For My Life in TV this week, Alex Casey talks to Madeleine Sami about creating and starring in Super City, starting out on Shortland Street and how she’s still taking an extended gap year.
Madeleine Sami is everywhere if you look hard enough. Just after this interview I popped to a film screening and there she was, a pan-ethnic cowboy figure in a Western film. Pop on your television, she’s selling you moist towelettes. Pop on Sione’s 2 – she’s in there too. Perhaps Sami’s greatest onscreen undertaking was her comedy mammoth Super City. The two season character comedy series first aired on TV3 in 2011, and showcased just how everywhere she could be. She could be an immigrant taxi driver, she could be homeless, she could be a middle-aged Ponsonby snoot called Linda.
Rewatching the series now, some of her characters are incredibly close to the bone, while others are as outrageous and confronting as a purposefully dropped towel in a gym locker room. Super City is a smart, hilarious and touching look at some of the characters you can find on any Auckland street corner, inside any club at 4am or out the back of any suburban panelbeaters. I was keen to chat to Sami about where it all came from, and how the hell she managed to do it all without going crazy.
Madeleine was in town directing Jono and Ben star Rose Matafeo’s comedy show Finally Dead, and had a spare afternoon. “I’m a lot like Rose, because we’re both half white and half brown” she told me, going into faux-despair over the denial of her Fiji Indian roots. That bond had clearly made the pair inseparable, as Rose couldn’t help but gatecrash the middle of our interview. They exchanged hi-five’s and Rose carried on her way. Sami told me that after Rose’s show was finished, she was leaving almost immediately to fly back to L.A. and continue work on her various creative projects. She was extremely busy and extremely chill, slipping in and out of characters and voices. I asked her if she was ready to go back to the very beginning, and she replied “let us slip back through the anus of time”.
Where you a big fan of television growing up?
I was really obsessed with TV. I remember coming home from school and watching M*A*S*H and all these other comedies. I loved Absolutely Fabulous, comedy was a big thing for me very early on. I used to be allowed to stay up on a Friday and watch In Living Colour with the Wayans brothers and Jim Carrey. It was amazing, the first place where Jim Carrey was really, really funny. He was just this one white guy in an all-black comedy sketch show. It’s amazing comedy, amazing to watch him just burst onto the screen. I think I got hooked on the idea of performing from shows like that very early on. My mum used to say that as a kid I would run into walls for people’s enjoyment, something clicked that if I do this people laugh. It hurt a little bit but it was worth it for that little buzz.
Did see comedy on TV as an aspirational thing? Did you ever imagine you would be starring in your own comedy show one day?
I think I was just a any kid who wanted to do acting. From high school I was really into theatre, it took me until seventh form to get a lead role. Till then I was always the sidekick, or like in Midsummer Night’s Dream I was ‘Attendant to Oberon’. It was always slave, the maid or the servant,
Looking back it was actually quite racist. I didn’t mind I was just excited to have any way of performing.
How did you make the transition from theatre to TV?
Basically I’m still in my gap year right now. I gave myself a year out of high school just to see if I could do acting. I did a monologue show called Bare which was a big hit and we toured it. Then I toured Toa Fraser’s No. 2 for a year after that. Between those two shows I got my first TV job on Shortland Street.
Shortland Street definitely seems like a platform for young New Zealand performers, did you feel like you had ‘made it’?
I just remember at the time looking around and thinking “oh my God, this is it – this is how it starts! I’m on f****** Shortland Street”. Then I discovered what it was really like to work on Shortland Street – that it is a massive slog. Probably the hardest job I have ever done, actually.
Yeah. I was just so young, I had no idea what I was doing, and they shoot so fast. Nothing I have shot since has been remotely as fast as that. Anyone who goes through it will know that it’s worth it for that experience. It was also my first introduction to whinging cynical actors – which was interesting. I would come into the green room all bright-eyed and everyone else would just be like “wah wah money this wah wah publicity that”. And now I am one of those cynical actors as well, so there you go.
You also made it to Xena? Congratulations on that.
I was on Xena. That was great. I was such a huge fan and it was the third-to-last episode they ever shot, I was this Amazonian warrior woman. They called it their Saving Private Ryan episode because almost everyone died. Except for me, I made it right to the end. As a young actor it was so amazing to be involved in such a cult hit.
Is there a big difference between making TV and movies? Do you prefer one?
Movies are a lot slower. There’s some sort of romance associated with making film but I find TV a lot more satisfying. I watch way more TV now than film. I live mostly in the US so I will spend a whole day on Netflix watching documentaries on weird murderers
What about making your own TV? How was it being such an enormous part of Super City?
