We chat to Stacey Leilua – a star of the new sitcom Young Rock – about her big break at 39, mum guilt and the pride of getting to show her Samoan heritage to millions of Americans each week.
If we’d been able to make it across to LA this year, we’d have driven up Hollywood Boulevard towards a row of giant billboards that are the hottest property in town. And there, plastered across one in prime position we would have seen Dwayne – The Rock – Johnson standing next to our own homegrown talent, Stacey Leilua.
A veteran actress, Stacey has been in a slew of theatre productions as well as on screen in films like Lovebirds and, of course, a stint on Shorty Street. She’s also an incredibly lovely woman (disclaimer – I went to high school with Stacey and she was an hugely generous, hilarious and tall human, even back then).
Last January, she’d just made it home after a three-week theatre stint in New York, when she heard about a role going in LA that would soon change her life. They were looking for a woman of Samoan heritage to play The Rock’s mother in a new, big budget TV series, Young Rock, based on his real-life experiences growing up.
But Stacey wasn’t too keen. “I actually kind of said no, without really reading through it, because straight off it said you’ve got to be available to live and work in the States for five months.” By this time it was February 2020 and future travel was beginning to look dicey – plus she had a five-year-old daughter at home to think about. But, after a bit of pressure from her friends, Stacey sent in a tape and next thing she was flown to LA for a screen test and back home. There, she was offered the role of Ata Johnson. And then, of course, Covid well and truly hit.
“For a while, nothing happened, and I didn’t hear anything,” she says. “I thought, ‘oh, you know what, they’re probably going to have someone who is LA do it, as opposed to the Kiwi.’” But then, as we were coming out of Level Four lockdown, she got the call – they were moving filming to Brisbane and wanted her over there asap.
Filming took place over five months, which was a hard stretch for Stacey as it meant being separated from her daughter for some of it. “It was hard, she’s so young. Her Dad is involved in her life, but for the most part I’m a solo mum, so I got my mum – I paid her to leave her job for a bit and she came over with my daughter from November to January so she could go back to school. But Covid, quarantine – man, it was stressful! And I felt like I wished I had a normal job instead of having her get on planes and have Covid swabs and be in quarantine. There was a lot of mum guilt!”
But, in the end, she knew what they were working towards and the sacrifices have been worth it. Young Rock premiered in the States this February to massive, record-breaking audiences who can’t get enough of the half hour sitcom (Stacey’s Instagram DM’s are a testament to this fact!).
The show follows him as a youngster, watching his Dad – wrestler Rocky “Soul Man” Johnson and his pals (including Andre the Giant), as well as his family’s financial struggles. The Rock himself bookends each episode, through interviews with a journalist as he reflects on his life while campaigning for president in 2032. His life is truly one of those ‘stranger than fiction’ tales – he’s even described it as a “wildly Forrest Gump-ian life that I have been lucky enough to have – [it] was complex and awesome and crazy and unbelievable”.
His mother has been a driving force and he describes her as “a pillar of his life”. So naturally, he wanted a hand in picking the actress who would play the woman he so admires and adores and later, he requested a Zoom call to meet Stacey and introduce her to his mother.
“I was so super nervous,” she says. “I was like, what are we going to talk about?! What are we going to say?! And then, what ended up happening was we sat around and talked all about her life and it got really emotional! At one point me, Dwayne and Ata were crying together when she was talking about the sacrifices of motherhood and the real struggle – because for the most part she was doing it alone while Rocky [Dwayne’s father] was out on the road. She was doing a bunch of jobs just to keep food on the table. That was the stuff I could relate to, going through that period of being a single parent myself, with my daughter. Just the notion of holding onto some hope that the future was going to be better. That we just had to get through this period, and it’s hard, but as long as I’m looking after my child and leading with love, something good is going to happen.”
For the most part, Stacey said she tried not to overthink the situation and the fact that she was speaking to one of the most well-known celebrities on the planet. “There was a point in the call where – well, she is proficient in the ukulele and sings a lot and she always has it within arm’s reach. So we’re sitting there and SHE PLAYS A SONG and starts singing. Then they’re both singing to me again and I start crying again, and that was the moment where I did think, ‘Wow, okay, The Rock is singing a song to me with his mum and I’m loving where we are in our journey right now! We’re all here together to tell this story and it was just the most amazing feeling and incredibly surreal.”
But although it was incredible getting to know Dwayne (she’s one of the few people he follows on Instagram) and his mother, there was another element of the experience that brought her the greatest joy and sense of pride. With a Samoan/Maori/English heritage, getting to play a proudly Samoan woman has been incredible – an no doubt has impacted many people.
“It’s something that makes me incredibly proud – my goodness, I’m going to cry about it!” she says. “If I think about Pacific representation on screen, it’s kind of in two parts. Number one, the fact that you have Pacific actors in lead roles on a primetime US television spot with NBC and it’s broken all these records already – it’s their biggest comedy, has the most streams etc.. As a Samoan and Maori actress its incredible having this role. But then the added layer on top of that is that it’s not just a non-descript ethnic role – she’s Samoan!”
When Stacey talked to Ata over Zoom she asked her about her culture and whether she spoke the language at home much. She told her she didn’t often speak it, but if she did it was always at home with her mother. “That was important to me,” says Stacey. “So I broached that subject with the show runners and said, ‘Hey if there are scenes with me and Ana [her onscreen mum] is there a bit of freedom to adlib a little bit of Samoan?’ They said ‘Sure!’”
“There were moments that were just like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe we’re doing this, showcasing our culture!’ And consequently, since it’s come out I’ve had messages from Pacific Islanders in the US. There does seem to be a tendency for them to feel displaced from their culture that we’re so immersed in here in New Zealand and in the islands – they’re not as connected. So they’re sending messages saying ‘thank you so much, I turn on my screen and see my culture reflected!’ That just makes me so proud.”
Young Rock screens on Prime, Thursdays at 7.30pm.