Niue's Rising Star - HAANZ FAAVAE-JACKSON
Interviewed by Gabriel Faatau'uu-Satiu
Haanz Faavae-Jackson in the title role, The Messiah (dir. by Vela Manusaute)
Fakaalofa lahi atu, my name is Haanz Faavae-Jackson. I am 25 years of age. I am of Niuean, Tongan and a dash of Sāmoan here and there. I love to perform and create. I’m a bit of a show off on stage haha. I was actually born here in NZ, but raised by my Grandmother in Niue for 3 years before coming back.
What areas of the film industry do you primarily work in?
Mostly acting. Being an actor for me is pretty cool. On set, I love to take a step back and admire everything on set. It’s such a machine. Every role, regardless of how big or small plays a huge part in the machine. I feel kind of spoilt on set in the sense that everyone is there to make us feel and look good. But I am in awe of all that everyone does. I love the discipline everyone has to their specific roles. It’s admirable. I’m always learning on set, if not as an actor, then about all the little things happening behind the camera too.
Other than acting, what other areas of film do you work in?
Other than the work I do on stage and within theatre, only acting. I didn’t formally train to be a screen actor as you know. But my passion for screen evolved quickly and it’s so great to not be limited to one form.
Do you want to tell us about the work you’ve done in theatre which I know is your first love? How did those skills build a foundation to where you are now?
My theatre journey actually started in my final year of high school. Through stage challenge if that’s what people still call it today. It was so new and different to me. All I knew growing up was my cultures and performing on the polyfest and other cultural-like stages. It’s all I knew. Stage Challenge really opened me up to ‘a whole new world’ (sings the Aladdin tune) in the sense of theatre and how you can transform/tell a story in the one space, while doing it all live. It was so abstract to me. Straight out of high school, I went to PIPA (Pacific Institute of Performing Arts) where I graduated with a diploma (which at the time was the highest qualification they offered). And from that 2 year program, that is where I learned everything about acting. I was so fortunate to be surrounded by a village of amazing creatives who were already creating work and working professionally. Through those connections, many opportunities were created to bring their works to life as an actor. And those experiences then led me to expand my skills outside of performing and into the production side of things backstage. Learning on the job really schooled me in the way that I got to work alongside other professionals too. And those skills led me to taking up puppetry, which is something I never intended on doing too. Then puppetry took me across New Zealand, to Australia and China.
Did you always envision this from a young age? What inspired you? Do you have a definitive turning point? Is it something you always aspired to be?
Before theatre, it was music. Prior to my generation, music had always been a huge part of my family. I actually wanted to be a singer, from day 1. I got into a kind of scene where there was a lot of underground hiphop (in Manurewa where I was living at the time). My mates would rap and I’d sing in the chorus of their tracks. There is one specific moment I remembered as part of an assessment for James Cook High School through the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The assessment was submitted (which I didn’t know) and I remember receiving a call and they let me know I had won. Through that opportunity, I got to sing a song of my choosing with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra supporting me. That experience of live performance was so transforming for me. It was such a pivotal moment for me.
Haanz Faavae-Jackson as a puppeteer for theatre production 'Still Life With Chickens' by David F Mamea
Growing up in a Pasifika family, were they always supportive of you pursuing a career in the arts?
My Niuean side of the family has a strong history in music. We grew up with a family band which was originally formed in the late ‘70s back in Niue. The family band was called ‘The Sunburnt Kiwis’ that ended up being an island pride that started in 1994 and is still going strong back in the homeland today. I guess the long history of music and performing made me hungry but it was already drilled into me.
Thinking about it, I forget how lucky I am. I grew up with musicians and a family of performers. I am however the only “officially trained” performer, whatever that means. But I also had an older brother who got into the arts too and did it on his own. So there was always pressure on me to follow his footsteps, carry our family name and legacy too.
They’ve been so supportive of me throughout my career. It was expected of me actually, in the sense that I always knew I wanted to be a performer. My family always knew me as a bit of a show-off. I just never predicted that I’d eventually end up on screen too.
Having the luxury of supportive parents/family with your career in the arts, do you have advice for those kids who might not be as lucky? And want their kids to pursue other jobs ie lawyer, doctor etc. What can you say to them?
