Gazing out on to Auckland’s Lake Pupuke, James Rolleston smiles as he recalls the moment back in November 2015 when he first kissed his girlfriend Ayeesha Taylor during a romantic sunset picnic on Piha Beach.
“We were sat on top of a hill, drinking ginger beer and eating snacks,” says the 19-year-old actor, who stole the nation’s heart back in 2010 in the movie Boy, as the big-mouthed, small-town kid with killer Michael Jackson moves. “And then we were lying there, kind of close, and I was like ...”
“‘Can I kiss you, oi?’” his stunning 20-year-old partner interjects, giggling as she recalls the endearingly awkward moment. “It was an amazing kiss – he’s got the best lips! And we’ve been together ever since.”
In truth, that kiss had been a long time coming – three years to be precise. It was love at first sight for James, who grew up in the small Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki, when he first spied Aucklander Ayeesha on the beach in Mount Maunganui in 2013.
“She was wearing a bright yellow bikini, looking gorgeous,” smiles the Pork Pie star, telling how they kept locking eyes across the crashing waves. “I didn’t talk to her, though. I kinda shied away and flexed my pecs a bit.”
The pair met fleetingly at a party a few weeks later and when James later moved to Auckland to pursue his acting dreams, they became firm friends. But despite his growing success, the talented Dark Horse and The Dead Lands actor never made a move on his dream girl. She even dated another boy for a year!
Eventually, it was Ayeesha who took the initiative, inviting him on that sunset picnic in Piha. “We already had a strong friendship, so it just felt so natural,” explains James. But this isn’t your usual Boy-meets-girl love story.
In their year-long relationship, James and Ayeesha have been through more than many couples endure in a lifetime. They have gone from being carefree teens who thought nothing of throwing a mattress in the back of the car and exploring Aotearoa, to their life now as a restless patient and a compassionate caregiver.
On July 26 last year, soon after filming finished on the remake of Goodbye Pork Pie, James suffered critical injuries when the car he was driving crashed into Otara Bridge, near Opotiki.
While his passenger and friend Kaleb Maxwell was injured but managed to escape, James remained trapped in the car for an hour, sustaining serious brain and leg injuries, as well as a punctured lung. He was in a coma for four weeks.
“It definitely feels like a miracle that I’m sitting here right now,” he tells Woman’s Day in our exclusive interview. “I’m 80% better, but I’m hoping that it won’t be long till I’m back to 100%.”
Since last August, he’s been undertaking daily rehab and the improvements have been vast. But there’s no doubt that the love of his girlfriend has carried James through.
“She’s just awesome,” he smiles. “I love her teeth and her smile – her dimples and her hair too! But most of all, she’s so caring. She drives me to all my rehab appointments and helps me with my speech every day. She’ll make me read to her while we’re driving. She’s my doctor and my taxi, but she’s always been like that. Even before the accident, she really looked out for me.”
It was precisely 11.47pm when Ayeesha received the horrifying news that James had been in a serious car crash. “I’d put a face mask on, and was just getting ready to go to bed and text James when his best friend Wairangi called me,” she shudders. “I freaked out.”
Within an hour, her mother Nas was driving the distraught teenager towards Tauranga Hospital, where her boyfriend lay in a coma in hospital. A nurse whisked her off to a room and gently explained the devastating extent of his injuries to Ayeesha. She asked, “Could James die?”
The nurse replied, “There’s a high chance because he’s lost so much blood.”
As doctors prepared James for surgery, they gave her 30 seconds to say goodbye “in case he doesn’t make it”, recalls Ayeesha. “I went in and his face was still beautiful – apart from his two breathing tubes. I felt like I was in Grey’s Anatomy. I kept waiting for [series creator] Shonda Rhimes to yell, ‘Cut!’ My obsession
with that show actually made the blood and tubes easier to deal with.”
The reference to her favourite medical drama is typical of Ayeesha, who was able to use humour to cope even in her darkest moments. As she left James’ hospital room, she whispered in his ear, “I still wanna marry you, you fool! Don’t leave me now.”
James’ mum Angeline and grandmother Christina arrived from Opotiki, and the shell-shocked group anxiously waited for news of the surgery. Ayeesha tells, “It was the worst six hours of my life. I paced the gardens of the hospital like a crazy woman and prayed to my grandma. I said, ‘I wouldn’t normally ask for anything, but if James comes knocking on Heaven’s door, can you kick him back down please?’”
When James was then taken to Waikato Hospital, which has more advanced facilities for treating brain-related injuries, store manager Ayeesha didn’t think twice about abandoning her “gypsy bohemian” fashion boutique in Auckland to move to Hamilton and be by her partner’s side as he lay in a coma. “Nothing mattered more than James,” she says simply.
A steady stream of family, friends, kapa haka performers and acting buddies visited his bedside, including James’ mentor and The Dark Horse co-star Cliff Curtis, his co-star from The Dead Lands Te Kohe Tuhaka and singer Stan Walker.
But it was an agonising four weeks before he fully awoke. James takes up the story, his voice slow and purposeful.
“I was under heavy sedation, trying to call out to the nurses, but it was just a whisper because I had a breathing tube. I saw the date was late August and it wasn’t adding up. I wondered what had happened.”
A book, signed by everyone who visited over those anxious few weeks, still has pride of place in his bedroom, alongside a hat signed by Boy director Taika Waititi. “I cried when I saw all that stuff,” he tells. “The support and love from everyone around New Zealand has just been awesome.”
Slightly slurred speech aside, there is little externally to suggest the horrors of that fateful night. A bulbous, aubergine-shaped lump on his left leg is the result of a skin graft. “That’s my leg-plant,” he grins, hitching up his jeans to reveal the fearsome patchwork of scars. “Ayeesha said it looks like an eggplant, so that’s what we christened it.”
James’ memories of the crash remain vague. “The only thing I remember is taking a video. My cousin, who’s an ambulance medic in Opotiki, told me I was still semi-conscious, trying to pull myself up out of the car with my arms.”
As well as his memory, James’ coordination has also been affected. He tells, “I can’t run yet and I can’t play rugby with my mates, but it’s more the things I took for granted – I had to relearn how to eat, clean my teeth, get dressed, how to cook ... We used to make mean curries together before the accident.”
Curries are the speciality of Ayeesha’s family – who have Indian, Kiwi and English roots – and with her help, James is relearning how to make a killer korma. “I still get the order a bit wrong sometimes,” he smiles. “But I’m getting better. One of these days, I’m gonna be able to cook for her again.”
As well as an aspiring chef, he is now also a passionate road safety advocate. “I used to hear stories and think, ‘That’s sad, but it’ll never happen to me.’ I thought I was invincible. But now I treasure life more than ever.”
Squeezing James’ hand, Ayeesha muses, “In a way, it’s a blessing that this has happened to us at such a young age. It’s so hard having to watch your love learn how
to walk and talk again, to go through so much pain and relearn the basics.
“But it’s opened our eyes. I know he’s going to get there. He’s going to be back on screen for sure. He’s the most determined person I know.”
The comment sparks the biggest grin yet from James. “She’s so awesome. I just love this woman so much, eh.”