Artist Feature with rising star: VILLA JUNIOR LEMANU
Interviewed by Gabriel Faatau'uu-Satiu
On the set of short film, My Friend Michael Jones (2017). Villa Junior Lemanu as lead, M.J.
Photo by Caryline Boreham.
My name is Villa Junior Lemanu. I am predominantly a freelance actor/dancer. Born and raised in South Auckland. I am full Sāmoan and take my culture and place of upbringing very seriously. I wear them both on my heart and sleeve as it makes up a big part of who I am and what I do.
Did you always envision this from a young age to be creative? Was there a defining moment in your upbringing?
I loved to entertain people from a very young age. Growing up, I received a lot of love and positive comments from my peers which made me feel good. But let’s be honest, I think I was just around people who were ‘just being nice’ because I never really felt like I was the best at what I was doing at the time. But those subtle comments and positive energy which is what gave me the confidence and motivation to continue this path. And I’m so thankful for each of them.
I did have an older cousin, Charlie who you might know. He was a fairly big name in the dance scene, who taught me and brought me into that world. Whereas for acting, I think it was in year 11, when I was forced to pick specific subjects that defined your avenue and which direction you’d go into in terms of career - which is alot to ask of someone that is 15-16 years of age. I remember being stuck at a crossroads of health science and performing arts. And I took a risk (despite what my family would think) and picked performing arts.
It eventually led me into the tertiary world and I was in another ‘do or die’ situation where I either had to get a 9-5 job or actually pursue my dream and focus all my energy into my craft. It’s hard work. I’m in a much better place now having gone through it (and going through it still) but I’m more clearer about where I stand. Although I am still very young and have a lot to learn, I’ve encountered many people and in a position to start taking control of my career moving forward and where I want to go.
Gagana Leiloa (by Villa Junior Lemanu (pictured) and Matavai Taulangau for the Pacific Dance Choreolab. Photo by Leonard Pailate.
Growing up in a Pasifika family, were they always supportive of you pursuing a career in the arts? What do you have to say to kids who want to be artists but live in conservative families who want their kids to pursue day jobs ie lawyer, doctors etc.
I was lucky in the sense that my parents said to me in some form, “as long as you’re not doing what we’re still doing”. That always stuck with me and I used it as motivation. I remember the internal battle I was having of trying to decide what my career was going to be. I remember thinking, was I going to be a doctor or an architect? Typical Pasifika dream, right? And my parents really stressed tertiary education which I did in the form of art. But I followed what I always knew I was meant to do and abided by what my parents wanted of me in terms of education. And I’m proud of myself for that.
Love and fear is something that I use as a way to push and pull for me. Being young, when all you know is school can be hard. Especially with the pressures and expectations of family, friends and your surroundings. I was lucky to be surrounded by people who were always supportive of me and my craft and constantly showing me love and boosting my confidence. Find those people! And if you’re not as (I guess), lucky in that sense, then ask yourself is this what you absolutely want to do? And if it is, then you’ll find a way to make it happen for you, in some way, shape or form.
Who are the major influences in your life?
My parents are my motivators. They are really hard workers in their fields. I could never work a 9-5 job (which I tried btw). I know they don’t enjoy what they do, nor was it part of their vision for us. But they do it because they have to. And it’s commendable which has inspired me in different aspects of my life. I always feel a sense of guilt because they’ve raised me and siblings far better in their circumstances than I could have done. I never realised how lucky and spoilt we were ie. having our laundry done, having cooked meals, showing up for us across various co-curricular activities etc. all after a long day of hard labour. It’s something I took for granted, but also something I take note of being in a space of luxury. And I really want them to be proud of me and repay them for everything they’ve done before it’s too late. They’ve been doing this for 30-40ish years. Obviously, it’s impossible to do that because I can’t ever measure up to their battles. But I know that if I can keep doing well in what I am doing right now, I can get to better places beyond my own expectations of me (for them).
I am also influenced by the circles I’ve encountered here in New Zealand and actually how small the industry is. I find myself always interacting by seeing each other in other spaces outside film like theatre, dance, galleries etc. And we’re not so stuck up (I’ve heard at least) like the stories I hear about those in Hollywood. From what I’ve experienced, the industry and people are so loving and inviting and always open to share, learn from and talk to. And I’m in constant awe by the works our people are pumping out (which is a lot) which gives me motivation to level up and keep creating.
On the set of Gagana Leiloa. Photo by Jimmy Wulf.
Let’s talk about some of the projects you worked on like ‘My friend Michael Jones’ and ‘The Legend of Baron To’a’. What can you tell about each of those experiences?
My friend Michael Jones was my first ever experience in front of the camera. That project itself was very special to me (as it was for the creators). It was my first time acting on screen and working with not one, but 2 co-directors (Samson Rambo and Ian Leaupepe) and 2 producers from Run Charlie Films, (Eldon Booth and Alex Lovell). They did really well in navigating the process and maintaining a professional and friendly atmosphere. And they were all super generous and giving in compromising and sharing ideas. What I learned from that process was although there were so many discussions and shared visions, each of them played a vital role and never lost sight of the essence of the story. And that was a beautiful thing to be a part of. For me, to be part of a story that is South Auckland hard, without sugar coating the language and nuances about what makes us proud to be from here, it’s rare. But one I see changing because there are so many talented people from the south reclaiming those narratives.