I was exhausted. I was so involved at every point in the process which really wears you down quite a bit. After months of writing, having to then shoot it and be all those characters is a whole different level of intensity. I came off Super City 2 and went straight into filming Sione’s 2 and it was honestly such a relief. It’s amazing to just turn up and have someone put a robe on you, and not be pacing the set saying “this scene isn’t funny and I wrote it, it needs to be funnier.”
As a writer it’s such a luxury to be able to change as you perform. Always on set I wanted people to be really collaborative, and change stuff as we went along. It wasn’t like a normal job where you just do what you’re told.
Did all the characters come from you or from various people?
The first season were all my characters. Someone at TV3 had seen my solo show and suggested I put the characters into a TV show. Not long after that Summer Heights High came out, and I thought “f***! I’ve been doing that for years and just not filming it!” I always wanted to do something with all of those characters, but not make a mockumentary. The character of Georgie came out of messing around at rehearsal for a different play. We were at a theatre close to Myer’s Park so I started doing this whole thing about a homeless person who lives there.
TV3 asked us to do a trailer, and the rest of the characters came really organically. Pasha started with a wig. I picked up this blonde wig and started playing this empty-headed girl who didn’t want to be Indian, she wanted to be white and trashy. Linda came more last minute – I was sitting in the car with Tom [Sainsbury, co-writer] and this middle-aged arts patron just suddenly came out of me.
You mentioned Summer Heights High before, how do you feel about Chris Lilley as a white man playing the Tongan character of Jonah? Do you think there are certain rules around playing certain ethnicities?
I don’t really mind, as long as it’s done in a considered way. I like the Jonah character, but he started to use a lot of the jokes again in his solo series and it cheapened it. I thought we had got to know a really complex kid in Summer Heights High, and we had just gone back to square one. I think if you play a character with enough integrity, and you are convincing – then it’s fine.
When you satirise something you also have to have a certain amount of love for it. I always feel like knowing the culture is the key. Like with Ofa in Super City 2, I grew up with her in South Auckland. I’m not Tongan, but I feel like I have an amount of ownership around that type of person because I know exactly how to present them. She’s a love-letter to all those sassy girls I grew up playing rugby with. Being ethnic myself, it’s something I think about a lot. The way I see it is, if you buy it – it’s fine.
And you didn’t face any backlash from Super City did you?
Not to my face at least. Also because I’m half white and half brown I get away with it. My show was pretty niche, I am proud of Super City though, because it’s so hard to make TV in this country. You see that locally there’s the spinoff of Outrageous Fortune and apart from that it’s all reality. The comedy comes from 7 Days and Jono and Ben – and it’s good – but it’s a very specific and cheap type of show to make. I feel very lucky that we got to make something so weird and risky when we did. We got so carried away with the freedom that we were going to call Georgie’s dog C***!
Will we see the Super City characters again in the future?
I’m actually developing a Pasha film at the moment.
Is Pasha your favourite character?
I don’t know if she’s my favourite, but she is the most popular. I think it’s because she is so widely recognisable. You know, you go out on Ponsonby Road on a Friday night and Pasha is there. She’s everywhere. The film is her own story about denying her age and her race, and this film will explore her confronting that – in a comedic way. She’ll find herself, but in a Pasha kind of way.
Did it feel like an exciting time to create local TV comedy?
It felt exciting because people were trying to make different stuff. I think Outrageous was a real breakthrough hit for New Zealanders on screen, because it eliminated the cringe factor a bit. And also I think 7 Days has been a huge breakthrough for comedy. Outrageous did for NZ television what 7 Days has done for NZ comedy. They both really shook the cultural cringe.
What do think the state of comedy and working in TV is like for women now? Has anything changed?
No, not really. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are my heroes, all those SNL girls. I definitely think people are more open to female-driven comedy now which is great, but I still think there’s an overwhelming trend of putting women in a certain bracket. The doors have definitely opened – people like Amy Schumer are doing so well now.
It’s weird because as much as that has all helped – it’s still a struggle. I was watching the comedy gala and there were three women in the whole lineup. It’s such a boys club still, and the television industry is the same.
When I first went to LA they told me “nobody is buying female-driven comedy right now, sorry”. Six months later, Bridesmaids comes out and is the biggest hit. I went back a month later and all the same people were like “let’s talk business”. It was pretty amazing. It’s changing but women have to work so much harder still in this industry. I see it daily when I try and go for parts that are all so tokenistic. Female characters are always whining and nagging, it’s even more reason why you have to make things yourself. That’s what I’ve learned, nobody will put you in shit so you have to do it yourself.
Was that the driving force behind Super City?
I suppose so, I was sick of people tried to put all these limitations on me because of my age, my gender and my ethnicity. I just thought f**** that I’m just going to play all the characters of all the ages, genders and ethnicities and get it out of my system. It’s just about taking the power back a little bit.