Catching up with Sydney's rising star: LAWRENCE OLA
Interviewed by Gabriel Faatau'uu-Satiu
TVC - Sleeping Duck TVC Series (2019)
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m Lawrence Billy Olaifale (professionally known as Lawrence Ola). I am of Sāmoan descent. Born and bred in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland and moved to Sydney when I was 8 years of age where I’m currently based. I’ve only recently turned 30 years old.
What area of the film industry do you work in?
Acting is what I’m mostly known for but I dabble in many other things which you know and I’ll touch upon throughout this interview.
Did you envision acting/art from a young age and was there a definitive moment?
I’d say the realisation was more progressive rather than a definitive moment. I had grown up enjoying drawing and painting, as well as being silly and playing around with mimicking people's little nuances. But it wasn’t until I got to high school, I was excited about doing Year 9 Drama classes and having a space to be able to pretend to be other people beyond myself. I knew that beyond acting, I loved every facet of being creative, much so to a point where I dropped Maths in my last year of school to better focus on Drama, Visual Art and Music all of which had major end of year projects.
Having grown up in a conservative family (which I know about you), and having a late start in the industry (one I can sympathise with also), can you speak a little about that? What advice would you offer those having to put their dreams on hold?
It’s great to have a dream, but have a sense of reality that comes with it. If you have a 9 to 5 to fall back on, it’s fine. Something I’ve done which feels like 50 million times in fact haha. But it hasn’t stopped me. I’ve said this in many interviews before but there is nothing wrong with having a day job or a side job. I think people need to own it more. Don’t be embarrassed. We’re not Hollywood actors (and some of us aren’t trying to be). And from what I’ve read and heard, even some Hollywood actors have day jobs too. You have to start somewhere!
To specifically answer your question, considering my upbringing and my late start, I’d say find what grounds you. Growing up, agents of socialisation (ie. family, school, friends, media) really play a big part in the development of self, and it’s ensuring you balance what is fundamentally truthful for you and how you operate in your daily life. Starting out rather late, it allowed me years of experiencing real life - success and challenges, both positive and negative. It was a rollercoaster of emotions which have taught me things like resilience, self confidence, how I’ve a penchant for self deprecating humour - all of which I can inject into performances as an actor.
TVC - British Paints - 'Fight the FoMU: Greg' / 'FoMU Fighter' TVC Series (2018/2019)
Who are your heroes?
I don’t embody the idea or idolise a specific person as heroic. I can appreciate all artists in their respective art forms and what they bring to the table. But I would never want to aspire or look up to anyone as such or even compare and measure our skillset. For me, it’s more a character’s trait and the little things that they do which is inspiring. Obviously, I’m inspired by my parents and their drive, who moved from Sāmoa, to New Zealand and then here to Sydney with the migrant dream, wanting a better life for our family. I think about those hardships, having to learn a new way of living, a new language etc. Those are the things I find inspirational and I take on and embody that through everything I do as a person.
If I was to name at least one specific person within the industry, I’d probably say Jay Laga’aia. When I moved from New Zealand to Australia, he was the first, in fact probably the only brown face on screen. I remember the show, Water Rats. And he stood out. I was like ‘yeah, he looks like me’ and he wasn’t ideally doing something you’d typically see an island guy to do. For me, he was just a character, that was written, and it felt like a regular thing to see on TV. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with explicitly highlighting whatever culture you are, he was just there, a person. The regularity of him just being a character first, who happened to be Sāmoan. It was nice to see. Then later on, when Jay went on to do Star Wars and other major projects, to see someone that looked similar to me do those big projects showed me the possibilities for people who looked like me and what we could achieve too.
Speaking of Jay Laga’aia and your experiences seeing him as the only brown face you grew up watching in Australia, do you see a difference in your experiences now as an actor?
