There’s a fair amount of eye-rolling when you get Robbie Magasiva and his children together for a chat.
Mention the fact that quite a few of his film and television roles have been a little on the racy side, and there’s a pretty blasé response from Austin (16) and Sophie (12). “We’re used to it,” says Austin. “It doesn’t worry me. And anyway, Sophie’s still into Nickelodeon.”
“No I’m not,” protests Sophie, who is about to turn 13, but appears to possess the wisdom of someone much older. “It’s okay,” she shrugs. “It’s just what Dad does.”
What Dad does is a very good job of playing a wide range of characters, who often have a tendency to get up to mischief. Probably best known to Kiwis as Dr Maxwell Avia, after a three-year stint on Shortland Street, Robbie (41) has also played ladies’ men in the movies Sione’s Wedding and Stickmen, and a stripper in TV series The Strip.
His latest role, as prison officer Will Jackson in the new TV2 series Wentworth, is also not entirely suitable for young viewers. “You can watch it,” Robbie tells his daughter, “as long as I am there to tell you when to close your eyes.”
“Whatever,” says Sophie.
Robbie is thrilled with his role in Wentworth, which revisits the 1980s cult-hit TV series Prisoner. Set in the present, the show stars fellow Kiwis Danielle Cormack and Aaron Jeffery. It is a darker, grittier version of the original, says Robbie, and one TV reviewer claims it makes violent crime series Underbelly look tame.
The part came out of the blue last year, just when Robbie was wondering what to do next. He’d left Shortland Street, feeling he’d done his dash after three years, and travelled to Los Angeles to meet with agents. “It was a pretty terrifying experience – I got off the plane thinking, ‘What on earth have I got to offer?’” He was told several times that Kiwis have a reputation in Hollywood for being humble, which isn’t always a good thing. “We’re not used to having to sell ourselves. It’s quite a challenge, while not coming across as a tosser.”
Robbie felt encouraged that he got an American agent out of the trip, but when he returned to Auckland, he was left thinking, “Now what?”
Luckily, he got the call to audition for Wentworth. Robbie was convinced the part would go to an Australian, but it was his. The only downside was being based in Melbourne for four months, which took him away from the kids. Although he split from their mum, Alice, some time ago, Robbie saw a lot of them, as they lived with him for one week out of two. “It was hard being away, and I ended up spending a lot of money coming home whenever I had time off.”
Sophie also went over to Australia and had a week with dad. “He spoiled me, showing me around Melbourne. We had a really good time,” says Sophie. She confides that Robbie is “a lot of fun”.
“Sometimes he’s more of an older brother, like Austin. He’s really good to hang out with.”
Although Robbie no longer has the kids every other week, due to work demands and it being less disruptive for them to stay in one place, they still spend a lot of time together. “I love being such good friends with my kids. We have a lot of fun, but they know their limits. A couple of times I’ve had to pull the tough-dad act on Austin, but I haven’t had to do that with Sophie... yet.”
Later, when he drops into conversation that he can be “a pretty sensible dad”, there’s a barely concealed snigger from Sophie. “What are you looking at me like that for?” Robbie says. “I am sensible!”
The banter between the three of them is good-natured, and Sophie and Austin appear to have inherited their dad’s cheeky sense of humour. Austin, who is a confident and mature teenager, would also like to be an actor. Robbie believes you should always follow your passion, but is advising Austin to make sure he has a back-up plan – he knows just how hard it can be to earn a living from acting.
“See – sensible!” Robbie points out.
For the most part, Sophie and Austin find Robbie’s occasionally quirky behaviour endearing. “He’ll do things like suddenly suggest going camping at a really inappropriate time,” says Austin. “You think, ‘Ah, no thanks, Dad.’ One day, we were driving along and he was looking at the sky and suddenly went, ‘Aren’t birds just amazing?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He just went on about birds. Or he’ll go, ‘Look at those plants? Aren’t plants amazing?’ We just go, ‘Whatever, Dad.’”
At that very moment, Robbie, who is outside having his photo taken, can be heard talking to the stylist. “Is that an olive tree? Wow, that’s cool!” Austin and Sophie look at each other and laugh. Cue more rolling of the eyes!
On the inside
In Wentworth, Robbie plays prison officer Will – as an ex-social worker, he has compassion for the inmates, but it comes with an edge.
Wentworth screens on TV2 at 9.30pm, Mondays.