Though he was born and raised in Auckland, Nathaniel Lees’ memories are of always having had a connection to Samoa. His Samoan parents “spoke Samoan all the time, so that’s what I always thought I was.”
Despite having one of the most impressive baritones in New Zealand acting, Lees got his first paid acting job thanks to “being brown”. In 1975 Auckland’s Mercury Theatre were killing Captain Cook for a production of The Naval Officer, “and they needed brown people to run on stage and kill him.” Fresh back from time overseas, “flat broke” and completely new to theatre, 20-something Lees auditioned — which involved walking through a door, and being told he had the job.
So began an acting career that has encompassed more than 40 screen roles, and seen him become, as David O’Donnell puts it, “one of the driving forces behind the development of Pacific Island theatre in Aotearoa”.
Lees later returned to his home turf of South Auckland after getting involved in Statement Theatre. The theatre created drama from local people’s experiences of family, gangs and pubs. Eventually, says Lees, half the schools in South Auckland were inviting the team to come work with their pupils. “We were almost becoming counsellors. It was such a therapeutic, cathartic thing.”
Worried his work with Statement “was starting to close me down”, Lees returned to Mercury Theatre, to bone up on his skills. Many acting roles later, he directed his first Samoan play for Mercury, American-Samoan John Kneubuhl’s Think of a Garden (1993). Lees made big changes for the Wellington season, up-playing the spiritual elements in the script. “It was an emotional piece for me, to be in it and director at the same time,” he told David O’Donnell. The Wellington season won four Chapman Tripp awards, including Best Director for Lees, and Production of the year.
Lee has also worked extensively with Oscar Kightley, playing a big hand in the development of Kightley’s breakthrough play Fresh off the Boat (co-written with Simon Small) which played in Australia and Samoa, plus fa’fafine tale A Frigate Bird Sings, which Lees directed for the 1996 International Festival of the Arts. Lees also helmed Albert Wendt’s Samoans in NZ play The Songmaker’s Chair, another double award-winner, and acclaimed Māori play Awhi Tapu (2003).
On-screen, Lees made his debut in 1984 with small roles in Death Warmed Up and cross-cultural romance Other Halves. He was part of the comedy team on Billy T James' self-titled show — he has fond memories of Miami Vice take-off Turangi Vice — and followed a part as a reporter in TV’s Gloss, by joining the core cast of Shark in the Park. Lees played straight-laced Sergeant Barker over three seasons, in this show about the working lives of frontline police officers.
By the 90s Lees was balancing his theatre work with a host of screen projects, including both local shows, and American shows shooting downunder. He played a lawyer in City Life, and took bit parts in episodes of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, after impressing as a villainous priest in early tele-movie Hercules and the Lost Kingdom.
In 1994 he was one of many Māori and PI actors in big-budget movie Rapa Nui, which dramatised the story of the isolated island for an international audience. Playing a man aspiring to be Ariki (a chief), Lees relished the chance to speak Samoan on Rapa Nui/Easter Island. It confirmed to him that the indigenous people of the Pacific Islands come from the same roots. “Being so far from home and meeting people that I can still talk with is amazing." Rapa Nui struck him as a special place to be: “At times it feels like the whole place is tapu.”
Probably Lees' most high profile movie role to date has been in the two Matrix sequels. Lees spent time in Sydney and San Francisco for his role as Captain Mifune, perhaps best remembered for his impassioned bouts fighting off hordes of Sentinel killing machines, in final film Revolutions (2003). Lees was no clearer as to the meaning of the matrix after doing the films than he had been before, but he is certainly aware how strongly fans "either identify (with) or relate to these movies".
Lees also had a less recognisable role in the second Lord of the Rings film. Donning a full body suit to play Ugluk, an Urak-Hai leader who faces off against many of the lead actors in the film’s climactic night battle, he also got to utter the immortal line “looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!"
In 2005 Lees cameoed as the disapproving minister who sends Oscar Kightley and friends off to find partners in hit PI comedy Sione’s Wedding (and its sequel); he argues that the films offer a useful snapshot of young Pacific Islanders in New Zealand society. The same year Sione first hit, he acted in period TV adventure The Lost Children, starred in Nancy Brunning’s debut short Journey to Ihipa, and enjoyed the free, reactive style of acting he brought to Street Legal.
Lees was happy — although “not surprised” — that Samoan-language feature The Orator - O Le Tulafale won awards at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. (Lees cast the actors, and also helped produce)."We had a lot of people say 'it won't do anything. It can't work, it's in a different language — people won't go and see it.' We knew they were wrong." Lees long believed the project had the potential to showcase the Pacific on the world stage. He argues that The Orator - O Le Tulafale is important in other ways. “Generations of Samoans have been born around the world and never seen Samoa, never heard it spoken in a day to day context. ”
In 2008 Lees began a five-year stint as a senior tutor at Toi Whakaari, where among other things he taught screen acting. As he began the job, Lees spoke about his familiarity as a Samoan with "the culture of the sharing of knowledge — the marae concept" which the drama school was moving into. "The sharing puts it all into perspective: there’s a sense of responsibility to pass on that knowledge, and a responsibility of the young ones to observe and absorb that knowledge, not just sit back and let it happen but actively take part to learn. And watching that learning is absorbing.”
'Nathaniel Lees: Billy T, Sione, The Matrix and more...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 21 March 2016. Accessed 21 March 2016
'Nathaniel Lees’. Karen Kay Management website. Accessed 17 March 2016
Sarah Hunter, ‘Naval War’ - Listener, 21 August 1993, page 37
Bess Manson, ‘From The Matrix to the Tuhoe mist for Lees’ (Interview) - Dominion Post, 23 May 2003, page B7
David O'Donnell, 'Everything is family: David O'Donnell interviews Nathaniel Lees', in Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama and Theatre in an Age of Transition, edited by Marc Maufort and David O'Donnell (Brussels: PIE Peter Lang, 2007), page 331
‘Nathaniel Lees - Senior Tutor, Acting for Stage & Screen’ (broken link). Toi Whakaari website. Accessed 20 October 2011