From my experiences, it comes down to the creative team and who has creative input. In spaces where there are Pasifika people in the creative process, most definitely. And I’m so grateful and lucky for those that I have connected with. But, it gets really hard, especially when the vast majority of the works are created by those that aren’t of Pasifika heritage. In that case, I’m either usually, or one of few brown faces in the audition rooms and on set. But what this allows me (and other Pasifika creatives I know) is to create and make stuff for ourselves.
I do have one experience (which I won’t name) for a TV commercial. I was being photographed as part of their campaign and the photographer had asked me (pointing to the frown-line on my forehead between my eyebrows) and asked me to be more domesticated, which I understood what he meant by that. I mean, they were paying good money and I just wanted to get the job done, right? But then he said that I was too savage-like for his image and asked me to look more colonised. Now, those words set a really awkward tone onset and I remember the producer, looking around, confused and somewhat angry. But the photographer had tried to justify his comment with a Masters degree and knowing “some people” who would support his remark. All I remember thinking, having now processed that experience, was for someone in the creative industry, he should have used more appropriate words like softer, relaxed. Instead he used really offensive and stupid adjectives from stereotypes perpetuated by “his people” and “masters”. I’m not an animal, I’m a human being! Ultimately, the shots turned out great. The money was good because it paid off my credit card haha. But one thing I take from this is that our industry really needs to draw a line of what is acceptable behaviour, and if you’re working with people, regardless of race and their story, then treat them like people and the way you want to be treated.
MODELLING - Lush AU/NZ Instore/Digital Campaign - 'This Guy Makes Your Bath Bombs' (2015)
Images from music video: Kind Enough to Wait by Bohifale (Lawrence Ola's alias/artist name as Director/Musical Artist)
What are your experiences in Pasifika filmmaking?
Earlier this year, I was asked to be part of an experimental short film, Untitled, which was directed by Gabriel Faatau’uu-Satiu. It was an all Sāmoan cast and crew. It was a new experience for me and one like no other which I loved. Just to be at the table and sit with many people who looked like me. There are no words that describe that feeling. I remember it was a little overwhelming. The whole situation felt weird (at first) I have to admit because it was foreign to be in a space like that. But I was so f***n proud to be there. That whole experience really got me to think about myself, in terms of how I view myself, in the position I am in and the power we hold as Pasifika people. It was very positive and I got to confront a realness about my experiences being Pasifika, and what that means to be living in this world.
I never had an outlet to express how I was really feeling, so to be given an opportunity to write my own story was beautiful. Being surrounded by others again who may not have shared the exact same opinions and experiences, but shared an understanding of frustrations with the system; it was a beautiful thing. It was confronting but also very therapeutic. And it’s something that I’d never be able to experience in a white-dominating space where they can sympathise to an extent, but could never really empathise from the experiences we share from being Pasifika.
Prior to doing Untitled, I also appeared in a short film titled ‘Huhu’ A Niu’, a film set in the ‘70s following a young Tongan woman’s involvement with the Polynesian Panthers. It was directed by the wonderfully talented and creative Savelina Vakauta, who is also of Tongan descent herself. I remember seeing the audition call out and being so excited to have the chance to read for a part. I remember the audition dialogue finishing and Savelina continuing the scene and improvising - also using the Tongan language, so not knowing Tongan myself and purely going off phrasing, volume of the words spoken, the audition context and the emotion hanging in the air, I tried my best to stay in character and then made a choice for my character to cry. I wasn’t too sure if it was the right thing to do after, but I ended up getting the role!
Being part of that cast where almost all the roles were performed by Pasifika performers felt special. I’ve not had any opportunities (prior to both experiences) to see a billing where cast names were Pasifika - it was a rare and exciting treat. The subject matter wasn’t something I was familiar with, so that definitely was a good eye opener in terms of what family had to go through during those times. Also, having to learn Tongan lines was a funny experience - props to Savelina’s household for putting up my pronunciation and trying their best to help. Savelina and her team were under the pump, but she still had the time to keep gentle and kind demeanour when helping and coaching the actors - heck she had to act in the film too! Please keep your eyes on her future projects!
