – We're looking at a toy.
Jay – Yep, that's right. It's a figurine, thank you very much. It's not a toy.
Jackie – sorry figurine
Jay – Yeah, And so for a lot of my friends who were active, it became real for them. When I was working in Auckland doing this show called Street Legal. I was playing a lawyer and we were doing a scene, and then we're breaking for lunch and this van turned up and the guy said, “We've got a box here of 25 of your toys. Could you sign the other box, please?” So, I signed all these toys and during lunch, and the other cast asked “What's that?” And then slowly came forward and saw. “You got a toy!” All of a sudden, I was a real actor. A lot of them were just like gobsmacked and the camera crew laughed. But, you know, look for me. It was a great experience. I took that experience, and like most things, I ran with it.
Jackie – We better get it onto schools and education. Now, you have touched on already that a lot of your learning has been through doing and through being in the right place at the right time. And my understanding is a lot of this business is like that. You said you did study some arts subjects at school?
Jay – Art in my time, in 77, was about drawing, you know, it wasn't about theatre.
Jackie – Did you do music or drama at school?
Jay – I did music. When they're talking about drama, you know, I wasn't a member. The girly boys, the drama I did was when the coach needed a faster player on the field and I pretended to have a sore leg. That's when I was outstanding in my own field. But, you know, I never realized that. I think for me that the turning point was when a teachers’ training college, true, came to do a play at our school. I was watching them and there was a Polynesian guy in this teachers’ training group doing these plays, and I though “Hold on. You could do this for a living?” And something tweaked in me.
That sort of reaction has stayed with me for a long time because what it did was it reminded me that why do I keep fighting for, you know, ethnics on screen is because kids don't learn they imitate. They see themselves and they go “I could go there because they're there. I could do that because I could see that person doing that. And he looks like me or she looks like me and so on.” For me it was like, how do I do that? Because they call that acting. What I do, they call showing off. So, there's a transition somewhere?
Jackie – Yeah, fantastic. So, did your school have any sort of creative arts programs? You weren't involved in them?
Jay – No. No. They did have though culturally creative arts. We would translate myths and legends into song and dance. And for me, it was like, well, I get that at home. I want to be European. I want to do that stuff over there. But after a while, I realized that in telling stories with your hands, (demonstrates) it's almost like a bird tree. You know, the wind.
As I continued on through my music teacher also said anyone could sing. Not everyone could perform. And he goes. Everyone can act, but not everyone can perform. I couldn't figure that out. And then he was just like, it's the difference between doing one song and doing 15 because you have to have continuity in there. You've gotta be able to sustain and you gotta find your highs and lows. You gotta be able to find the narrative in that. It allowed me as a performer, especially either in the band or as a dancer in our cultural group to be able to tell the audience where I was going. And it was like ballet with narration because, you know, the narrator will go on and so the canoes set off in the sunset, fighting the waves and looking for a new home. And that's all they needed. And then we would enact all of this stuff, you know, going through the waves and the hot sun. And that's when I sort of went, I'm really telling stories. I can see all this stuff, you know. And for me it wasn't so much about acting because I didn't know what that was. So, you know, it was more about survival than anything else. That’s when I realized that if I stayed in the moment, the moment moved. I didn't have to worry about “Where do I go to? You don't have to say after this.” I just have to finish the sentence or finish this voyage and it will appear. And that's where I learned to trust the process. And in doing so, understand that people will go with you. If you if you see it, they will see it.
Jackie – That's a really interesting perspective. So, what would be your thoughts, in this day and age, for preparing students in the classroom who are gifted in acting or music?
What would be your advice to teachers for trying to help students prepare for a career in the entertainment industry today? Is it about getting them to build stamina, to be able to sustain a longer period of time acting or be able to play 15 songs? Not just one? What? What would be your advice?
