Oscar Kightley, MNZM, has brought his double-barrelled writing and performing talents to theatre, television and the big screen. Born in the Samoan capital, Apia, as Vai Osa To'elau Mase, he emigrated to New Zealand at the age of four, after the death of his father. He grew up with an Aunt and Uncle, one of eight children in Te Atatu, West Auckland.
Following a journalism cadetship at The Auckland Star, Kightley spent four years writing for the paper and the Sunday Star-Times. After a brief period in radio, he headed to Christchurch for his first brush with television: co-presenting teen magazine show Life in The Fridge. He was also dabbling in writing for the theatre, after joining touring company Pacific Underground, partly from a desire to get more Pacific Island characters on stage. As Kightley told the Listener, "we tried to make serious stuff but it came out funny."
Through the rest of the 90s, Kightley's career continued to combine stage and television. On TV he was displaying his writing and performing talents as part of the ensembles of Gibson Group sketch series Skitz, Telly Laughs and Newsflash. Kightley was invited to write for Skitz after Dave Gibson saw one of his plays; Kightley soon began writing himself into sketches.
Inbetween TV jobs, "the master of self-deprecating immigrant humour" (Diana Wichtel) was honing his storytelling skills on a series of plays that explored Pacific Island characters, usually as they adjusted to life in New Zealand. Fresh off the Boat (co-written with Simon Small) was performed in Australia and Samoa. Later, director Nathaniel Lees locked Kightley and Skitz colleague David Fane in a hotel room to help them complete fa'afafine tale A Frigate Bird Sings, for the NZ International Arts Festival. Kightley followed it with his first solo play, family tale Dawn Raids, which he also directed (not to be confused with the documentary of the same name, which Kightley appears in). In 1998 he won the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.
In the late 90s Kightley founded The Naked Samoans, with original members David Fane and Mario Gaoa. This group of New Zealand-raised Pacific Islanders mined comedy from their experiences of growing up brown and misunderstood, in the world's largest Polynesian city.
In 1999 Kightley was invited to work as a storyliner on Shortland Street, an experience that proved helpful when animated series bro'Town came into being five years later. "The impact it had on my career was huge. It gave me the discipline of writing stories and helped so much in the mechanics of writing 30-minute episodes. There are no schools that teach you those skills."
After watching the first Naked Samoan shows, Kightley's ex Auckland Star colleague Elizabeth Mitchell suggested the group's portrayals of polynesian teens might make good material for an animated TV series, partly because she couldn't see the ensemble convincingly playing teenagers. bro'Town's portrait of life for a group of un-PC Pacific Island and Māori kids proved a major hit, spawning five series. The show saw him sharing the script table (and the recording booth) with Mitchell and fellow Naked Samoans Fane, Gaoa, and Shimpal Lelisi. Kightley played Vale Pepelo, brother to Lelisi's character, and the most studious member of the group.
Mid-way through their bro'Town adventure, The Naked Samoans ventured onto the big screen with 2006 hit Sione's Wedding. Centred around four 30-something males with an urgent deadline to find a girlfriend, Sione proved another breakthrough for the troupe, and Pacific Islanders on screen. The film quickly became the most commercially-successful Kiwi comedy released on home soil (at least until the meteoric 2010 rise of Taika Waititi's Boy).
On top of co-writing Sione with James Griffin, Kightley appeared on screen as the bumbling but sensible Albert. According to Kightley, the character's naivete means that he needs most things explained to him "in triplicate, with memos. He needs everything stated including which girl likes him, and which girl he likes." Kightley argued that while creating Albert, he and Griffin had no idea who would be cast in the role. "If I knew I would be playing him I would have made Albert much cooler. I would definitely have given him better clothes."
Sequel Sione's 2 - Unfinished Business was released to solid local box-office in January 2012. Writers Kightley and Griffin considered an idea that involved the same ensemble of actors, but different characters, before settling on a story set five years after the events of the first film. Simon Bennett (Outrageous Fortune) directed.
Kightley followed it with gritty 2013 police drama Harry, which he co-wrote with director Chris Dudman and ex South Auckkalnd detective Neil Grimstone. Kightley co-stars as a troubled Samoan-Kiwi detective dealing with a P-fuelled crimewave in Auckland, while raising his teenage daughter. Sam Neill plays his boss. To those who argued that the role marked a big change for him, Kightley maintained that he "got work in comedy because that was the work I was offered, but I'm quite a serious person generally". Calling the show great, gritty and grimy, Paul Casserly wrote in the Herald: "Kightley is believable ... You buy him."
After co-directing a video ('Just Roll') for hip-hop musician PNC, Kightley went on to helm 'Walk Right Up', for rising talent Ladi6. He also directed on the second season of Madeleine Sami's Super City.
In 2013 Kightley wrote and directed his first dramatic short, Tom's Diary. Following a day in the life of a Bob Marley-mad Samoan teenager in 80s-era West Auckland, it went on to win best short at a film festival in Belize, and was nominated for four Moa awards back in Aotaeroa, including best film, script and actor (for Mac Kaisuva). A feature film version, provisionally titled The Garage, is in development.
In 2019 it was announced that Kightley would be directing feature-length documentary Dawn Raids, about the Otara-born record label of the same name.
On-screen, Kightley has fronted up for 2013 documentary Rooster Rooster Dragon Rat - Oscar's Guide to the Chinese Zodiac, in which he interviewed defenders and critiques of the zodiac, and outlined its basics (the documentary was directed by bro'Town creator Elizabeth Mitchell). Other gigs include TV3 rugby coverage, star-studded comedy show Radiradirah, and breakfast presenting on radio station Nui FM. Kightley has also been frequent partner in crime to ex-Ice TV presenter Nathan Rarere — the two co-presented globetrotting DNA-tracing documentary Made in Taiwan, sports show Sportzah, and 2005 quiz show Snatch Our Booty.
In 2016 hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he won laughs as a bumbling policeman.
A 2006 Arts Foundation Laureate Award winner, and Qantas award-winning journalist, Kightley was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009, for services to theatre and television.
Profile updated on 14 May 2019
Paul Casserly, 'Harry is gritty, grimy and great' (Review of Harry) - The NZ Herald, 9 May 2013
'Oscar Kightley talks bro'Town and being brown' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary. Loaded 27 March 2009. Accessed 14 May 2019
Cath Bennett, 'Shorty road to success'. Stuff website. Loaded 23 May 2010. Accessed 14 May 2019
Kelly Dennett 'Oscar Kightley's nostalgic look at 80s NZ' - Western Leader, 16 July 2013
Adam Dudding, 'No Joke' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times (Sunday liftout) 14 April 2013, page 11
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
Diana Wichtel, 'Funny, that' (Interview) - The Listener, 9 December 2006, issue 3474
'Oscar Kightley'. The Arts Foundation website. Accessed 14 May 2019
'Oscar Kightley'. Playmarket website. Accessed 14 May 2019
Sione's Wedding press kit