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Tom Sainsbury

Writer, Actor, Director

When Tom Sainsbury was a child, a production of Little Shop of Horrors by the Matamata Operatic Society inspired him so much, he immediately began writing a sequel. The cult musical’s mix of "comedy, music and horror" gripped his imagination, prompting an impressed teacher to ask him to organise a performance at a school assembly.

Sainsbury, the youngest of three children, grew up on a Matamata dairy farm. It gave him a lot of space — literally and mentally. "Looking back all the ingredients were there, but I wasn’t really fully aware of it. I would watch a lot of television while my parents were busy working on the farm, Fresh Prince of Bel Air and things like that, or Star Wars, and then I would either recreate them in my bedroom, or go into my mother’s extensive garden or walk around the farm recreating them in my head." 

When he was in high school, playwrights' agency Playmarket invited teenagers to submit plays. The successful applicants won entry to a workshop. Sainsbury needed no extra motivation."Looking back my whole soul cringes about the quality of it. I was up till 2am writing it and I sent it off. I think two people entered and I got second."

Sainsbury was more than ready to jump into making theatre. After college he moved to Auckland to complete a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and English Literature, and immerse himself in the local scene. He took part in Auckland University productions then branched out, forming Fingerprints and Teeth Productions, and writing and directing his own plays — all produced in ‘underground’ venues like the Silo and The Basement’s smaller theatre. He talks extensively about his stage and screen career in this extended video interview.

Many of Sainsbury's plays feature his trademark black humour. He is a prolific playwright, having produced 50+ plays. Several of them, including The Christmas Monologues, And Then You Die and A Simple Procedure, have had seasons in London and Australia. Sainsbury has been named Playmarket's Young Playwright of the Year four times, and was a finalist for the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award three times.

Sainsbury has also turned his hand to writing for the screen. In 2010 he joined forces with fellow all-rounder Madeleine Sami to write Super City, an observational comedy set in Auckland. Sami plays a range of disparate characters. The series was picked up by American network ABC in 2012. Sainsbury and Sami won Best Comedy Script at the 2011 SWANZ Script Writer Awards. Since then, Sainsbury has written for a slate of local comedy shows and web series, including International Emmy winner INSiDE

Sainsbury has collaborated extensively with other actors and writers to produce web series, such as Stake Out, Bachelor Pad and The Video Store. The web series format suits Sainsbury’s brand of low-key (read low budget) character rich stories. In 2020 he created, co-wrote and starred in political dramedy Sextortion.

Sainsbury’s acting career has also taken off. He describes himself as self-taught, having learnt his skills watching and imitating. After small parts in Super City and sketch show Jono and Ben, he was invited across the Tasman to play Sam the scarfie in comedic duo Hamish and Andy’s 2017 show True Story. That year his "dream came true" when he was asked to join Shortland Street as 'stalker dude' Jason Kirkpatrick. Although the part was "meant to be dangerous", Sainsbury’s natural comedic skills shone through. He plays one of the teachers in comedic web series Educators, and acted in hit show Wellington Paranormal. Sainsbury joined the writing team for the show in season four, picking up a nomination for Best Comedy Script at the 2022 NZTV Awards. He has contributed to both the writing team and cast of several shows throughout his career.  

In 2016 Sainsbury was offered his first movie role, as Bongo in Pork Pie, director Matt Murphy’s remake of hit film Goodbye Pork Pie. In 2018 he moved into a bigger role, as a calculating "paranormal blogger and alientologist" in sci-fi comedy Alien Addiction. He co-starred alongside Kiwi internet comedian Jimi Jackson. Sainsbury also co-starred in (and co-wrote) zombie comedy Dead, working with Hayden J Weal. Sainsbury played a stoner who can see ghosts, who helps a recently deceased police officer (Weal) catch a serial killer. 

Sainsbury has extensive behind the scenes experience. He has directed a number of short films and web series, including two winners of the 48Hours film contest: Time Travel Centre and Peptok. He reunited with many of the crew of these films for his first feature as director: horror movie Loop Track. Sainsbury also starred, as a tramper who starts to worry he is being watched. The film won good houses when it premiered as part of Whānau Mārama/the 2023 NZ International Film Festival. Sainsbury is directing a second feature, also of a darker bent: European in Aotearoa tale Foreign Body.

Since 2017, Sainsbury has been known as the 'Snapchat Dude'. He uses his smartphone’s Snapchat app (and a few "cheap wigs") to manipulate his face and create a gallery of instantly amusing Kiwi characters. His most popular parodies are those of politicians Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett.

Sainsbury's talents extend to stand-up comedy; he has performed in Auckland and Wellington since 2014. In 2019, his comedic talents were recognised when he was nominated for New Zealand's supreme stand-up accolade, the Billy T Award. As a comedian, he has guested on such shows as Give Us a Clue, Have You Been Paying Attention and 7 Days, as well fronting a number national ad campaigns. These skills have extended into being a TV host; 2022 was a particularly significant year with Sainsbury co-hosting Snack Masters.

Amongst his busy screen career, Sainsbury still manages to find time for theatre and even writing books (New Zealanders: The Field Guide). "I don't know if I'm a sucker for punishment," he told Stuff in 2021, "but I do get satisfaction from working really hard".  

Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 30 April 2024

Sources include 
Tom Sainsbury
'Tom Sainsbury - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 22 November 2022
Sasha Borissenko, 'Tom Sainsbury uncensored' (Interview) Newsroom website. Loaded 25 May 2018. Accessed 27 February 2019
Chris Schulz, 'Tom Sainsbury: 'I'm Salve to the joke'' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 14 March 2021. Accessed 21 November 2022
Adam Dudding, 'The little voices in Thomas Sainsbury’s head' (Interview) - Sunday Star-Times (Sunday Magazine), 26 November 2017
Ricardo Simich, 'Tom Sainsbury: The man of many wigs' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 3 February 2018
‘Bookmarks with Thomas Sainsbury (Paula Bennett impersonator) (Radio Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 24 January 2018. Accessed 27 February 2019
‘Tom Sainsbury, man of many faces & Paula Bennett impersonator’ (Radio Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 19 December 2018. Accessed 27 February 2019
'Thomas Sainsbury' Playmarket website. Accessed 21 November 2022