Jay – Look, first, I would say to them, why do they want to do it? Because, you know, if you want to be famous, rob a bank, because acting is a job. And I'd also explain to them that beliefs around the arts. Everyone can sing a little. Everyone can dance a little. Everyone could act a little. But not everyone can lawyer a little or mechanic a little or plumber a little. So, everyone thinks that they can quantify your worth because you know “my cousin? He sings so. What's the big deal?” You know, ours is the only job that we have to re-negotiate every single time. If I was a doctor with 30 years experience, you would take my bill and you would pay it. But as an actor, I've gotta constantly dance for you. So you know, everyone wants to discount. And I will say it is one of the things that it has to be within your soul. And people always ask me what makes a good actor, which is you have to be a good human being to start off with. You have. If you're a good human being, then you could be a good plumber. A good actor. A good lawyer. A good father. Good mother, good brother, sister. But you have to be a good human being. First and foremost. The next thing is get a job that’s not in the acting industry. Just get a job because you'll be amazed at how much having coin in your pocket will give you confidence. The other thing is, is own your actions. If you own your actions, you will save a lot of heartache. “Did you learn your lines last night?” “Well, you know, the problem is my mother, she had a you know, she had an episode and she had to go to the hospital.” We’re actors. We used the ethos a lot. The last thing you want to do is muddy the waters up there by, you know, making up stories about dead relatives. It's one of those things humans in general, when you're in trouble, the first thing you do is go “Please, God.” You know, even if you're not religious, “please God.” So, you know, I believe it's always performance is very much about not for your audience as such, because if you translate applause for the quality of your work, you will always be disappointed. So, for me, a performance is very much about performing for a greater being. When I did Lion King, Julie Taymor who created the Lion King told us a story about in the seventies she had an argument where she was in Bali. She had an argument with her boyfriend, and she was sitting in the courtyard of a temple. And it must have been midnight. She heard a bell ring door opened, and about 30 priests fully dressed, came out as she looked around. There's nobody there and they came out into this courtyard and then for another hour or so they sang, and they performed. She kept looking around to see that there's no one here and then after that, another bell rang and they all went back in. They were fully dressed and they performed and they sang and everything resonated around her and she sat there in the silence. Once they left and back into the doors, she saw this guy, but there was nobody there. And then she realized that's what performance is about. Performance is about performing for something greater than yourself, performing for something that is for the ethos itself because, you know, honestly, that if somebody came in and said that was a great performance, but you phoned it in, you would take it on board, but you will feel a little ashamed, right? Whereas if you perform for this ethos out there, that's as good as it's gonna get right now. And as Julie said, you will win the war, but you may lose the battle, but the great thing about it is you open yourself up to coming back next week or coming back tomorrow and doing the same. And she goes, and when you lose yourself in the bright lights, in the applause and in the loving arms of your audience, go upstairs and perform once again for the ethos, for the greater being out there, and you will realize that it not only cleanses the soul, but you can't lie to yourself. If you phoned it in, you will know automatically. So, you have to put it out there. If I've got a sore throat, this is all I can give you. That is all I want. That's not a problem. This, you know, it has to come from a place of truth, and doing that every now and again allows performers to not get too big to them for themselves, and it doesn't matter if you're an amateur, it doesn't matter if you're a professional. Doesn't matter if you've been doing this for years. If you stop every now and again, and just perform, you realize the extras that you put on, the twinkle in your ill, that little turn of the head and you realize I don't need that stuff. Who's that for? And you realize I'm just creating shapes because I thought this. I saw somebody do this and I thought I'd just be really sophisticated and throw my hair back like that. But at the end of the day, you're not telling the story. You're not being truthful. It doesn't come from a place of truth. And so when you break it down to brass tacks like that for me, and I do it constantly, you know, two o'clock in the morning, my wife is going, “Hey, we're trying to sleep!” You know, for me, its fulfilling, and it's cleansing the soul and also makes me accountable for not only for myself but for that brown skin kid who's sitting in the audience because that's what I want. And when they see you, they see the real you, they don't you know, they will see a character performing and they'll go “That was amazing.” But I say you know, the person you see on stage shouldn't be any different from the person you see offstage. Even though you may be playing a character, the essence of your character when you come offstage should be just the same. And that way, you know, people don't run away from you. They run to you.
Jackie – I love that. Obviously, you run workshops and you teach as well at the university with the occasional workshops. Obviously, the students at Mudgee High School are really lucky as next week they're going to be experiencing one of your workshops. Do you have the time to do lots of workshops like that in high schools? Is that something that you do?
Jay – I'm really lucky in that doing 16 years of Playschool allows you to ring up high schools and ring up places of education and go, “Hey, I'm coming down. I'd love to come” and people scramble to make it happen which is great. I worked from 2011 through the 2017 as the ambassador for Queensland kindergartens and so travelled the state up there. I have a simple philosophy that wherever I tour, if I'm on tour wherever I go, I'll ring up the teaching establishment there and volunteer my services. It not only keeps me grounded but also allows kids to see what they can do. It was just allows brown face kids to go “I could do that, too.” The classes that I'm doing down in Mudgee's because I'm working on Doctor Doctor. So we're filming down in Mudgee on the Wednesday, so I said, “Look, don't drive me down. I'll drive down early and I'm gonna do a masterclass for schools.” So we've got three schools coming in at Mudgee High School. I'm gonna do a masterclass from 11.30 to 3.30 and then we've been able to get a bunch of the community together, and we're gonna do a senior master class for adults from 5:30 to 9:30 and they're free.
