Joseph Naufahu has made a living as an athlete. However when injuries took their toll, the former Canterbury, Southland and New Zealand representative rugby player rediscovered a passion for acting. He’s since appeared on-screen in several high-profile local productions, plus HBO megahit Game Of Thrones.
Naufahu got his first taste of professional acting as a teen, through his older brother Rene, who was playing paramedic Sam Aleni on Shortland Street. Naufahu played Sam’s younger brother. That first acting stint was also brought on by a sporting injury, although one that was short-lived. “I really enjoyed it, but it was never going to be the way forward for me because my mum wouldn’t let me take time off school and rugby for it.”
Fast-forwarding a few years to 2005, Naufahu returned to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, after a stint playing rugby for the Glasgow Warriors was cut short by a knee injury. Needing a creative outlet, he rediscovered the acting spark he’d experienced as a teenager — again with the help of his older brother. "Rene gave me a small role in a crime series, which led to other acting roles". The role was in The Market, a drama based around Auckland’s Otara Market.
While otherwise occupied with athletic pursuits — he'd recently opened his Auckland gym, Ludus Magnus — Naufahu found himself playing the role of a young cop in 2010 in local feature Matariki. He also began appearing on the small screen in hit show Go Girls. The role, as the ex-husband of one of the main characters, echoed his real life experience in sport — he played an ex professional rugby player.
Playing rugby players would become something of a trend. In 2014 he appeared in The Kick — the TV movie dramatisation of the All Blacks' 2011 Rugby World Cup triumph — as fullback Mils Muliaina. In 2019 he switched position to centre, to play All Black Frank Bunce in miniseries Jonah. When asked in 2020 whether he was concerned about typecasting, he replied "I don’t mind at all. As long as the role’s got a bit of juice in it and something for me to play around with, I’m happy".
In 2014 Naufahu took on a bigger role in movie drama The Last Saint, under the direction of his brother Rene. He played Pinball, a gun-toting P-dealer who offers a much-needed payday to the film's main protagonist Minka (Beulah Koale). NZ Herald reviewer Francesca Rudkin exclaimed "he's outstanding. A bundle of pulsating, raw energy, Naufahu presents a mesmerising character who is both funny and terrifying". Stuff's Sarah Watt cited him as one of the film's many "sterling performances".
Naufahu’s international break came in 2016 when he won a role on arguably the biggest TV show on Earth. Naufahu played Khal Moro, the leader of a group of nomadic warriors known as the Dothraki. The character appeared across three episodes, capturing character Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), before a fiery confrontation. Of sharing scenes with Clarke, Naufahu made a sporting comparison. “It's awesome, man. It's like playing a footy game…your adrenaline's up. You're trying to get the feeling and emotion into the lines. You're giving it everything.”
There was more to follow. In 2019 he starred in American feature Enemy Within. The film is based on a real life incident during WWll when a Japanese pilot crashlanded on a Hawaiian island, then took locals hostage. Naufahu played Ben Kanahele, who took the pilot on.
Naufahu has also acted in the Newe Zealand shot Spartacus: Vengeance — as Liscus, a Gaul gladiator allied to Spartacus. He played a police officer in another project shot largely downunder, movie Ghost In The Shell. There was also a recurring role as Dallas, "an everyday kind of guy", in local web series Stand Up Girl (2017). In 2020 came a twist on his classic casting: in drama series Head High he plays an aging professional rugby league player, trying to bond with the sons he abandoned years before.
Naufahu was also among the trio of presenters on reality show School of Training. Across two seasons, the show saw people competing to join the team of personal trainers at Naufahu's gym.
Profile written by Simon Smith; published on 1 October 2020
Siobhan Downes, 'Kiwi Game of Thrones star Joe Naufahu back on NZ screens in new rugby drama Head High' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 30 June 2020. Accessed 1 October 2020
Ravi Yande, 'Gains of Thrones: Joe Naufahu Trains Like A Warrior' (Interview) Muscle and Fitness website. Loaded 2016. Accessed 1 October 2020
Unknown author, 'Meet Joseph Naufahu, Game of Thrones' new Kiwi star'. Stuff website. Loaded 26 April 2016. Accessed 1 October 2020
Unknown author, 'How acting filled the rugby void for Game of Thrones star Joe Naufahu'. Stuff website. Loaded 20 May 2019. Accessed 1 October 2020
Interview with Joe Naufahu (Video Interview), NZ Herald website (scroll down). Loaded 22 July 2017. Accessed 1 October 2020