Robbie Magasiva was born in Wellington in 1972 to Samoan parents. When he was five, the family moved to Samoa. He was 10 when they moved back to Wellington. As Magasiva told the NZ Herald in 2017: "When I went over I could only speak English, but when I came back I could only speak Samoan. The English came back quite quickly and all the kids would say, 'You don't sound like a FOB (fresh off the boat)'. We moved in with our aunty and uncle. There were nine cousins all in the same house — five boys in one room. That was just the norm back in the day".
Magasiva fell in love with acting while on stage at Strathmore Primary School's talent quest — he loved the kids laughing and clapping when he performed. He performed in stage musicals and then at age 16, was cast as a police cadet for a National Party TV commercial. The casting director wanted more diversity and Magasiva was happy to get paid — and eat free food! After leaving high school, he took a variety of jobs to pay the bills, including as a postie, and as a receptionist at advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi.
One of his early TV appearances was in police drama Shark in the Park in the early 90s. He then got his break with comedy sketch show Skitz. Magasiva would spend three seasons on the programme, working alongside Hori Ahipene and future Naked Samoan David Fane. He joined both of them again on two more Gibson Group comedy shows: Telly Laughs, and short-lived Skitz spin-off The Semisis, an over the top tale of a dysfunctional Samoan family in which he played the cheerful, naive Lagi.
There was drama too. By the late 90s Magasiva had taken on recurring roles in acclaimed TV series Cover Story — playing a cameraman on a current affairs show — and small town drama Jackson's Wharf (as a Christian policeman). He also appeared in Tom Scott's TV movie police drama Tiger Country.
2001 proved to be even busier. Thanks partly to the enthusiasm of writer Nick Ward, Magasiva made his big-screen debut that year in hit movie Stickmen, the tale of three blokes, two women and a high stakes Wellington pool tournament. Director Hamish Rothwell went through an "exhaustive" casting process to find a charismatic cast who could bond both on screen, and in real life. Magasiva played Jake, the smooth-talking salesman who preaches adultery.
The same year Stickmen was released, Magasiva was busy on stage dancing with Black Grace Dance Company, and joining Polynesian theatre troupe The Naked Samoans, who mine comedy from their experiences of growing up brown in Auckland (as this 2001 documentary reveals). Magasiva arrived in time to join the Samoans in Edinburgh, performing 22 shows in 24 days (the group describes their Scottish experience in this Living Room episode).
Magasiva would work with many of the Naked Samoan crew in 2006 movie hit Sione's Wedding. Co-written by Oscar Kightley, the film follows four long-time Samoan friends on a mission to find maturity, plus someone who they can pass off as their girlfriend. Magasiva played a casanova bike courier seeking someone who will respect him for more than his body. He acted alongside his real-life parents and younger brother, Shortland Street actor Pua Magasiva, who played Sione. Robbie reprised his role in Sione sequel Unfinished Business, which was released in early 2012.
Between Stickmen and Sione, Magasiva snatched another memorable role, on television series The Strip. He played on and off romantic interest to the central character, Melissa (Luanne Gordon). Initially a stripper at Melissa's strip club, Magasiva's character later goes on to run an opposition establishment.
Magasiva has often been cast as a hunk, but Samoan/Scottish playwright Victor Rodger says he has been pigeon-holed, and is a "truly great actor". Rodger has cast Magasiva in several of his plays, including 1998's Sons, for which he won a Best Male Newcomer Theatre Award, and 2006's My Name is Gary Cooper, a time-hopping South Seas tale of moviemaking and sexual revenge. "He's had lots of beefcake parts, but his range is so much more than that," Rodger told Sunday magazine in 2014.
Magasiva drew on his high school representative rugby days to portray a staunch rugby player in 2003 tele-movie Skin and Bone, Greg McGee's update of his classic rugby play Foreskin's Lament. Since then his TV work has included a 2005 episode of Mataku (The Wild Ones), playing a Pacific Island prince on madcap series Diplomatic Immunity, and a soldier in McGee's Doves of War, a mini-series that jumps between war-torn Bosnia and the present.
In 2009 Magasiva joined the cast of Shortland Street, as arrogant doctor Maxwell Avia, a role that had originally been written for a Pākehā. He also had a small part as a traditional tattooist in Samoan-themed horror film The Tattooist. He was an elderly Samoan in short film Tatau, a private detective on series Dirty Laundry. He took on a new challenge by joining Beatrice Faumuina as co-host of long-running Pacific Island magazine show Tagata Pasifika.
Magasiva has found success over the ditch. He was living in Hollywood when in 2013 he was offered a part on Australian drama Wentworth, as drug addicted prison guard Will Jackson. Magasiva has had a long-term role on the series, which is an update of cult Aussie soap Prisoner. He rates it as one of his favourite roles, thanks to the high quality writing and challenge of shooting tragic scenes. Magasiva has been nominated for multiple awards for his Wentworth role, including a Logie Award for Most Outstanding Actor.
Magasiva also played Ugly Pete in an episode of popular drama Offspring, appeared in 2015 Aussie comedy movie Now Add Honey, and in 2019 joined the cast of Kiwi crime caper Lowdown Dirty Criminals, directed by Paul Murphy.
The actor is proud to have been part of the change where more brown faces were introduced to New Zealand screens, and happy that he has resisted being typecast. "Back then, [TV] was fully white faces, full of Palagis. So, when I came in, they were looking for Polynesians. I came in at the right time," he says. "Now, the Sione's are being told and our stories are being told on stage. I think we're in a good place."
Profile originally published on 20 January 2009; updated on 31 May 2019
'Robbie Magasiva: On following his heart...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director James Coleman. Loaded 25 October 2011. Accessed 31 May 2019
Jennifer Dann, '12 Questions: Robbie Magasiva says he got his start on Crimewatch' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 7 November 2017
'Robbie Magasiva' Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 31 May 2019
'Samoa's answer to the Marx Brothers' - Capital Times, 21 July 2004, page 8
Unknown writer, 'Robbie Magasiva heads for Hollywood' (Interview)- Sunday, 7 September 2014