Shining Light On Los Angeles' rising star - JOSHUA LEOMITI
Interviewed by Gabriel Faatau'uu-Satiu
Joshua Leomiti in the title role, Patrick, dir by Adam Swain Ferguson
Hello, my name is Joshua Leomiti and I am a Sāmoan artist based in Los Angeles, California. I was born and raised mostly in Long Beach, Santa Fe Springs area, and now reside in Compton, California.
Can you tell us something about being a Sāmoan in the US?
Being Sāmoan here is (I guess) pretty much the same as being overseas in my experience. When I was in New Zealand, I met so many other Sāmoans who were proud. And I’ve seen the same thing in Upolu, too.
What area of the film industry do you work in?
I always wanted to be an actor, from a very young age. Music was more of a hobby for me. Just watching a great performance, and being drawn in. I would love to eventually make this a full-time living.
Did you always envision this for yourself? Was there a defining moment for you?
I always felt different growing up, music being a big part of that actually. And I gravitated towards theatre shows/musicals. Polynesian people here are inclined to sports typically because of size. But I was always inclined to music and arts. The person that inspired me was my Dad’s first cousin, my Aunty, Tina Wiseman (Tina Leiu). Unfortunately, she passed away in 2005 not long after she was given a huge role which she never got to do. I remember her telling me this when I was a kid, and these are her exact words, but she’d say, “Josh, if you want to be in this industry, you need to grow some balls. They don’t care how good looking you are, or if you are the greatest actor in the room. If you don’t fit the ‘ideal’ image of the role, they’re going to find someone that fits.” I was scared haha but she was the one that inspired me as a little kid.
Did you grow up in a conservative family? Were they always supportive of you?
The simple answer is yes and no.
I actually just had a good talk with my parents the other day. I had to learn now as an adult. I now understand, being an adult and having talked with my parents that they were supportive in their own way. They were, but they were also afraid because they didn’t want me to fail and they didn’t understand how this area operated. They always said, “plan B.” But I always felt like, this is what I want to do. This is my dream. As a kid, I always tried to show that light in me that I can do these things.
Joshua Leomiti (left) in "Call Me By Your Name" by Omid Iranikhah.
Seeing your parents were somewhat supportive of you, can you talk about what their ideal plan B goal was for you?
The plan B was any traditional job with a sustainable income. As artists, we understand the value of a traditional job because it pays the bills, puts food on the table, roof over our head etc. But, it’s hard to explain unless you are creative. I guess all I can say is that I’d rather die, going to my grave knowing that I tried my best than regretting that I didn’t try.
If you could give advice to your younger self, with the experiences you have under your belt, what would you say? And what would you do differently?
I’d tell him to believe in himself. You can do this. And I love you. As corny as that might sound, I didn’t love a lot about myself. Love rejected and love not taken in is both dangerous. So I’d really tell myself, I love you, cancel out the BS you hear because you can do this.
Let’s talk about some of the works you’ve done. Can you tell us about Patrick?
The recent work I did was a film called Patrick. Last year in July 2019, I auditioned for it through the Los Angeles Film School. I went in, auditioned, gave my all and a few days later I was cast. It was filmed as a pitch. Fast forward today, it was picked up as an actual short film. The director asked me to play the lead character, Patrick again, which we did prior to the COVID-19 situation. It was amazing.
I know it won an award recently, congratulations btw. Do you want to share about that experience?
It was also submitted to the Independent Short Awards, a qualifier IMDB awards where each film is vetted and Patrick won a few awards and also won a bronze award for duo performance between myself and David (played by Caleb Harris).
Can you tell us your journey, with Sosefina?
Back in 2018, I was stressing a lot in my day job where I was on the graveyard shift doing 6pm to 6am - 12hr shifts. So I took time off work to sort myself out. And right when that happened, I received a DM from Manu Tanielu and Hinano Tekurio Tanielu on Instagram. They said “Hey uce, I got this part for you. I want you to audition. We’ve got 2 other guys but I know it’s you man’.” And the rest is history. We filmed it in late November that year. And then it made its way to New Zealand in 2020 where they edited, promoted, and it was going to premiere there but Covid postponed it.
