Tauranga’s Dominic Tupou makes his screen debut as young rugby legend Jonah Lomu.
WORDS CASEY VASSALLO / PHOTOS JAE FREW
At a family reunion, Dominic Tupou sat down with Jonah Lomu’s mum, Hepi, and found out just how much he and his distant relation were alike. “I did some character study with his mum and family,” Dominic says. “I learnt a lot about Jonah. In Tongan, we call it fie tangata lahi. It means ‘wanna be old’. Because Jonah was surrounded by older cousins and uncles, he wanted to be like them. As soon as I told my family that, that was just like me.”
It was in December 2018 that the now 16-year-old headed to Auckland to audition for the role of young Jonah Lomu for a television mini-series. “I didn’t think I did too well. We did the scene where I was crying after I got a hiding from my dad,” he says. “I thought I over-acted.”
But he nailed it and began filming mid-March in Otara, Auckland. So committed to the role, he even had his newly fitted braces removed to film after finding out he’d got the part.
Dominic says he got a lot out of working with director Danny Mulheron and the on-set Tongan adviser Nua Finau. “I learnt that acting on stage and acting on camera are two completely different things,” he says. “Acting on stage is more dramatised. You have to make everything big: sing louder, act bigger, all your emotions have to be over-exaggerated.”
“On camera, they’re right there, so you can’t act as much,” Dominic says. “I found it a challenge, especially because all my online stuff is still really exaggerated, so everyone understands the character I’m playing.”
In early January 2018, Dominic started posting videos inspired by real-life experiences on Instagram [@holyboy.domtupou]. “I started making little skits, funny videos, because I was watching @samoansefaa – he’s a big online creator in the Pacific community,” he says. “I think my first big, big one was How To Be Sexy.”
Today, he’s racked up over 76,000 followers. His following suddenly grew when American-born Polynesian singer Dinah Jane joined one of Dominic’s livestreams. His reaction to the former member of the girl-group Fifth Harmony was funny enough for her to post it to her 3.9 million followers.
“There was a phase where Mum and the rest of my family were like, ‘Nah, that’s a waste of time,’” he admits of his Insta-fame. “But now they’re all supportive, because they’ve seen how much of an influence I am to the younger kids; a lot of them really look up to me.”
And it’s true. Dominic is often asked to visit several schools and chat about everything from role models to identity. He’s also been an MC, on panel discussions, a dance tutor and guest performer at a list of events around the region.
Born in Auckland, Dominic moved to Tauranga when he was two and is now in year 11 at Tauranga Boys’ College. He’s part-Tongan, part-Cook Islander, part-New Zealand Māori and lives with his number one supporter, mum Malia Soifua Tupou Pearson, and four younger siblings: Marcus (13), Sammie (10) and twins Malia and Evelingi (11).
Dominic won his first talent quest in year three singing One Voice by Billy Gilman, and proceeded to win in years five and six too. “I’ve been singing ever since I was in kindy,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in the arts. From singing and winning the contest, I started taking piano lessons, learning the ukulele, and then I moved onto musical theatre.” He also credits his involvement in football and ballet as contributing to his development as a performer.
He landed a lead role in the Selwyn Ridge Primary School production of Made in New Zealand in 2014 at age 10. Dominic played Professor Ludwig Von Drake (the German duck) from Mickey Mouse. “It was a fun character to play. Ever since primary school, I’ve been the class clown,” says Dominic.
Then it was on to bigger things, playing Aladdin in 2015 and Lord Farquaad in Shrek in 2017, both for Tauranga Musical Theatre. “It was a step-up from just your normal school play,” Dominic says. “With proper costumes, makeup and lighting.”
Red carpets aren’t the long-term dream for Dominic. Instead, he looks to what Samoan filmmakers and siblings Stallone and Dinah Vaiaoga-loasa are doing in the industry behind Take Home Pay, Three Wise Cousins and Hibiscus & Ruthless. “Watching and listening to them has inspired me to be where they are … making movies, telling our people’s story through the screen, and being able to share it not just with our own people but with everyone.”
Dominic is currently in the midst of more auditions, with another role inevitably around the corner. “If that doesn’t go to plan, I’ll study psychology and become a detective,” says Domimic. “I like the idea of being in the police force without a uniform.”