Jackie – Huge day, and so generous.
Jay – Yeah, look, I think for me it's that thing of just going $10 in Mudgee is the same as $10 in Sydney. Rural people want just as much as anybody else. People in Mudgee also have aspirations and dreams. In my master classes, I teach life skills. They don't teach acting skills because then you can apply to anything you know. It becomes this universal pocket knife where you know. I always tell them stuff like, “a good scene partner always knows what your eye color is. The best time to grow trees 20 years ago, the next best time is now.” Look, I think the thing is that it's always this thing we’re going, “you could make excuses or you could just get on with it.” And the evening classes, I say always for the could have would have should haves. I could have done this. I would have done this. I should have done this. So, for me, it's about reintroducing them to that. Some people just want to hear their voices. Some people wanna be just confident enough to stand up and know the process of how to go about doing that. Some people want to face their demons. Some people wanna be performers.
Some people also, you know, want to be able to overcome certain fears. For me to go “No, that was terrible” is harsh, you know? But you also give them that philosophy that as a group, we need to shine on all of us. If we shine on everyone, then we will grow. But if you throw shade over this way, then some of you will grow and some of you won't grow. Some of you will fail and some of you will succeed and understand that we all grow at different rates. So not all of us wannabe stars. That's fine. There are moms there. They just wanted to come out and to do something different. Let's sing a song.
I also cover how to do auditions. How do you know to conduct yourself in an audition situation? Do I need an agent? If I do, what am I looking at? Why should I need an agent? Do I need to be part of the union? Finding jobs, getting jobs? Who owns what? Down to song selections. You know, I will say to them, why is it that people choose songs that are out of their key? For goodness sake? You know, find out what your key is. And also with people who are going for musical theatre auditions. I mean, I'm lucky we're just celebrating the success. My son is a cast member of Hamilton. But I'm always gobsmacked when people go to auditions, but have never had a real piano player play their music. You know, I've been in an audition where beautiful young girl stood there for a musical. The pianist has started playing the song, the intro came and the intro winked and he went, “Oh, sorry that that was me. I'll just go back again.” Intro came and she went on. He went “Okay, so this is your intro right here.” And she turned to him, and I swear she turned to him and she said, “Oh, I know I come in after the drums” to which the director went “so you've only rehearsed this with a backing track.” “Oh, yeah.” “So you haven't actually rehearsed us with the music.” “No.” “Okay. Um, you know what I'm gonna do? We've got another rehearsal pianist out there. Could you go out and ask Douglas to take you into rehearsal room three and we're going to see you in half an hour. Okay. All right.” Which is great. I mean, they gave them a chance, but I was just sat in this window gobsmacked. And, you know, and so it's lessons like that. It's really life lesson. It's making them understand that idea of claiming the stage. You know the meaning of the word claiming stages. Basically, you walk onto the stage on you walk right to the edges, and you walk right around. And it's not because you're nosey. It's because you're telling yourself, see, nothing to scare me here. Nothing to scare me here. I could go all the way back here. Nothing scared me there. You claimed the stage. Now I'm just like claiming the room where you're walking for an audition. You go up to people, you look him in the eye, you shake their hand and introduce yourself. If you go along, even if they're talking, you stop and introduce yourself. Why? Because that's the first impression that they'll have how to address the auditions. What to do? So, it's the little nuances that they're sitting. Before they hear you, they will see you. You know, word to the wise. Wear interesting shoes. Jackie – Interesting shoes?
Jay – Yeah, because that's what they were doing. They look at you, but then I look at your shoes. If you want wear high shoes to an audition it looks like you have no idea why you're here. It's not modelling call, you know. But if you have sensible shoes that have good arch support but also will allow you to move if we say can you dance and do this, then they'll go. “You thought about this?” The guys are the same. I always wear these imiatation Crocodile skin shoes. Always a talking point. And they go “alright. Hey, Jay, How are you? great shoes.” You make an effort, and you've now got a conversation.
Jackie – I would never have thought of that in a million years. One to remember. Obviously, with your workshops, you contact the schools when you're free. How might schools tap into expertise of an artist like yourself to enhance their programs? Obviously, listening to something like this today is a good help.
Jay – Yeah. Look, I think the thing is that I'm really easy to find, you know? Teachers will always get they’ll google my name, they'll see my INSTAGRAM account or something. They'll contact me through there and say “Could you send this shout out, you know our girls here at Riverside are about go into the year 12. Could you send a shout out to them?” So, you know, I sent the shout out. You know, if they asked politely and it's done in the right way, you know? I don't have an issue. I'm my own worst enemy, you know, if I'm going to go down there and we’re going to be down there let's just do something constructive. And I was fine. This is a great way to get a good idea of the of the town itself, know its people. The good thing is that you make friends automatically because the next day when we're filming, I must see some of these kids on the street or some of the grownups on the streets. So, you know it's a win win situation.