I actually have a few cousins who have or are experiencing that right now. It’s tough, because we as Pasifika people want to show respect and do what is best for our families as well as ourselves. There is a sense of guilt of having to give back after the years of raising us. And that’s totally normal. I guess your decision can’t be at the expense of what your true passion is. If it is creating, being a creative, you need to be strong enough to find a way to be that person still. And doing it wholeheartedly and healthily in a way that doesn’t stress you out. It’s hard. It’s tough. Time makes the wine. I’ve seen so many people take the risk, with a gun blazing attitude and they keep grinding and hustling. It’s no easy feat. If it’s what you want to do, deep down into the core, then do it!
Who are the major influences in your life?
I’m a bit of a sponge. I am inspired by everyone and everything. The people I have encountered so far are amazing. I’m so inspired by the work they do. It’s so hard to put a name to one or few people because I see what everyone brings to the table. When people just bring themselves as they are, what makes them unique. That’s enough!
Haanz Faavae-Jackson with other cast members of My Friend Michael Jones (written/directed by Samson Rambo and Ian Leaupepe).
What’s the big dream? Like if I could give you all the money, best resources at your disposal, what would that look like?
I have 2. So you know the scale of which Avatar is on, I’d love to see Pasifika history made to match that level of quality. And another thing I want to do 1000% is go back to Niue. Learn all that I can here and take that back with me. The youth there are soooo hungry for it. There’s not alot of people there that have the luxury and experience I’ve had. And I want to be able to go back and give them that.
Wow! That’s amazing! Speaking about your Pasifika history concept, would you cast yourself? Write? Direct? I obviously can’t give you the money haha. But this is your chance to not be humble.
I think I’d want to direct. I recently have a passion for it.
The past 2 years I have been involved with Polyfest working with a whole bunch of students who are still in high school. But if I can project or envision how they look in my head, to these students, and have them perform the way I see fit, imagine how that would look with professional actors too.
What are the barriers from the dream?
Money and time. But those things go hand in hand in a way. Often as Pasifika people we do work for free or at cheaper rates to get our work out there while hustling 9-5 jobs. But if we had the money/resources to do this fulltime, then it’ll be so much more easier and sustainable to be fulltime artists.
What about funding bodies? What is your experience around that?
To be completely honest, I’m terrible at that stuff and have little experience in it. I’d much prefer to create something from my own pocket in the sense that I have the money for starters, but also because it gives me full creative control. And it’s fun! But, there is that line of ethics when you must pay your artists because meals, credits etc aren’t going to put food on the table, especially as Pasifika people. The flipside to that is that by the end (whether it be a theatre show/film), we can say we created that from scratch, without help. Our people are known for being resourceful.
Earlier, you mentioned you are part Niuean. Having known you and seen your works (particularly in theatre), I know the importance of you telling Niuean stories. Do you want to say something around that?
Within Pasifika, Niuean stories are still small in comparison to the other islands. I wear my culture and flag so proudly. I just want people to know who we are, this is us, we are not going anywhere. We have so much to say. I’m so proud of other Niuean storytellers (who might not necessarily be filmmakers) but are telling our stories out there and doing our homeland proud. People like Leki Jackson-Bourke, Vela Manusaute, Glen Jackson, Che Fu, Phil Fuemana, Shimpal Lelisi, Diggy Dupe and Tommy Nee. Obviously there is way more out there, trust me! We aren’t going anywhere!
Haanz Faavae-Jackson in 'Hibiscus and Ruthless' written/directed by Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa
Let's talk about some of the projects you worked on.
My first experience on screen was filming the short film, The Messiah, written and directed by Vela Manusaute. And directly after that experience, I did Hibiscus and Ruthless, written by Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa and then My Friend Michael Jones, written/directed by Samson Rambo and Ian Leaupepe. I did all of those in the space within a year.
I loved those experiences merely because they were Pasifika storytelling. For all of my career up to those moments, I had been working so hard in theatre. As you’ll know, theatre is a space where there’s much more creative freedom as an actor to offer up and contribute ideas. Whereas with screen, in my experiences at least, the stories were much more established. I loved the challenges and differences in both experiences.
What I loved about those 3 film experiences too is that each of them were filmed here, in Auckland, in the backyards within Otara, Manurewa, South Auckland and different parts of it. I’m so humbled and honoured to be part of those experiences and to tell stories that veer away from the stereotypes we hear.
