Matthias Luafutu: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther

Award-winning actor Matthias Luafutu has played lead roles in the TV series Harry, alongside Sam Neill, the film Shopping, and most recently Coming Home in the Dark, with Erik Thomson. Luafutu also starred with his father and brother Scribe in The White Guitar, the 2019 play about the life of Faa’moana Luafutu (Matthias’s father) who spent his childhood in state care. Luafutu can also be seen in the documentary about his brother’s life -Scribe: Return of the Crusader, TVNZ OnDemand, from November 26.

My mum is Samoan, (Safotu and Palisi Villages) Cantonese and American, and my father is pretty much full Samoan (Poutasi and Malaemalu in Falealili) with sprinkles of Tongan. When Dad was incarcerated when I was 3, for eight years it was just me, my mother and my two brothers, Malo [Scribe] and Julian, who has cerebral palsy. As I got older, I realised how hard it was for her being a single mum in a state house with dad doing a long sentence. Mum became a devout Christian when dad was inside.

When dad was locked up, in a way we were all locked up, but because I was so young I didn’t see prison as daunting, although sadness sunk in at the end of every visit. I was so excited for the day he got out. I had this fairy tale that played out in my mind, about what it would be like. But it wasn’t like that, and there was violence and drug abuse.

Because dad was taken from his parents, and made a state ward at the age of 9, he was parented by the Government and what happened to him in those borstals and fosters set him on a path. Now, with the Royal Commission of Inquiry, we’re hearing about the damage that was done to those children, and how their children become collateral damage. It wasn’t ’til later, when we were doing the play The White Guitar, that I understood how he learnt his fathering from housemasters, so of course he didn’t know how to be a father, and he handed out what he was taught. Although he was always good with Julian.

I was really disruptive at primary school, but one year I had a teacher called Mr Whitley who gave me opportunities. One teacher just sat me in the cloak room, or I had to sit behind the book case so no one could see me, but Mr Whitley was totally different. He even made me class captain which I probably didn’t deserve, but that was a really important relationship because he made me feel good about myself and I trusted him.He didn’t believe in the strap either, which the other teachers loved. If I lost my temper he’d calm me down. I’d never seen that approach before and we became close.

I loved television and film. When I was at primary school, I’d sometimes steal money from mum’s purse to watch movies in town.When Spot On had their school movie competition, Mr Whitley helped us submit a film. It was called The Story of Pakiki, about a toetoe bush. My friend wrote it, although he’s dead now, and Mr Whitley cast me as the lead actor and we won the overall prize. We even beat all the high schools. Growing up that was one of the best things ever, being given that role.

Rugby was where I took my anger out. I’d see my opposite number and spend the whole game just trying to annihilate him, which is probably what the selectors wanted. I also enjoyed the physicalness, and I knew it made my dad proud. When I was 18, in 1994, I was selected to play for Manu Samoa Colts. It was the first time I’d seen dad overwhelmed with pride. Although regrettably I pulled a hamstring while training and was sent home.

As an angry young man, rugby was my saviour, it kept me on the straight and narrow, so being sent home was not good for me. I got mixed up with old friends and made poor decisions that really mucked me up. I had anger and addiction problems from a young age. Substances were a way to escape. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was angry and hurt and I’d take it out on whoever triggered me. That led to one really bad decision while under the influence and I ended up in prison for two years and that was the end of my rugby career.

All jail time is wasted time. But my friends were there, and dad’s. But when mum and nana visited me, that really shook me up. The first time mum came to visit, she was so upset that I promised myself it would be the first and last time I’d go inside and I’ve kept that promise. When my nana visited, she had such nobility, and to see someone so pure come into the prison visiting room and cry, that was also a defining moment, and I knew I needed to change.

