Joe Naufahu on how his real life rugby career was cut short, only to be mirrored in his role on Head High

Joe Naufahu is a versatile guy, both on-screen and off. 

In his personal life, he's a father-of-two, owns Ludas Magnus gym and advocates for mental health. Meanwhile, his acting resume features Game of Thrones, Spartacus, Ghost in the Shell and rugby dramas like The Kick and Jonah, which is handy - because of course, he also used to be a professional rugby player. 

Head High is another sports-centric project for Naufahu, who has just returned in his role as coach Jesse Roberts for season two. 

Far from being wary of any type-casting, the fitness aficionado embraces the opportunity to work with material he's familiar with - and in this case, his character's story is very close to home. 

Naufahu spoke to Newshub about mirroring his real life story on screen, his focus on mental health and how being a part of a local series compares to mammoth productions like Game of Thrones

Newshub: Can you tell us a bit about your character Jesse on Head High? What should we expect from the second season? 

Joe Naufahu: Jesse Roberts is the father of Tai and Mana but he left Renee early on in their childhood to chase his dreams in Australia playing league in the NRL. He has since returned, and is trying to find a place in their lives again. He loves his boys and he would do anything to see them achieve greatness, but he has some demons to face and the real reasons behind his return are yet to be revealed. 

Joe Naufahu on how his real life rugby career was cut short, only to be mirrored in his role on Head High
Photo credit: South Pacific Pictures

There are some uncanny similarities between you and your character - can you talk a bit about your rugby career, how you got started and how you ended up moving into acting? 

Funnily enough I attended both Auckland Grammar School and King's College, whose fierce rivalry is akin to that of Southdown and St Isaacs [from Head High]. I played in both 1st XV's and the traditional matches were crackers.

I love both schools and I am ever grateful for the amazing separate schooling experiences I was lucky enough to enjoy. I followed my passion for rugby down to Christchurch where I played for Canterbury and Southland before heading offshore to the UK to take up a short-term contract with the Leicester Tigers. Fortunately, I was able to secure a long-term contract with the Glasgow Warriors. 

Joe Naufahu on how his real life rugby career was cut short, only to be mirrored in his role on Head High
Photo credit: South Pacific Pictures

A couple years into my playing time there my career hit a roadblock and a severe knee injury forced me into early retirement. With the support of my family I got through this transition period and found a passion for acting. My older brother was co-writing and directing a show called The Markets. I ended up flying back from Glasgow to audition and I must have been okay because I ended up landing one of the leads. 

I grew up in Otara and it was a show based on two families that held stalls at the Otara Flea Markets. It was my first gig and it really opened my eyes into the acting world. I loved it and it gave me the same vibes that playing rugby did. Since then I relish any opportunity to practice my art and express myself through the characters I play. 

How did you deal with giving up your original dream of being a rugby player and being forced to change paths? 

That transition period was tough and it's something that every player has to deal with at some point in their lives. It was just a lot earlier than I expected. When you're in the privileged bubble that professional sports people live in and that bubble pops... it can be a pretty scary place, mostly because of the voices in your head. 

If all you identify yourself with is being a rugby player, then what happens when that is taken away from you? It took time and healing and support from family but I was able to find my identity beyond the rugby field and reinvent myself with a new passion and a new thirst to discover exactly what my true purpose was. 

Joe Naufahu on how his real life rugby career was cut short, only to be mirrored in his role on Head High
Photo credit: South Pacific Pictures

What has it been like telling a similar version of your personal story on screen? Does it ever feel too close to home? 

Not at all. I just enjoy the process for what it is and try to get better with every project, every scene, every time that I get to step on stage or in front of the camera. I try to learn something every scene and every interaction with cast and crew alike. 

It's a hell of a big machine with a lot of moving parts and you've got to have a lot of self-discipline. 

This is your fourth role as a rugby player, or former rugby player; do you mind frequently being cast as that kind of character? 

It doesn't bother me at all. I love the process involved in taking what is written on a piece of paper and turning it into something that affects people, something they can interpret for themselves and vibe with... or not!

I don't care what the characters I play do for a job, it matters to me the material that the characters get to deal with and Jesse Roberts gets himself into some interesting situations which are a lot of fun to prepare for and shoot. 

Joe Naufahu on how his real life rugby career was cut short, only to be mirrored in his role on Head High
Photo credit: South Pacific Pictures

How did it feel having a role written specifically for you? Surely that's an actor's dream.

I didn't know it was, haha! If it was, then yeah I guess that is definitely a dream situation and one that I am very grateful for.

Apart from the obvious scale of production, what differences are there between working on a Kiwi set and a set like Game of Thrones? Which one do you like better? 

Not much, to be honest. You are still working with other artists, taking direction, and acting! Just the players are different and the material is different, that's all. 

I love my Head High cast and crew but like rugby teams, sometimes it's not as easy to find your place, especially with the bigger productions, unless you're one of the top dogs. I'm always trying to learn and get better and sometimes finding your place is part of that. 

Joe Naufahu as Khal Moro on Game of Thrones.
Joe Naufahu as Khal Moro on Game of Thrones. Photo credit: HBO

You've been outspoken about the importance of mental health - is that a central part of being a public figure for you? What message are you hoping to get across to fans and viewers?

Mental health right now is paramount. I would never have thought I would be living through an age where we are locked up inside our own homes. Freedom is everything and when it is threatened it creates desperation which can be dangerous, but it can also be the catalyst for amazing discoveries and beautiful inventions. 

Finding love for yourself in a time when everything is telling you that you aren't good enough is a battle. Judgement is round every corner and the standards we're expected to live by are sometimes way beyond our means. 

That disconnection is dangerous so we gotta remember to forget what is expected of you, and do what you love because you love doing it and because it gives you purpose and meaning. 

Everyone is flawed in some way, be kind, compassionate, love yourself, and live your life for you, no one else.