Wellington-raised Lani Tupu - son of the actor of the same name - moved into acting after stints at teachers college, as a singer, and as a dancer on music show Ready to Roll.
In 1977, a year after making his screen-acting debut in bicultural thriller Epidemic (he can be seen in the finale of episode one) Tupu was awarded a Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council bursary to study at NZ Drama School. The first Samoan to graduate from the school, he followed it with three years at Theatre Corporate, where his work ranged from classical drama to musicals - including playing three roles in Piaf, and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, for “visionary” theatre director Raymond Hawthorne.
Tupu then began a two-year stint at Auckland's Mercury Theatre company. While at Mercury he learnt that producer Stephen McElrea was casting on both sides of the Tasman for the lead in TV series Country GP. “It was a stunning audition,” recalled McElrea. “Amazingly well-prepared. Six beautiful studies of the character as he saw him.”
It was in an interval during a performance of Chicago that he found out he'd landed the Country GP role - for Tupu it would prove life-changing, in terms of the acting roles that opened up to him. Set in 1945, Country GP saw Tupu (then Larney Tupu) playing the conscientious and successful GP David Miller. “There are things I identify with in his character. His quietness, his seriousness,” said Tupu at the time.
Though the character’s nationality was downplayed onscreen, the fact that this nostalgic primetime show had put a polynesian in the main role was a major step. During Country GP’s extended television run another Samoan actor, teen Faifua Amiga, made his mark in feature Kingpin, and polynesian tele-movie Mark II followed in 1986.
Ironically, five years before, Tupu had auditioned for the movie of Albert Wendt's Samoans in NZ tale Sons for the Return Home. Though his father won a part as parent to the main character, Tupu junior got only a fleeting role. “I just didn’t look Samoan enough. I’ve been mistaken for everything else, Italian, Greek.”
After two seasons on Country GP, Tupu relocated to Australia in the hopes of more acting opportunities. He would return to New Zealand occasionally to act in coming years - including for his movie debut, 1988 comedy Send a Gorilla, and to play straight-laced casino manager David Spence over two series of Marlin Bay.
In Australia, Tupu changed the spelling of his first name to Lani, after tiring of casting people who expected that Larney meant he was of Irish descent.
In 1995 Tupu came back to NZ for a very different role: as a director on a pioneering series dedicated to Samoan culture in Aotearoa. Tala Pasifika consisted of eight short films which showcased Samoan talent. Written by Samoan Lisa Taouma, Talk of the Town (Tala o le Taulaga) marked Tupu’s debut as a screen director. The episode followed the life of a fa’afafine who is now a cabaret performer. Henry Ah-Foo Taripo's performance in the main role later won him a best actor award at an indigenous film fest in Canada.
In 1999 Lani Tupu won two roles, and an international fan following, thanks to science fiction series Farscape. Shot in Australia with a largely Australasian cast (including Tupu's ex Mercury Theatre boss Jonathan Hardy), Farscape ran for four seasons, followed by a wrap-up mini-series. Tupu initially auditioned to play alien warrior D’Argo, but saved a lot of time in make-up by winning the part of goateed-villian Captain Crais instead (he had been wearing the goatee at the audition, thanks to a previous role). Tupu found Crais “wonderful and very freeing to play”. He also had a rare secondary role on the same show, voicing the ship's animatronic pilot character.
Tupu’s other Australian-based parts range from a “wonderful cameo” in multi award-winner Lantana, to Dolph Lundgren action vehicle The Punisher (as a Mafia chief), TV’s Police Rescue, and tele-movie Heart of Fire, based on heroic Kiwi firefighter Royd Kennedy. Tupu’s next feature role is as 'Boss Man' in Rolf de Heer (Bad Boy Bubby) feature The King is Dead.
Tupu was one of the founding members of theatre group Walkers and Talkers, alongside fellow ex-pat Kiwis Gary Stalker, Mary Regan, and his Marlin Bay screen wife May Lloyd."The reference came from what we do as actors: 'walk and talk, and try not to bump into the furniture," says Tupu. "We were all actors not getting any work, and decided to create our own..in the late 80s there were no co-op theatre companies at all. We turned the tables around and bought the rights to award-winning plays, and auditioned the directors instead."
Tupu set up his Screen Actors Studio in the late 90s, and has taught acting on both sides of the Tasman - including at NIDA and Toi Whakaari. He also does regular voice-overs for Australian network SBS, and paints. Some of his artwork chronicles his travels as an actor.
Dinah Priestley, Larney Tupu (Interview) - Onfilm, 1984
'Lani John Tupu' (IMDB entry) - The Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 31 January 2012