Now having a few experiences under my belt, working on a film like ‘The Legend of Baron To’a’ was so scary to me. By nature, I am a happy/chill type of person and the character I played was the complete opposite. But it was fun. As a dancer, I was nervous but excited to do a few stunts (small ones obviously haha). Prior to this experience I had watched a few documentaries and videos on how specific stunts were created. So to be part of something that included choreography really opened my eyes to a world that I could potentially get into (especially with my dance and theatre background). I’m really open to learning more and this is a door I can see myself going into. The actual process of stunts itself was extremely safe and we had an amazing and supportive team onset (shout out to the crew). For instance, being so far away from my ‘opponent’ in a punch-up situation and then seeing how it translates on screen is quite magical as to how real it looked.
Villa Junior Lemanu (pictured back row/second on left) on the set of 'The Legend of Baron To'a).
Photo taken from Ashlee Fidow's (left front) Facebook page.
The Other Side of Heaven II (2018), Villa Junior Lemanu playing the role of Nuku in his first feature film role.
Photo taken by Ben Baker.
If I could give you all the money in the world and the best resources to make your big dream a reality, what would that look like?
I studied dance and acting so my dream was always to pursue both professionally. At the moment, I’m having to give both those crafts full-time attention while teaching online urban choreography with the University of Auckland. It’s hard. And I love what I do wholeheartedly. I guess I have a fear of either craft out-weighing the other. I want to maintain a level where I can be equally excellent at both without compromising the other.
Do you have any current projects you can speak about?
I’ve created a trilogy series called ‘The Jukebox Series” with Samson Rambo. These were ideas that were conceptualised around the dream state I get into as I listen to music. And I was really inspired to make a dance film. From that, I am hoping to grow the series and in discussions with others to make a second volume/series too.
It’s been tough, due to the current situation and trying to find ways to keep exercising our creative muscles. I’ve utilised this time to just message a whole heap of people that I am keen to work with, reaching out, talking and exchanging our experiences in the current situation, and lowkey trying to keep me on their radar for when things go back to normal.
Co-writer/co-director of My Friend Michael Jones (left), Samson Rambo and Villa Junior Lemanu (right) at the Wairoa Māori Film Festival.
Villa Junior Lemanu (left) with Māori actor, Richard Te Are (right) at the 'Show Me Shorts Film Festival' (2018) awarded the Toi Whakaari Best Actor Award for the role of M.J. in 'My Friend Michael Jones'.
Where could people who are not familiar with the arts see your works?
Other than my passion projects which I share on my personal instagram (open and free to the general public btw just plugging haha), works like MFMJ and TLOBT were screening in certain spaces which has changed obviously because of the current situation. But I want to encourage everyone to support our local Pasifika works and go watch these projects when they’re made available in places near you. Too many of our own people are either streaming or will find leaked versions of our works which is dangerous to our industry.
I know you’ve recently been interested in writing, can you tell us a little about that experience?
In 2018, I attended a pitching session as part of the Script-to-screen’s programme called ‘South Shorts’. It was free and open to the general public. And I’m always keen to upskill, and I wanted to surround myself with scriptwriters and surround myself in their world and the way they think and tell stories.
From that, I was selected to be a part of the Script-to-screen’s programme (South Shorts Mentorship Programme) to further develop my idea that was originally pitched. I was mentored by Briar Grace-Smith who was mean (in the good sense). She was really helpful. I felt that I had failed in the actual script-writing sense because it was so hard and different to what I knew and had trained for. But the Script-to-screen team and participants of the programme were super caring and nurturing and genuinely wanted the best for all our works that were presented. I received really good feedback and support in my idea, which I’ve parked to the side for now. But I truly believe it’s a project that will surface at the right time. One that I can re-approach with more experience up my sleeve. Because I still think it’s a good idea.
Part of that experience, we had a guest mentor, Jerry Tauamiti who if you don’t know, you should. Anyway, he talked to us about his short film, Liliu; one that had been rejected many times and one that he never gave up on. And when he showed it to us, I was blown away as I always am of his works. I’ll always have his speech in the back of my mind when I reapproach my idea which was to be diligent and resilient. He never gave up on his will to tell this amazing and necessary story. One that you must see if you haven’t.
Villa Junior Lemanu on the set of 'The Jukebox Series' - a trilogy dance/film series available on Instagram, May 2020. Snapshot during a shoot with Samson Rambo and Ralph Brown.
What’s your greatest fear?
I do my best to live in the present, as opposed to living in the future. What I mean by that is I found myself to constantly be in a place where I am writing/planning and thinking about what my next move is down the track. I have an amazing family, partner and friends who I may have taken for granted by not being in the present with.
The flipside to that is how the world is developing and changing every minute of the day. People are getting better, and getting better fast. My fear around that is the idea of not growing and changing with them. And I don’t necessarily want to be the best at anything and everything. I just want to keep developing. Be better than the person I was yesterday, or a week ago, a month ago.
Any last words?
Shout out to my parents, who I’ve spoken heaps about I feel. Who have loved and supported me throughout my career so far and for keeping me grounded. And I especially want to shout out, my hometown, South Auckland. We’re just being bombarded with so much negativity which isn’t always true and doesn’t encapsulate the heart of who we are as a community. So huge huge shout out to the Southside, always!
And finally, I want to shout out to my creative peers. I know this is a tough time. I just want to project and send you all as much positive energy as I can. I want to encourage you to keep creating, even if it doesn’t publicly go anywhere. And be present in your creating. Have fun with it!