Link to Huhu' A Niu (directed by Savelina Vaka'uta
On the set of 'Huhu' A Niu' directed by Savelina Vaka'uta
Are there other positive experience/s you want to selflessly plug and share about?
My first music video that I got to direct. One that I got 99.9% of creative input. I like to have control most of the time. From writing the words (many years ago), putting it to music, producing it and then bringing it to life with the music video. I watch it back now, and it’s not perfect, but it’s ALL me. And I love that. The narrative of the video itself is a one take (maybe 98% of the time) following a person with the themes of a break up (not necessarily within a relationship) who represent different emotions as they switch to different characters and then coming back to the person at the beginning. I wasn’t in the actual video itself, but at the core it’s still representative of me. My investment. My creation. And I’m so so so proud of it!
Link to music video below:
Song: Kind Enough To Wait (by Bohifale) is available on all music platforms.
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?
My big crazy idea, funnily enough, is not acting, but it would be to write a bunch of songs; something I’ve been doing on the side and want to keep doing as I bring it to the forefront. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I really envision an ongoing series of music videos that act as an ongoing stories and a series. So I’d start with one song (like my track, Tupperware), and attach a narrative to it. Then I'd follow it with another song, with another narrative to it as well. And the series will continue endlessly (I hope) or until the budget runs out haha.
Song: Tupperware (by Bohifale) and is available on all music platforms.
Seriously, that is my big dream. I want to integrate writing music and writing stories (2 things I am super passionate about) and giving back to lots of actors and amazing people I’ve encountered who have worked their asses off. So many people I know are talented and deserving but struggle to get roles, have to conform to 9-5s. This would be my dream, to give back to them while doing something I love at the same time.
WEB SERIES - 'The Convo Couch' - Guest Host/Guest Co-Producer
Do you have any current projects you can speak about?
For selfless plugging, seeing I’m all about that right now, I wrote a song over the weekend, which is being developed. The idea was inspired by documentaries like ‘Unsung’ or ‘The Big Reunion’ with old musical acts who have now split up. They’d take a look at their time as a group, go through their discography and potentially have a reunion to try and make something in the modern day. So doing something around that which I’ll keep you up to date on..
But one that I can speak a little more in-depth about and share is a project I’ve been working on is a series about teachers working in under-funded/low socio-economic schools. One that I know is super close to your heart which I’ve seen you integrate quite beautifully into your craft and art.
Anyway, the series is called, Budget Cuts. The premise is an eclectic group of teachers as they struggle to save their beloved school in the face of unexpected budget cuts - all while under the leadership of their passionate principal. My character, get this, is a PE teacher named Malaeolema Seumanutafa (named after my Dad). The way the character has been written thus far incorporates the use of Sāmoan dialogue on screen. The development journey allows a fun look investing in and inspired by my parent's experiences and funny stories to inject into the writing of the characters personality and world as further episodes are developed.
The series is a co-production between Blue Poppy Productions which I co-created with fellow actress, Kate Jirelle. And Devil Punk Productions, another Australian production company, owned by Suzie Hinds.
Blue Poppy Productions was created as a way to allow both myself and Kate to write stories and create characters that we want to. All while providing parts for us we may not necessarily have out there in the world. It's a collaborative tool to allow us to work with established and emerging artists - giving back to those fellow creatives who have helped, inspired and shown us support with our own creative journeys. We're still learning, so there will be a lot of challenges ahead for us - but that means we only have so much to gain - fa’akiga ulu's all around!
Have you been affected by the current situation and if so, how?
Prior to the situation, I was doing about 12 different projects at the same time. Some which were paid and a few that were development level stuff. Eventually, I did lose out on a few opportunities when the ‘rona hit which kinda sucked.
Now, I know this might sound controversial to some, but I’ve really enjoyed the isolation. I had the chance to bunk down, focus my energy on songwriting and my other crafts. It has really helped me to dedicate time, something that I took for granted. It made me focus on what is important and I have the time to evaluate it in depth. What do I actually care about? What should I invest in? How to be financially smart? And not piss your money away at things that aren’t necessary. I was producing a few things and I’m asking myself if my money should really be investing in these things?
