As actor Mosese Veaila stands on a sports field in Mangere clutching a rugby ball, he could easily be mistaken for late rugby sensation Jonah Lomu, with his wide Tongan shoulders and towering height. He has the same gentle gaze as the sporting superstar who was feted across the globe for his indomitable prowess.
Mosese – who was cast as the lead in the powerful upcoming mini-series Jonah, screening on the eve of the Rugby World Cup – is playing the South Auckland boy who made history, and it's the perfect fit. After all, he was that kid himself.
"When I heard about the role, I didn't think in a million years I'd get it!" tells Mangere-born Mosese, 22. "I'm still like, 'Damn', because this guy was a god. He was a giant in every sense of the word."
Like his childhood idol, who was the All Blacks' youngest player at just 17, Mosese too had a remarkable start to his career. While Jonah shot to global stardom scoring four tries during the 1995 World Cup semi-final in South Africa, the actor is a legend in his own right.
Before he'd even left Wellington's Toi Whakaari – the country's top drama school – Mosese was cast in the Jonah lead role. In his industry, that's practically unheard of.
He says, "The most surprising thing about making the mini-series was learning Jonah was just another kid from South Auckland, who grew up playing rugby, hanging with friends, and going to school and church. A regular person, like me."
Mosese grew up in Mangere as one of five siblings, whose grandfather Timakoi moved from Tonga in the 1970s and worked as a caretaker at his church.
Mosese's household was full with extended family and while his dad remained in Tonga working as a minister, his beloved granddad took him under his wing.
"I have a beautiful family, but it's a bit complicated," explains Mosese, who is back living in Mangere.
"My mum had me in New Zealand after she came here for a wedding, while heavily pregnant. She couldn't go back to the islands in time for the birth, so technically I was born a crime!"
After a month living in Mangere with baby Mosese, she returned to Tonga to be with her husband and look after the family home they'd built.
The future actor was taken in by his aunty Fakalelu, who was 18 at the time and he recalls, "She was the youngest sibling on my mum's side and was at university. I went to the daycare there while she was in class."
A huge part of Mosese's childhood was attending church where, to his delight, Jonah's mum Hepi and father Semisi went.
"Jonah's mum Hepi's job was to sit at the door to make sure kids didn't run out before the service was over," he recalls.
"My feet always wanted to go out the door before service, so I'd be sitting at the side of her, asking what Jonah ate for breakfast and how he got his muscles."
Hepi would laugh, telling Mosese that if he wanted to be like Jonah, he had to listen to Jesus!
When his birth mother became gravely ill with throat cancer, she returned to New Zealand for treatment, but sadly passed away shortly after. Mosese was 10.
"I don't remember much about my birth mum because I never really grew up with her, but she was beautiful," he smiles.
"She was loved amongst the people in the village because she was really kind."
As a schoolboy growing up in South Auckland – similar to Jonah's circumstances – Mosese kept himself entertained by exploring the neighbourhood. In a suburb where gang activity was rife, the rule was that he had to go home when the street lights went on.
"They'd turn on and suddenly you'd see kids sprint from everywhere!"
Although Mosese didn't act in the scene where a younger Jonah loses his uncle and cousin to gang violence – before almost falling into crime himself – the star has his own experience of seeing loved ones hurt by gang affiliations. Although he doesn't want to elaborate, he explains that gang-related murders have a ripple effect on a close-knit community.
"Not everyone is involved in gangs here, but it does affect us all, and the saddest thing is that the deaths are unnecessary," he says.
Like many young islanders, Mosese looked up to the sports star with the size 13 boots.
"He represented Tongan kids, especially from South Auckland, who could say, 'He looks like me or my dad,'" he explains.
"People saw a resemblance of themselves in Jonah and when he held the ball, the room would just lift. He had that effect on people."
A highlight of Mosese's school days was collecting the Jonah Lomu cards found in Weet-Bix boxes. He grins, "There was the Jonah Lomu golden card and you knew you were the man if you had that one!"