Jackie – You are so generous. Thank you for your time. I want to finish with my final fast five. Here we go. What high school did you go, to?
Jay – I went to Marguerite College, which is in South Auckland between the years of 77 and 81.
Jackie – Your favourite subject at school. And why?
Jay – Lunchtime? I went to school to eat other people's lunches. So yeah, lunchtime was fantastic. I used to hang out with my European friends because they had really great lunches.
Jackie – Okay. It wasn't expecting that. Your favourite teacher, and why?
Jay – My favourite teacher was a teacher named Mr Thwaites. He was our music teacher. He, was a jazz drummer and he would always speak in scat. You know, I need you to drop by, but by, okay, alright. Another problem. Not only that, he encouraged so many of my fellow Polynesian brothers and sisters who had really had no money to become musicians because he would allow us to hire instruments. And he was so bad at paperwork that he would never chase us up for the hire fee. This saxophone became the church's saxophone, became the band saxophone. To this day, I thank you from the bottom of my heart because I know I could never learn these instruments. A lot of us could never learn these instruments without having somebody like that who, you know, absent mindedly allowed us not to pay for these things over a five year period
Jackie – That is actually beautiful, though. Your best school memory.
Jay – My best school memory was as an athlete, I was in senior high jump. I won the senior high jump, but it went over. It went to jump off. Basically, I finally won and as I lead that I rolled off and then was told “hurry up there waiting for you at the 100m.” I looked up. The entire school was in the middle of the field waiting for them to run the finals of the 100 m. So, you know, you hear “Congratulations, senior boys record. Now, he's just making his way down to 100m final.” So, I had to run down to the 100m final, and luckily, the teacher said “just take a deep breath, have some water.” And then I got started blocking you. Take that. I ran and I ran a personal best off 10.8. So that was my best memory.
Jackie – Okay. And what is one take away or advice that you want to leave teachers, creative arts teachers, music, dance, drama, art teachers, with today?
Jay – Choose a job you truly enjoy and you'll never work a day in your life. And nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. To our arts teachers out there. Your job is not to finish the sentence. Your job is to help to pronounce it. Your job is to help them recognize what their strengths are and carry them over to the next part of their journey. You can't take on the responsibility, especially with young children and young students, of where they want to go. I think for you it's simply about sewing simple seeds for them, you know, Please and thank you. Basically, the standards that you're willing to walk past are the standards that you're willing to put up with. The other thing is a clown will always be a clown. You have to ask yourself, why do you keep going to the circus? So, for me, it's always asking, what do you want and especially trying to get them? To understand, you have to dream big and you have to follow your crazy ideas because crazy ideas will put you in a place where a lot of people don't want to go. But a lot of people will want to talk about crazy ideas who will allow you to create characters that end up taking over the world. A talking mouse is now the head of the world. They call him Mickey. Even though Walt Disney's editor said you couldn't draw. You look at people like Branson and Bill Gates who left school early. It's to each their own. So, I suppose, in a long-winded way to the performing arts teacher, your job is to sew the seeds and then allow them to find the way
Jackie – I love that. That's a beautiful piece of advice. Thank you so much for your time today. I think we've talked way longer than I said, we were going to talk. But your stories have been fantastic. There's so much, I think, that teachers can take away from what you've said today and put bits and pieces of that into their classrooms to support our students to dream big and to follow their dreams, because I think that's really important.
Jay – Yeah, look, ultimately, I would love to be able to do a master class or forum for performing arts teacher to be able to strip back their idea of what performing is so that they allow kids to be. I suppose you know it's difficult when you're trying to control them and let them go at the same time. So, its finding the balance between the two. So, I think one of my ultimate goals is to try and run a performing arts workshop for teachers on getting them to learn to fail.
Jackie – I think that's something that we need to talk about in the future because I think that is a fantastic idea. Thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
Jay – Thank you very much. May the force be with you
Jackie – In the coming weeks, we'll be speaking with industry professionals, including cast members from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hamilton and other Australian theatre royalty. Next week we’ll be speaking with Australian theatre licensing agent David Spicer with fantastic ideas about staging musicals in secondary schools. This podcast was brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team of Secondary Learners, Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. Join us on the Creative Arts Statewide Staff Room as a source of all truth regarding New South Wales curriculum. Or you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter at Creative Arts 7 to 12 or email us at Creative Arts 7-12 at d e t dot nsw dot edu dot au. The music for this podcast was composed by Alex Manton, and audio production by Jason King.
END OF TRANSCRIPT