As he prepares to appear in Auckland Theatre Company’s first show of 2023, David Fane ONZM talks to Sam Brooks about his new stage role, being part of the cast of Our Flag Means Death, and what he thinks about Bro’Town today.
If you live in New Zealand, chances are you’ve encountered David Fane in one fashion or another. Whether it’s as a radio host on Flava, on stage as part of the Naked Samoans, in an ad campaign keeping New Zealand green, onscreen in queer pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death, or as a voice in early game of the year contender Hi-Fi Rush, Fane reaches into every corner of this country’s entertainment industry.
While he rightfully made headlines for his recent ONZM honour, that’s only the start of what is looking to be the actor’s biggest year yet. He starred in the Sione’s Wedding prequel series Duckrockers, just wrapped filming on the second season of OFMD, has a new Taika Waititi film in the can and is just about to star in Auckland Theatre Company’s first show of the 2023 season, Aussie feel-good comedy The Heartbreak Choir.
He’s in the midst of rehearsals for that show when we sneak off to the green room and he puts two warm beers in the freezer to cool them down. In person, Fane is how you expect him to be based on the characters he’s played: gregarious, chatty, always with a gag within reach. He’s what most stand-up comedians wish they were like, but he actually failed his comedy course at Toi Whakaari Drama School. That he failed the comedy module is well known. Less well known is the detail that he was playing Stevie Wonder commentating a horse race.
Since graduating in 1992, Fane has never stopped working. His list of credits reads less like a CV and more like a list of seminal New Zealand – and more crucially, Pasifika – cultural moments. Even so, his role in The Heartbreak Choir, as “a quiet Australian cop with a sad secret”, is something of a departure.
He agrees: “I wouldn’t have hired me!” The play revolves around a group of women in a small town who form a new choir after a disagreement leads to their original one splintering. Fane plays Peter, a cop whose own history with the choir slowly reveals itself. Peter’s not the soul of the play – that comes from the five singing women in the choir – but he’s the gentle backbone that gives the play that extra heft.
He might not be the best singer (his words) but what makes him a perfect fit for the quietly supportive Peter is a quality that recurs throughout our chat: he loves to gas other people up.
In just over half an hour, with one barely-chilled beer knocked back, he praises the Māori theatre stalwarts of the ’90s (“They should all have letters after their names”), his Heartbreak Choir cast (“they’re powerful women and they bully me”) and his Our Flag Means Death co-star Con O’Neill (“easily my favourite pirate!”). He even throws a few choice compliments my way, and I can confirm there’s few better feelings in the world than having David Fane ONZM gas you up.
He’s less keen to compliment himself, though. When he speaks about his past work, he’s pensieve, reflective. That’s surprising given how well much of it has aged: Sione’s Wedding is still a fun romp, his bits of Outrageous Fortune hold up, and it’s a crime that the Naked Samoan live shows aren’t preserved for the public to watch.
It’s that comedy group that he speaks of with most pride, particularly The Naked Samoans Go Home special, which unflinchingly tackled the topic of suicide. “We weren’t making comedy about suicide, we were doing social commentary about suicide using comedy,” he says. “That’s probably one of the most affecting times I’ve been onstage.”
He’s more ambivalent when it comes to Bro’Town, the animated TV show the group co-created. It’s inarguably one of the most successful New Zealand series of all time, but it can be a tense watch now. Some of the bluer jokes about gender and sexuality wouldn’t fly today, and you could argue they didn’t exactly work then. “The stronger the LGBT voice became, the more I realise when I look back on it, I think how much it has aged,” he says. “The fart gags still work, the clever, banal jokes still fly, but it’s aged, and rightly so!
“The world changes and we all have to change, whether you like it or not. If a person says no, and stands up, you’ve got to clap for them. If you don’t, then you’re putting them down. Fuck that.”
One way the world has changed is that we probably wouldn’t have seen David Fane in a queer pirate comedy at the start of his career – mostly because nobody would have made a queer pirate comedy back then. Today his role as Fang on Our Flag Means Death has brought him his biggest audience yet, especially once it became a cult hit thanks to people realising it was very, very gay.
Someone on the cast, anonymised for their own dignity, was a bit slower on the uptake, Fane says. They had shot four episodes, almost half the season, before they came up to Fane and asked him: “Is this show gay?” Fane affirmed that yes, it was. The cast member remained unconvinced; they must have the wrong scripts, because their gaydar wasn’t “pinging”.
“I laughed and we’d all hang out. He apologised to us later, ‘I’m really sorry! I was mis-saying the lines, I didn’t understand the context!’”
The cackle he follows up this story with is one you’ll be familiar with, no matter if you’ve seen Fane on a stage or on a screen, heard him on the radio or in a video game, or probably even run into him on the street. It’s a little cheeky, it’s full of heart, and like the letters after his name, it’s well-earned.
The Heartbreak Choir plays from February 14 to March 4 at the ASB Waterfront Theatre.