For the past three years, Robbie Magasiva has been a staple on our screens as Shortland Street’s hunky Dr Maxwell Avia. But the popular actor and dad of two, who turned 40 in May, has shocked his fanbase – and his family – by not only announcing he’s leaving the show, but he’s also leaving the country.
“I signed on for two years. The second year came along and I was still enjoying it. So when they said, ‘Do you want to come back?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ “Then the third year came along and I wasn’t enjoying it as much,” reveals Robbie, who is following in the footsteps of fellow ex-Shorty alumni Martin Henderson, Temuera Morrison, Peter Mochrie and Kim Crossman, and heading to LA to try his hand in Hollywood. “I’d always said I’d leave when I lost the drive. If you don’t act on how you’re feeling, you become nasty and take your frustration out on other people.”
While the move has come as a surprise to many, Robbie – who spoke exclusively to the Weekly from the Auckland house he’s just sold as part of his New Zealand exodus – says he’s been thinking about leaving the show for a while, insisting his decision to shake up his life so dramatically has nothing to do with hitting a milestone age. “It’s a coincidence. Forty is just a number. I’m healthy, I’m fit, I’m enjoying it.”
So is the move a sign that the Peter Pan of New Zealand acting is finally growing up? “No,” laughs Robbie, whose acting credits include The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the Sione’s Wedding movies and the controversial The Tattooist. “I’m nowhere near grown-up. I’ll be grown-up at 45.” And by this, he means he’ll just have more lines on his face.
While Robbie is looking forward to trying his hand in “La La Land”, he will miss his kids, Austin (15) and Sophie (11). “As soon as Austin came into the world, it wasn’t about me or my partner at the time. It was about him,” says Robbie, who became a dad at 25 – the same age he began acting. “Once I finished one acting job, I had to get another to make sure I could bring up my boy. My motivation was making sure he was all right.”
Robbie looks after the kids week-on, week-off with their mother Alice, from who he separated some time ago. Now, Austin and Sophie are both old enough for Robbie to contemplate leaving them for a few months at a time and their dad reckons, more than anything, the kids will actually be pleased that he’s not on our screens any more. “They’ll probably be happy because they get hassled. At one point it was quite cool to have a dad who was on TV.”
He is quick to add that the kids soon get tired of having to tell people that, yes, they are related to “that” Magasiva – part of a family dynasty that includes brother Pua, who plays nurse Vinnie Kruse on Shorty. “They worry about me sometimes. On the odd occasion when we want to go down to the mall for something to eat, people do come up to you and sometimes I want to be left alone with my kids. “Austin’s especially sensitive. He’ll say, ‘Are you all right, Dad? I wish they’d just leave you alone.’ I explain to him that this is the business I’ve signed up to.”
Robbie’s been on TV regularly since Shark in the Park in 1991, so Sophie doesn’t remember a time when her dad wasn’t a public face. Austin can, however, and says Robbie was “quite chilled back then. He was around more, could come and pick us up.” He admits he’ll look forward to seeing his dad “a bit more, having more QT [quality time]” – then he remembers he’s 15 and shouldn’t be taking this seriously, so jokes he’ll also look forward to more time for “lots of cuddles and kisses”.
Robbie is clearly close to his children. Although Sophie is much quieter than her dad, Austin is very much a chip off the old block. The teenager has a similar sense of humour to his father, gently teasing Robbie about being short – he is 1.9m tall – and like his dad, Austin hopes to make it in the acting world one day. “Austin’s an absolute natural with kids. He’s a gentle giant, and Sophie is quite sensitive,” says Robbie.
“Not many people know this, but Polynesians are quite sensitive people and I think I’ve got that side too. “You’re reminded when they don’t talk to you or they’re being difficult. That’s their way of saying, ‘Pull your head in.’”
Robbie says he doesn’t think his decision to leave New Zealand will adversely affect his relationship with his kids – far from it, in fact, although he admits he hasn’t always been the perfect father. “There have been a couple of times they’ve not been priorities,” Robbie says. “As an actor, you can become selfish sometimes and you tend to forget that. But we’re lucky – they are pretty awesome kids and they adore each other, which is great,” he adds. “At age 15, I thought Austin would be a nightmare, but he’s matured a lot. I was probably a lot more immature at that age!”
So it’s with a heavy heart – and a lot of excitement – that Robbie is packing his bags to seek his fortune. “I’ll go over [to the US] with my Kiwi agent, have meetings and look for a US agent,” he explains. “If that works, I’ll apply for a visa and go back at the beginning of next year, hang out for three or four months and see if anything happens.”
Robbie’s hoping his good looks and Samoan heritage will help him land acting roles overseas, as many Polynesian actors can play in-demand Hispanic characters on screen. “I can do Spanish, Mexican. Hopefully, a Samoan, because there’s quite a few over there. “People keep saying, ‘You could play [fellow Samoan] The Rock’s brother.’ Yeah? He could play my brother.”
As for a possible return to Shortland Street, never say never. “The way I exit means the door is open for me, which is good.” But whatever happens, Robbie says his primary role will always be to support his children – just as his own parents supported him.
The Magasivas thought a lot about their children’s future. They moved to New Zealand from Samoa, where Robbie’s dad gave up a good job as a bank manager, in order to give their kids the best start. But they never insisted their children choose a certain career or path in life.
“From day one they were supportive of what we wanted to do, which is probably why all my brothers have done reasonably well,” he says. “They didn’t say, ‘We came here so you can be a doctor or a lawyer.’ When I started getting commercial work and studying drama at school, they thought it was okay – also, making the first XV rugby team helped. If I ever wanted anything it was, ‘Hey, Dad, I made the first XV, can I do theatresports?’”
Having achieved what they set out to do, the elder Magasivas returned to Samoa and Robbie and his kids relish every opportunity to go back to visit them. Robbie says the family connection is still strong. “It was 10 or 12 years before I went back, but when the plane touched down on the tarmac tears came out of nowhere. “I couldn’t live there, but it’s where Mum and Dad are, where the soul and heart are.”
Back here at home, Robbie and his kids enjoy “the food court, going to the beach and seeing movies” when spending time together. “Now they’re at the age they want to hang out with their mates,” says Robbie. “But once when I said, ‘What do you guys want to do?’ Sophie said, ‘I want to hang out with my mates,’ and Austin said, ‘No, you’re not. We’re going to hang out with Dad.’”