So from those 12 projects I told you about, I had to drop out of 5-6 of them. I don’t think I burned any bridges and on the surface, everything seems fine. But I don’t regret making those decisions. I’m a people pleaser. I always say yes. For so long, and something being Pasifika is infamously guilty of, is how giving we are, of our time to others and their works. And as arrogant as that may seem, despite how awful this pandemic is, I have the luxury of being selfish. It takes courage to do that. This situation really placed me at the centre, and I’m focusing on me, what is important to me, what I want to do and what I really care about.
This current situation (as we know being artists and how you mentioned) isn’t the same for everyone. For those who might be struggling, facing anxiety etc, what can you say to them?
I don’t want to be too preachy and sound kinda wanky, but sometimes, a break can be good. Might not be the best for everyone but there is nothing wrong with just taking a break away from your craft. And if that’s not for you, investigate why. Look at what’s making it feel icky. See if there are other ways that can help you through it.
TVC - Amart - 'Riverdance' (2018)
What do you know about the Pasifika Film Festival?
I knew of the festival, mostly through something that we temporarily called ‘Pasifika Collective’ with a few Pasifika (Poly/Mela/Micro inclusive) artists based in Sydney. Some of the artists within that had elaborated about their experiences with some of the components of the festival eg. 48hr Film Challenge, the Festival itself and the various locations/screenings in other regions and areas of the Pacific.
Would you submit anything of yours to the festival?
The only thing that I have purely done from scratch (of my own) was a music video I directed myself and wrote the music too.
What’s stopping you from submitting that?
It’s a music video. Not a film.
I recall a music video that was submitted by a Tongan filmmaker as part of the Okalani Film Festival in Mangere, Auckland a few years ago. The music was kinda indie-rock sorta style which I loved because it’s my favourite genre of music and what I personally grew up listening to. But I’ll never forget the audience thinking it was randomly placed between various films. Anyway, I found myself having to defend the filmmaker. She’s amazing, and so was the video in fact.
I mean yeah, I directed it. I wrote the music and lyrics. I’m just thinking, I don’t appear in the music video though.
So? You’re of Pasifika heritage. You directed it. You made the music and wrote the lyrics. Is that not part of filmmaking? I say, submit it! If not now, seeing deadlines are due at the end of the month, but for future reference.
I have this mentality and way of thinking, “but I’m not on screen” so the work I do (which people might perceive) might not serve what being Pasifika is about. I fear people will see what I do and perceive these colonialism adaptations from the ‘other’ side. No! I have no issues with bringing those issues to the forefront. But I think about bringing the other side forward too. Not in the sense to ‘normalise’ the colonial misconception and idealisms, but to normalise the person, and that we’re just human beings.
But what you’ve said about the Tongan filmmaker and her music video is really cool, good to know and very inspiring. Our people can do anything. I’ll definitely have to keep that in mind. It’s so refreshing to hear that filmmaking can transpire in my passion to songwrite and create/direct music too.
What’s your greatest fear?
My family is my biggest motivator. I made a promise to myself that if I was ever going to pursue acting, my family weren’t gonna starve, that there was always going to be food at the table and a roof over their head. So when my parents retire, I want everything already taken care of. These things I guess are kinda standard for everyone, Pasifika or not. So my fear around that is my family not fully understanding my motivation to do what I am doing and why I am doing it.
It makes me happy when they can see me on screen, and visualise an outcome which then in some ways, it’s them being a part of my dream. But I think it’s the comprehension behind why I am doing it and have to make certain choices. For instance, why I’ve turned down a specific role for something considered minor to them, or have to do something beyond my nature for a part just to be visible. I guess in summary, it's the understanding of the things I do and why I do it.
Any last words or anything you want to say particularly during the pandemic and current situation?
I’ll keep it short. But I say, just keep going! This is not just for actors. But for everyone in general and in life. And if you need to reach out for help, then do.