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Nick Afoa stated, “It was either succeed or fail – and I failed.”


When Nick Afoa was young, he dreamed of traveling the world, not as a musical theater performer like he is now, but as a successful rugby player. As we left AAMI stadium and drove under the colorful rings on Olympic Boulevard towards the Yarra, thoughts of athletic skill filled my mind.

Afoa recalls, without any arrogance, that he participated in the New Zealand under 19s team and they emerged victorious in the World Cup held in South Africa. This was the ultimate accomplishment at that level, and the next progression was to play professionally. It was a crucial moment, and unfortunately, I was not successful.

The individual is talking about the injury to his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) that happened during a regular game in Singapore. This event abruptly ended Afoa’s football career. “I could hear it happen before I even felt it. Although some athletes are able to recover from this type of injury, it can result in a loss of speed. As a back, speed was crucial for my position.”

Nick Afoa

During this period, a young man who was confident in his future plans faced a difficult time. “I gained a significant amount of weight and turned to excessive drinking. I felt lost and unsure of what to do next.”

We make our way to the riverbank, leaving the loud trucks turning onto Batman Avenue. The forecast predicted warm weather, but the morning has been windy and cloudy, and Afoa is dressed for a winter in London.

“I may not have succeeded as a professional rugby player. Nowadays, there are young players who make it onto professional teams at the age of 18 or 19 due to their strong commitment. Perhaps this was always meant to be my journey.”

Afoa possesses a natural, nonchalant wisdom that appears to be ingrained in him. However, it is evident that his family, along with mentors, coaches, and directors, have also influenced the person he has grown into.

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I grew up in New Zealand, with a Samoan father and a Croatian Kiwi mother. Although I had visited Samoa as a child, I didn’t feel a strong connection to my Croatian roots until I visited there a few years ago. This happened during a brief break in my performance as the main character in Disney’s The Lion King on the West End.

Nick Afoa

“He expressed that it was a significant void in his life. He located his grandfather’s birthplace and connected with relatives he had never previously known. Despite being born in New Zealand, his grandmother had never revisited Croatia, and his mother had also never returned. The emigration of Croatians is a well-known occurrence, but for him, this was a genuine return to his roots. He sensed a strong pull to make the journey.”

Afoa is a man who is sensitive to his passions and understands the disappointment of unfulfilled desires. Although his experiences may appear to be divided between rugby and musical theatre, he has long been drawn to both pursuits. “My drama teacher would need me for rehearsals while my rugby coach would request a few extra minutes of training.”

Nick Afoa crossing the street.

During the peak of his passion for football, theatre was luring him with its opportunities in the background. In 2003, he even tried out for the original Australian tour of Lion King. Despite making it to the final callbacks at the age of 19, which coincided with his trip to South Africa for the World Cup, he received an email offering him the role of alternate Simba in London. Afoa admits with a bashful shrug, “I declined.”

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As we continue on Swanson St and the pebbled path broadens to include the five metal shields symbolizing the five groups of the Kulin nation, the weather also clears up, revealing patches of blue sky amidst the clustered white clouds.

After his rugby career came to an end and he turned down a significant theatre offer, it may have appeared that he had missed his opportunity. “It was a difficult time. I felt like I had lost everything for a bit.” However, Simba reached out once more. “Ten years later, it resurfaced,” Afoa recalls as he claps one hand against his fist. “And I knew I was prepared for it.”

During his transition from athlete to actor, he had to make numerous changes. This included transforming his physical appearance and movements by lengthening his muscles and incorporating ballet into his routine. However, his years as an athlete taught him valuable lessons in discipline and determination, which proved beneficial in his ability to perform eight shows per week for extended periods of time.

Nick Afoa

Afoa is currently in Melbourne performing in the touring production of Miss Saigon as the character John. John is initially portrayed as a brash and confrontational soldier from the US, but by the end of the story, he transforms into an activist and humanitarian. This role marks a significant growth in Afoa’s acting career as he explains, “In Lion King, I essentially played a version of myself.” However, his portrayal also exposes him to the ongoing controversy surrounding the musical, particularly regarding race. The show’s original lead, Jonathan Pryce, performed in yellowface, and the sexualization of Asian women on stage continues to be a contentious issue. While not explicitly written for a non-white actor, the role of John is often played by someone of a minority race.

As we drive through the roadworks outside Federation Square, the wind gets stronger. We discuss a common occurrence in the industry where non-white actors are only deemed suitable for certain roles, but not as the romantic lead or main character. “Blind casting” is seen as a temporary fix for racial inequality in theatre, but Afoa argues that being specific is also crucial.

During rehearsal, Nigel Huckle, the actor playing John’s best friend Chris, asked me about the nationality of my character. I was initially caught off guard, but after conducting some research, I learned that there were also Samoan and Pacific people who served in the American military during the Vietnam War. This realization helped me better understand my character’s background.

Afoa has consistently benefitted from incorporating his cultural background into his work. He explains that his character Simba was heavily influenced by his Samoan heritage, giving it a raw and authentic quality. This same cultural influence also adds depth and confidence to his character John, but also hints at inner turmoil that the audience can sense rather than outright see. Afoa notes that many Samoan soldiers struggled with conflicting emotions when they arrived in Vietnam, as the lifestyle of the Vietnamese people closely resembled that of their own back in the islands.

We make our way to Exhibition Street and find ourselves outside Her Majesty’s, where the musical Miss Saigon is currently showing. After waiting for it, the promised warmth finally arrives and Afoa removes his heavy wool coat. “This history hits close to home. We have cast members whose parents and grandparents experienced the fall of Saigon. It’s important that we pay tribute to that.”

Nick Afoa outside Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne

Afoa will be taking on the role of Collins in Rent after his performance in Miss Saigon. This production will bring him back together with his wife, Josslynn Hlenti. They first met while playing the roles of Simba and Nala in The Lion King and have faced challenges due to conflicting schedules since then. Afoa mentions that their 18-month-old child makes it difficult to travel internationally, but perhaps they will eventually settle down.

It is unlikely to happen in the near future. However, with a constantly moving lifestyle, it is important to live in the present moment. “I plan to spend some time in Melbourne to go for walks, including the one we just did, with my wife and child. Let’s appreciate what is right in front of us.”

  • The musical Miss Saigon will be performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne until December 16, followed by a run at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide from January 2 to 28, 2024.

Source: theguardian.com