In the role of The Messiah, I was actually cast as someone else. But last minute, on the day of the shoot, I was told to stand by as the lead role of the Messiah. It was a 3 day shoot. And I remember scene after scene, I was trying so hard to learn all my lines and really get my headspace into the role of the actual messiah. It was tough. But I loved every part of it. Having worked with Vela Manusaute many times before in theatre, he knew me as an actor, and he pushed me to places that I never knew I could be on screen too.
Hibiscus and Ruthless was another fun one. I played a pseudo intellectual. That experience was amazing too from on set right through to the world premiere in Auckland City. Out of all these experiences, it was the first one I got to see on the big screen. I was so happy to hear my Niuean language on screen too. I remember having my family and friends with me, they loved it. And even meeting and being in the same space as other professional actors/creatives within the industry who I’d been looking up to, it was amazing.
As for ‘My Friend Michael Jones’ it was probably the hardest role for me. You know me, I’m such a joker and (well I think) funny guy in real life so it was a different territory for me having to play a bully. It was so hard to stay serious all the time between takes because I was always tempted to crack a joke, or clown around as I do. This story was so beautifully done and really highlighted the nuances of South Auckland that we don’t typically see.
In Dark Places is another film I did, a story written/directed by Michael Bennett. It was such a different tone in comparison to the 1st three I spoke of because it was such an important story of injustice regarding Teina Pora. You know it, right? Anyway, I remember missing the opportunity to meet the real-life Teina and the character I played as I was touring for theatre. But having learned more about the story, I really commend Michael Bennett for his effort to tell this story so beautifully and honestly. I know it started as a book (which took many years of research) and then the translation on screen, which took even more time.
People who don’t necessarily work in the industry might not always understand that process. We as creatives will take however long we need to, to tell our stories authentically, especially a story like this one that holds so much weight. I get a bit of that pressure from my friends and family sometimes when they ask me what I’ve been up to. Then it feels like ages for when it finally comes out. But it's all in the process and I realise they don’t fully understand the work that goes behind it. So I’ve just learned now to just keep things short and just say little when I am asked. And then just let the work speak for itself rather than me trying to build it up. Our stories carry weight, especially one that is based on true events. So we’ll take however long we need to tell it at its most engaging and honest point of view.
Haanz Faavae-Jackson with other cast members of In Dark Places (written/directed by Michael Bennett)
You mentioned the importance of taking however long you need to tell a story, because of things like authenticity, honest perspective, the weight they carry. These are generally things we as Pasifika people know. How important do you think it is to have a space like the Pasifika Film Festival to exist?
I’ve seen a change (for me) particularly in the last 5 years of me transitioning into the screen sector. People like Craig Fasi, who runs Pollywood, a similar festival here in Auckland and New Zealand. So having this platform (as well as PFF) that is specific to Pasifika films is pretty amazing. And what it did for me (now having featured in a few films now) is look up other festivals that played the works I’ve been in. I recall a film I did playing at a festival in Hollywood. I mean, Hollywood isn’t everyone’s dream, but I can say my face made it to Hollywood in some way because of these festivals. Each festival, from what I understand, also brings different sorts of audiences along. And it’s interesting to hear and see who is watching our stories. And I’m so glad to have any festival, specific to Pasifika or not, to showcase our works. It’s actually impacted my social media (not that I’m famous or anything), but to see the impact I have made on random people from other parts of the world follow me, DM me, say good stuff about the works we’re doing, is huge!
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
My kids are definitely one thing that gets me out of bed haha.
Hahahaha! Let me rephrase that. What motivates you to get you out of bed?
It’s still my kids. But to be honest, I just love to be active. Love to work. Love to keep moving. If there isn’t anything to do around the house, I’ll mow the lawn, pull the weeds in the driveway. I just hate to be still and waste the day.
Due to the current situation, we have our 5 year old, plus my partner has 3 younger siblings. So at the moment we’ve been having school, teaching them, and it has been full on. It keeps us on our toes. But it keeps my creative juices flowing. Their imaginations because they’re so young and innocent, are so wild. And it’s inspired me to really think about the things I want to do moving forward once the situation has died down.
Any last words?
Huge thank you to the Pasifika Film Festival for giving me this opportunity. Like I mentioned when I was approached, it is not often we are given the space to talk about ourselves and our cultures like this. Thank you for this platform PFF. I mean I know I am still very young, but I have people tell me all the time how much they are inspired by me. So I’m honoured to have this space to talk about my journey (while still navigating my own way and working really hard too).
Haanz Faavae-Jackson on the TV show, Fresh, 2019.