For the actor, Mangere will always be home. The town square, where he wandered as a lad, is three minutes from his granddad's house. Today, he's posing in the same location for his shoot with Woman's Day, proudly representing the suburb that may be full of hardship, but is rich in community.
"I had the best childhood," he enthuses. "The biggest thing about South Auckland is the people are so different, but they tolerate each other because there's a level of understanding about where they came from and how they're living."
When Mosese was 14, he left Mangere for two years to live in Tonga, where his stepmum was a teacher.
The teen quickly learnt the schooling was very different from NZ. "My only experience of Tonga until then was being on holiday with sunshine and swimming.
It's funny now, but at the time, I was like, 'Get me out of here.' I'd taken the benefits of being in New Zealand for granted.
"Here, if you didn't have breakfast or lunch, you got a bagel from the teachers. In Tonga, if you didn't have lunch, that was it. But it was definitely a learning curve."
Mosese jokes that the acting skills he used to bunk off school came in handy when he had to play an ailing Jonah, who died from a cardiac arrest in November 2015 at age 40 after battling nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney disease.
But it was in Tonga that he took up rugby league for the first time. "I never won, but I enjoyed playing. I don't know if it counts as rugby, though, because it's more like running and smashing into the person with the ball. If you have the ball, you'll suffer!"
When Mosese returned to Auckland, the talented dancer and singer joined Mangere College's 1st XV, before playing for the Mangere Magpies as fullback and centre. But he was no Jonah, focusing on a different career path – acting.
After an audition at Mangere Arts Centre, Mosese was selected for a three-year degree at Toi Whakaari and moved to Wellington. During the holidays, he returned to Auckland to work for a butcher.
"I was always into performing arts and when I was accepted, I was stoked and excited to get out of here and see somewhere else," tells Mosese, who is currently working as a kitchen hand in an Auckland restaurant owned by actor Kelson Henderson, who plays Jonah's manager Phil Kingsley Jones in the mini-series.
Like the sports superstar – who was managed by Welsh international player and father figure Phil for 12 years – Mosese welcomed the support of his own special mentor, Jonah director Danny Mulheron.
"Danny was in Wellington auditioning parts for a show called The Visit, and I got the lead," he says. "We jammed out and built a bond, and before he left, he planted the seed and said he might be doing something about Jonah. Then he came back asking me to audition for the part."
As well as having to lose weight and tone up for the role, Mosese worked with an acting dialogue coach. "The hardest thing was being clear when I spoke because Jonah was really articulate, whereas I tend to mumble!"
He admits his favourite part of the role was locking lips with the actresses who played Jonah's multiple loves, joking, "That's the most kissing I'll do all year!"
Dressing in Jonah's stand-out style was also fun. "He was a funky dude, always wearing his hats to the back and little glasses, with a goatee," tells Mosese. "I think he had about five different hairstyles too."
Unlike Jonah, whose colourful relationship history was widely publicised over the years, Mosese confesses he's single and laughs, "I'm seeing Jesus."
Of Jonah's partners – first wife South African beauty Tanya Rutter, fiancée Teina Stace, second wife Fiona Taylor and third wife Nadene Quirk – it was the mother of his boys Brayley, 11, and Dhyreille, nine, who Mosese met on set.
He recalls, "Nadene was cool and came in with her sons, and just kind of kicked back. We went to her house and she showed us Jonah's car filled with speakers because he loved music."
The entertainer also met Jonah's friend Grant Kereama, the radio DJ who gifted him a kidney in 2004.
"Grant was happy and came up shaking my hand, and got a bit emotional when we had a picture. Maybe he saw something of Jonah in myself, which made me feel like we must've been doing something right."
With the show airing on Three on August 18 and 19 ahead of September's Rugby World Cup in Japan, Mosese says he's proud to be part of a project that offers a peek into life in South Auckland.
"This is a good thing for Pacifica because it showcases our world and at the same time, it's a bit of justice for Jonah so people can understand him outside of rugby," says Mosese.
"As a kid, watching him on TV, I could never have foreseen this day. It's crazy, but here it is."
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