It was my first feature length experience. I was on set for 2 weeks. Prior to that I had only done shorts. For us, especially in the US, it wasn’t about making huge amounts of money, it was coming together as Pasifika people. A full brown cast. Everyone doubled up in crew roles, moving lights, building a stage etc. Everyone pulled together which is something you’ll never see on a large scaled production because of liability. As actors, generally most people only do their scenes and don’t help the crew. Whereas in this experience, everyone played their parts and served. We ain’t no prima-donnas! I am so excited to see when it does come out.
Joshua Leomiti (left) in the role of Syrus, Sosefina, Dir by. Manu and Hinano Tanielu
Reading about the specific story of Sosefina, do you think it's a story that resonates with alot of Pasifika people in the US? In general?
I’m glad you asked that question. I guess generally, most people might find it hard to connect with this specific story. But, the story was a personal experience of Manu Tanielu. They even found an afakasi real-life stripper to come in (no acting experience) where she worked alongside the other girls on screen and shared her experiences of what she does and why. So there is real authenticity in the process.
I hope for the sake of Pasifika visibility, people see it beyond a film about stripping. Based on what I know about the film, it sounds more like resilience, migration and overcoming adversity.
Exactly. Thank you! It’s definitely about all those things you mentioned which at the core is the heart of the story. In regards to the ignorant stuff, we’re prepared to hear some backlash for some of the themes. The directors made a conscious decision to not put any nudity in the movie which I think is great. I just think there is a general double standard in the world where for the likes of Instagram or Twitter, our own people put out explicit content. I mean it's everywhere, right?
As a Pasifika person in the US, I’m curious to know what your opinion is on the Disney film, Moana?
I loved it merely on the fact that it involved a strong Grandma figure.
I did too, for that same reason being close to my own Grandmother. But also visibility for Pasifika people. I’ll attempt the question again. So to give you context, here in New Zealand and Australia, there were mixed reviews on the film. I think (this is now me personally speaking) where the film amalgamates Pasifika culture into one clump. Within my own Pasifika experiences, upon meeting people for the first time, they immediately think of one ideology because of Moana. So they immediately box us into 1 thing. I don’t identify as Māori, or Fijian, or Tokelauan (among many Pasifika cultures). So the likes of Moana, has in some ways caused some dangers into our worldview narrative and doesn’t allow us to explore the individual Pasifika experiences and nuances of each culture.
You said it. I think visibility for Pasifika people first for sure. For a long time, the US has only referenced Polynesian culture to Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa. But we’re getting better at representation and getting a seat at the table. And I see them both (with Taika Waititi being added to the mix) using their platforms to open more doors and opportunities for Pasifika stories.
So...lets ask a fun one to steer away from the serious questions for a bit haha. Um...if I could give you all the money in the world, offer the best resources which you’ll have at your disposal, what would that project look like?
It’s my work called Tapu, the one I’ve been developing with the support of Taofia Pelesasa. The story talks about a lot of confliction and conviction. I’m mindful of the audience and feel that these themes run universally regardless if you’re of Pasifika heritage or not. And then have it streamed on Netflix or other platforms. I look at a lot of the content currently on some of these platforms and find they lack substance. And I’m so confident that this story does have it.
What’s stopping you from achieving that? What needs to change and how?
Apart from money — it’s me. If there is anything stopping this project, it would be me seeking validation.
In the film, Isolated, dir by Alicia Agramonte
Who are your influences?
Specifically Pasifika, well other than my Grandma, I really love Rena Owen. I look up to her because of the work she did in Once Were Warriors. I don’t know how she didn’t win an oscar for that. On an international level, we don’t really have household name Polynesian female actresses. To me, she epitomises that on that scale. Prior to my Aunt passing away, she had actually booked a huge role on Pirates of the Caribbean.