While incarcerated – I went in at 19 and came out just before my 21st birthday – I threw myself into every course going, partly to build up the day, also to do whatever was needed to get parole. But anger management actually helped. Another part of my parole was rehab at Queen Mary, the same rehab my parents had been through. Although that first time I wasn’t ready, because I picked up alcohol again, and my life went back to where it always did when I used those things to self-medicate. Then I got to a place where I was so low, I begged them to take me back, because I didn’t want to be that person any more.

I first met Jim Moriarty at Queen Mary during Family Week, which is when a family member invites you in to make amends. My father called me in, and Jim and my dad were in recovery together. The second time I met Jim, I was back at Queen Mary and he was there with his theatre troupe Te Rakau. They’d go to prisons, using theatre as a tool for change and that visit re-lit a spark.

Working with Jim Moriarty for three years, taking theatre to at-risk youth, that built up my soul and put me on a new path. I knew I wanted to take acting seriously, and I auditioned for Toi Whakaari The NZ Drama School. After the recall, every day I waited for the mailman and when that letter came and I saw it was from Toi, talk about intense, opening it. There are few words to describe the joy I felt when I saw I’d been accepted. I was hooting and hollering as I walked up the path to tell mum.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I loved all the practical stuff but for me, acting was escapism. That was why I fell in love with it because I didn’t have to be myself. I could be a character. But at Toi, they want to see you, and what you bring, which means going down deep inside yourself which brought out deep emotional things. Sometimes they wanted students to recollect past experiences and I realised there were things I hadn’t dealt with that were locked away. Once I let them out, I didn’t know how to lock them back up. I regret dropping out, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even want to say good-bye. But before I went, I put a copy of my father’s book A Boy Called Broke in the cubbyhole of one of the teachers with a note that said I hope this books explains the things I couldn’t. Then I just left.

Some of my classmates tried to keep tabs on me, but I went home to Christchurch and became a glass processor. I needed to get my head together. Then a classmate, Louis Sutherland, called and asked what I was up to.I told him I was replacing windows, rather than breaking them. He said he was writing a film with Albie [Mark Albiston], and they had a part for me. I said I hadn’t acted since drama school but that’s how I got the part in Shopping. From there I got the part in Harry and it’s rolled from there.

I moved to Auckland- I’d transferred to the Auckland glass factory – and I was running through Ōtara when Tom McCrory rings. He was the teacher I left the book for. I’d not heard from him in years, but he says he’d read dad’s book, and we should make a theatre work out of it, with Nina Nawalowalo. I said we can’t tell my father’s story, or my brother’s, without permission so Tom asked if he could talk to them. He called Malo first, then dad. And dad was like, “who’s this guy wanting to do a play?”And Tom told him, ‘I think your son is one of the most talented actors I’ve ever taught and I want to work with him’. When dad heard that he said: “I’m in.”

White Guitar was the start of a big healing process, and you can see dad’s redemption in his second play, A Boy Called Piano. He’s more at peace than he’s ever been. A lot of pain came to the surface while creating it but so much hurt has lifted too. Being able to speak to The Royal Commission, he was motivated to be a voice for the voiceless. A lot of his friends he was at borstal with, they had horrible lives and passed away before getting an apology or a payout. Many of dad’s friends died guilt-ridden and full of shame, but through the work, my father has come to a place of peace. He smiles more than he used to. I’m so grateful to the medium of theatre for being able to heal us, and through this industry I’ve learnt that I’m better at creating things than I am at destroying them.

My life has been like an asteroid field. I’ve been going one way, on a trajectory, then I’ve collided with something that’s changed my course. I don’t like a lot of things I did, or the person I was, which is why I’ve always felt I had a debt to pay, and doing work that gives back feeds my soul. I look at the things that happened in my life, and I know they had to happen for me to be where I am now. As hurtful and angry as some of those things were, I appreciate them, because overcoming them has shaped me. If I didn’t have those collisions, I wouldn’t be here. I’m proud of who I am today. I don’t know what thefuture holds, but I take things moment by moment, and I’m always pleasantly surprised.

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