Writer and actor Victor Rodger ONZM: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther
Victor Rodger’s adaptation of Peter Wells’ critically acclaimed book Hello Darkness will be performed by Roy Ward as part of the Samesame but Different writers festival on February 11, one of many events in the Auckland Pride Festival.
My mum was still in high school when she became pregnant with me and I was born in 1969. My grandparents adopted me, to pass me off as a kid they’d adopted, as opposed to mum’s son, to get Social Welfare off mum’s back. The Social Welfare lady said something to mum like, “I know what girls like you do, you leave your kid with your parents then you run up and down the country having fun.” They even had a family lined up for me to go to, but mum said that she would work for her son and that’s what she did. I look back and feel very privileged that mum kept me. She’s shown me nothing but love and when I see people who don’t have that, it reinforces how lucky I am to have the mother I have.
I was an indulged only-child until mum had my sister when I was 16. At school, no one else was as slavishly devoted to movies and movie stars as I was and I’ve still got all the magazines and books mum bought me in the ’70s and ’80s, reading about people like Erik Estrada, Farrah Fawcett and Raquel Welch. And I knew I was gay from quite a young age, although having had a religious upbringing and having been taught homosexuality was wrong, I went through a lot of tortured moments, wanting to be normal like my peers.
I didn’t come out to mum till I was 26, and had fallen in love for the first time when I was at drama school. It was a double whammy for her as I did it the night after the premiere of my play Sons in Christchurch. So she was not only dealing with the trauma of seeing parts of her life on display for public consumption, she then had to deal with me coming out. But because I was in the full throes of love, I wanted to share it. As a Christian, mum was concerned about me going to hell but, ultimately, she’s always accepted me. She was surprised but surely she had an inkling – from my Charlie’s Angels scrapbooks, one for each Angel and a separate one for composite pictures.
When I look back, I think about how progressive mum was. I was about 8 when she tried to get me to learn Samoan, but I was so not into it. I didn’t explore or embrace that side of myself until the end of high school and as a kid, when I encountered the odd Samoan relation, they always felt like capital O for Other. A large part of my journey has involved embracing my Samoan side, overcoming the negative feelings I had because that part of my culture was wrapped up in my father, so it’s ironic that my palagi mother encouraged me to figure out who I was culturally.
After I finished high school in 1986, I did a journalism course run by New Zealand News. They had a handful of papers up and down the country and trained 20 cadet reporters, rather than hiring people from other institutions, then having to retrain them. I was a terrible hard news reporter. I’d chosen journalism because I wanted to be a film critic. One night I was covering a council meeting and I was told off for not quoting anyone. How could you not quote anyone, they asked me. But I said it was because they didn’t say anything worth quoting. I was quickly put on the entertainment round on the Christchurch Star, and I did do film reviews, but it got to the point where I knew I wanted to be written about.
I’d never acted before drama school but I’d always wanted to try it so I auditioned because I didn’t want to turn 50 and look back and think, What if? In the first week, we had to be animals and I thought, what the actual f*** is this? Woof woof, I’m a dog or whatever. It was so nuts but, on reflection, I really value the relationships I made at Toi Whakaari, both personally and professionally. You do have such a huge spectrum of experience at drama school, everyone will hate it at some point but, ultimately, I’m grateful for it.
I had a bit of a cuppa and a lie-down in 1996 and took part of the year off and returned in ’97 to graduate. Then I had a much bigger cuppa and a lie-down in 2013. It was after my play Black Faggot debuted at the Auckland Fringe. It has turned out to be my biggest commercial success, but, on opening night, I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever written, the end of my career. I found myself in a very bleak and hopeless place and was on a constant loop of, You’re shit, you’re rubbish, you can’t write to save yourself.
I was depressed for about a year and a half and, the most confronting thing was, I thought that would be my state forever. That there would be no relief. I moved home to Christchurch with my family. I didn’t communicate with anyone if I could avoid it. I got a job as an orderly at a hospital which my ego found pretty challenging, having written for Shortland Street for so long. But funnily enough, that job brought me back to myself and I remember cracking a joke with a patient and thinking, Ooh, I’m back, because, when I was in that dark space, I was not cracking jokes at all.
When Vincent O’Sullivan spoke to my drama school class he said, if you’re not really passionate about an idea, writing it will be like shovelling sh*t up a hill. That really stuck with me. Sure, you can do stuff that’s contrived or serviceable, that’s fine – but for me, I need to have a real investment in an idea to see it through to the end. Although I’ve always struggled with deadlines throughout my career, so I’ll never give advice on them other than to say, just be honest. People just want to know if you’re not going to deliver. And it’s not really till the fear is upon me that I get going.
I’m a last-minute writer. Not so long ago, I had a producer organise a script reading for me. The actors were scheduled for 10am and its the previous night and I’ve still not finished the script. I’m in bed, it’s 2am and I’m wondering if I’m having a heart attack because the stress is in my chest and I’m thinking, ‘This is how I’m going out’. But I still didn’t get out of bed and start writing. I got there in the end. Eventually, I got up and finished writing and the reading was fine, but it was also super stressful.
I write from a small but perfectly formed garret on Oriental Parade and I’m sure, if people looked up, they’d see a mad man yelling at himself, “Come on Victor! Come on Victor!” Every time I sit down to write, I feel like I’ve never written before. I get antsy when people ask about my process because I don’t understand it myself, but somehow I sometimes manage to get from the beginning to the end, but I just can’t tell you how it happens. And I’m not so frightened of it anymore. Realising that not everyone will like my work has been incredibly liberating. As long as I can stand behind my work, as an artist, that is the main thing, and figuring that out has really freed me up.
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