Do you have any that aren’t specifically Pasifika?
I really like Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans. The latter is so smooth and effortless. He just sits in his characters.
What advice would you give to first time filmmakers?
It’s rough, you have to be a tough cookie. I remember doing a bit of modelling which was kind of an insignificant part of my life but there was one specific shoot for some underwear campaign and they gave me some to try on. But I didn’t have a fit body like the pictures of the fit men on their catalogues. And the guy holding the casting looked over at his assistant, then back at me giving me a full body scan. He made me feel so ugly. My advice is, don’t give up. You are going to come across people like that regardless of ethnicity and they are going to give you that look (in many shapes or form). You just have to use it as fuel. I’ve eventually learned to forgive. Like really forgive. Forgiving is not an option but renewing fellowship is. Just don’t take anything personal especially if you know it’s in you.
Prior to me reaching out, did you know of the Pasifika Film Festival?
Before meeting you, Taofia and the rest of the Pasifika Film Festival team, to be completely honest, I knew very little of the festival.
It’s an amazing travelling festival that is co-run by 2 amazing Pasifika women (which I love even more) who are Eliorah Malifa (who you’ve e-met) and Kalo Fainu. In the past, the festival has travelled to different parts of Australia, NZ, the wider Pacific region, Hawaii and in Salt Lake City.
Is there an Los Angeles screening of some sort?
I would love that. I mean, I’m just the interviewer so I can’t make that decision. But I think it needs and deserves more visibility, especially after our conversation around Moana. Which is a good segue to our next question. Why do you think it's important to have a space like PFF to exist?
Because it creates a space for our stories to be seen and heard. So to have a space dedicated specifically to our stories is awesome. I love the fact that it is for us. It's in favour of us. It's another way to connect, to be seen.
Where can we see some of your work?
Most of what I’ve done more recently is the works that are either in post-production or haven’t been released to the general public because of COVID-19. I have a reel which I can’t say is my best stuff, but I am still proud of it. It’s nice to reflect and look back and think how much I’ve grown not only as an actor but as a person and in my journey. I have no shame in my work and people shouldn’t hide from that too. We all grow! Majority of my works in that reel are student films and shorts. And it's fine.
I know people who book out studios to film a reel. I’m not sure if that's even a thing in New Zealand and Australia but here, it's a huge no no. Simply because it's not produced work. I don’t want to go into a studio to film a scene that hasn’t been produced. That isn’t real to me. I mean, yes the quality of some of my actual works might not be that great, but the experience itself were very real. And that’s what Casting Directors want to see, Produced Work. Because they want to know that you’ve gone through the process of casting, call backs, rehearsals and filming etc.
I just can’t wait for everything currently in post-production to be released so I can then update the works I’ve done more recently.
Link to acting reel:
In the short film 'The Yellow Sign' dir by Gustavo Casares Espinosa
Music video "Love Me" playing lead for Sāmoan Group called 'Trey Smoov'. Dir by Hagoth Aiono
What’s your greatest fear?
Giving up is my greatest fear. I’ve been close so many times. Because of the BS/noise from the outside. Or because I think I need to find a career that is more sustainable and safe. Being creative, we’re so emotional and my emotions get the best of me at times but it’ll be such an injustice to what I feel God has instilled in me, because this is my calling and what I am meant to be doing. That fear of giving up is what drives me to not give up.
Any last words?
I wrote this down the other day, it says “The pessimistic person looks out the window. And instead of seeing the sunset, he sees the specks on the window. How sad”.
That’s how I see life. I look out the window and I don’t see the speck. I mean, yeah we notice it if we don’t clean it. But I look at the sunset and think, if God spoke that into existence, then I have to speak my dreams and ambitions into existence and work towards them and make them exist too. It’s hard work, but not impossible.