'I have to accept that this is me and sometimes that's very tough'
Advertisement

'I have to accept that this is me and sometimes that's very tough'

Talking about the horrific car accident that left him seriously injured is still tough for James Rolleston, the charismatic young Maori actor who starred in the hit New Zealand film Boy in 2010.

Two years ago this week, the car he was driving ploughed into a bridge near Opotiki, his home town on the North Island. "Half the bridge" ended up in the car, a volunteer firefighter said at the time, describing the crash site as a "total mess".

Taken to hospital in a critical condition, Rolleston, then 19, was in a coma for four weeks with a fractured leg and a brain injury so severe he had to relearn how to walk and talk and struggled with such basic skills as brushing his teeth, cutting his food and getting dressed.

The Breaker Upperers, right, Jackie van Beek in striped top as Jen and Madeleine Sami in pink dress (Mel) with James Rolleston (James) as they confront his girlfriend Sepi (Ana Scotney).

The Breaker Upperers, right, Jackie van Beek in striped top as Jen and Madeleine Sami in pink dress (Mel) with James Rolleston (James) as they confront his girlfriend Sepi (Ana Scotney).

Advertisement

When he woke up hospital, Rolleston was stunned to realise he had almost killed one of his closest friends, rising rugby league player Kaleb Maxwell, who was also in the car.

"I was in shock when I heard my friend was involved," he says. "That really tore me apart."

While Rolleston is back acting now – playing a big-hearted young rugby star in the comedy The Breaker Upperers and shooting a guest stint on the long-running hospital soapie Shortland Street – it has been a challenging time emotionally and physically for an actor who once considered heading to Hollywood and thought he was "on track to be the kid that made it big".

After being charged with dangerous driving causing injury – maximum penalty five years in jail – Rolleston was sentenced to 200 hours of community service. He told New Zealand talkshow host Anika Moa he was "borderline depressed" during his time at a rehabilitation centre and later told One News New Zealand that "I don't think I'd here here today" if his friend had not survived.

Writer/director/actors Jackie van Beek, left, and Madeleine Sami with James Rolleston in The Breaker Upperers.

Writer/director/actors Jackie van Beek, left, and Madeleine Sami with James Rolleston in The Breaker Upperers.

"It's been a long journey," Rolleston says slowly now on the phone from the Shortland Street set. "I don't remember anything on the night of the car accident. I don't even recall a couple of weeks before the car accident. It affected my cognitive skills."

The new role in Shortland Street is apt: he plays a young barista who is getting his life back on track after a life-changing car smash.

Rolleston's life changed for the first time when director Taika Waititi, best known for Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, cast him in Boy at the age of 10. He played a devoted Michael Jackson fan whose ex-con dad (played by Waititi) has come home to find a buried bag of money. It became the highest-grossing domestic film in New Zealand until it was topped by Hunt For The Wilderpeople two years ago.

"I'm a small-town kid," Rolleston says. "Life was pretty cruisy. Pretty slow. Then I got the role for Boy  ... it took a little while for me to adjust to the big changes – being recognised down the street and not being able to go places without being recognised."

But the film made him want to be an actor when he left school. "I figured this is an awesome industry to be in," he says.

In the past four years, Rolleston has turned in a series of strong performances. He played a troubled teenager who takes up competitive chess in The Dark Horse (2014), a soulful young Maori warrior caught in a tribal war in The Dead Lands (2014), an aspiring actor who exploits a girl for a drama school project in The Rehearsal (2016) and a car thief on the run in Pork Pie (2017). He has also shone in a series of comic Vodafone TV commercials.

A younger James Rolleston.

A younger James Rolleston. Credit:James Brickwood

"There are some roles I'll play because I am who I am but there are other roles that I play regardless of being a Maori," Rolleston says.

Like Boy, The Dead Lands had a special cultural significance. "I got to understand something of the ancestors' ways and their understanding of the spiritual life and the beliefs they had."

In The Breaker Upperers – his first "straight comedy film" – Rolleston plays Jordan, an optimistic but not overly bright young footballer who has been trying unsuccessfully to break up with his girlfriend (Ana Scotney) by emoji. He calls in a duo who specialise in busting up couples (played by writer-directors Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek) but things get complicated when he falls for one of them.

"Jordan is a – what's the word – naive, funny, cheeky young guy who has found himself in a situation where he's caught between his ex-girlfriend and his new girlfriend," Rolleston says. "I've always loved comedy films and I try to be a happy chappy – a happy fellow – myself. I tend to be a bit of a jokester so The Breaker Upperers was an awesome film to be a part of. And Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek are very funny ladies and very creative minds."

Those very funny ladies always wanted Rolleston for their first film as joint writer-directors.

"We actually wrote the role with James in mind, hoping he'd be available and keen and having recuperated enough from his accident to be able to accept," van Beek says. "He's done more drama, I'd say, than comedy but James is just so charismatic and a naturally funny person so there was never a question of 'can he do comedy?' for us. And he did some fantastic comedy improvisation on set. Him and Ana Scotney."

Adds Sami: "Basically there are only two movies probably that come out in New Zealand every year and he's in both of them. He's New Zealand's only movie star."

But before shooting The Breaker Upperers, producer Ainsley Gardiner, who also worked on Boy, consulted Rolleston and his medical team about the challenges they would face as a result of the accident.

"Energy levels were the main one," van Beek says. "He was in speech therapy at the time so we knew we'd have to allow for some [re-recording] in post-production. But Ainsley and [fellow producer] Georgina Conder just really tried to work the schedule around him so he wasn't doing too big a day."

Sami chimes in: "It was a big challenge for him. His character really drives a lot of the scenes he's in. He's a very enthusiastic character who often goes into huge monologues about god knows what he's talking about. So were were pretty mean to him really, giving him that character in a way ...

"We tried to set up an environment on set where if he was feeling tired, someone would be there to make a coffee for him or if he needed to do a bit more rehearsal, we'd do a bit more rehearsal.

"We took our time so that we could get the best performance out of him without getting too tired or collapse or anything. But for someone who had just been through such a trauma and so recently, his recovery was miraculous to get to the point where he was able to do what he did in our film."

Rolleston is taken aback to hear he's been called New Zealand's only film star.

"Don't know quite what to say about that," he says. "Sorry."

Having finished his community service, Rolleston has been working in a clothes shop in Auckland between roles. "It's something different," he says. "I never thought I'd find myself in retail but it can be a very inconsistent job, the film industry. You can be working one minute then have so much time off. I thought it would definitely be a smart idea to find a job."

Over the course of 30 minutes on the phone – his lunch break on set – Rolleston has struggled to talk about moving on from the accident, pausing and apologising repeatedly. But after the interview, he emails to say it has been a tough time for not just him but also his whanau – extended family – and friends and that he is grateful for all the support from medical professionals and the many people who have sent him love and support.

"I know recovery takes time," he writes. "I get tired but I'm totally supported by my fellow cast and the directors and producers and I'll always be grateful for them for being loyal and so understanding.

"My challenge every day is to accept that this has happened and that it is part of who I am now. No use living with regrets, although I am very sorry and always will be for those who have been hurt. I have to accept that this is me and sometimes that's very tough."

The Breaker Upperers is in cinemas now.