New Zealand’s South Auckland isn’t what one might call ripe training ground for Hollywood newcomers. To Beulah Koale, the place he calls home “is kind of like the ghetto, the ‘hood.” And there, most guys don’t dream of being an actor.
“I wanted to be a rugby player. I wanted to be an All Black,” Koale said, referencing the country’s national rugby team.
At around 17 or 18 years old, however, he discovered acting. Granted, it was through a Mondays-only drama program at his school that he and the rest of the rugby team joined only because it allowed them to skip three classes. But it was there that he realized the reason he loved rugby so much — because it was a legal way to vent about his upbringing and hurt people without consequences, he said — was also present in acting.
“I ended up kind of enjoying it,” he said. He continued attending theater workshops and acting, behind his friends’ backs, until he was 20.
“Then they saw me on TV, and I couldn’t keep it a secret anymore.”
A year later, he committed to being an actor full time. Now, at 25, his first major Hollywood role — in the drama “Thank You for Your Service,” the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated “American Sniper” writer Jason Hall, opposite Miles Teller — hits theaters Friday.
“It’s a different animal,” he said about being in Hollywood. “In New Zealand, $3 million for a movie is the jackpot. Here, they call that an independent movie. The scale is just massive … but my mom and my girl are good at keeping me humble.”
“Thank You for Your Service,” based on a nonfiction book of the same name from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel, follows U.S. soldiers with post- traumatic stress disorder as they attempt to reintegrate into society after returning from Iraq. Koale plays Solo, based on the real Tausolo Aieti, an American Samoan who struggles to get needed support from the Veterans Affairs system to treat his trauma.
Ahead of the film’s release, on a break from filming “Hawaii Five-0” in Hawaii, where he lives with his partner and twin boys, The Times spoke with Koale, who is Samoan himself, about the role, representing Polynesian people on the big screen and his hopes for his career.
QUESTION: This is your first big Hollywood role. How did it feel nailing the audition?
ANSWER: I did television and film and theater in New Zealand. I thought that was as big as I was going to get. I never even tried to learn how to do an American accent because I thought there was no way people in America would hire someone like me. Then it happened, and I had to learn it very quickly.
It was amazing getting the nod that I would play this role, but it was kind of daunting as well, knowing that I got a lead role in a massive Dreamworks film and Steven Spielberg’s name (was) on it, and Jason Hall who wrote “American Sniper,” and Miles Teller is in this, and I’m just a kid from the ghetto in New Zealand. I told myself that I’d give it everything I’ve got and do whatever I needed to do it right.
Q: I assume you read the book, but how else did you prepare?
A: Yes, I read the book and did a lot of research because in America, the military is so embedded in the culture. I don’t think some people know that unless you’re like me, coming from a country where people don’t know anybody in the military because it’s so small. All of the research I did was first-hand accounts, like documentaries, and it was my first time hearing much of it, so I was like this sponge trying to catch up with everyone in America.
Q: What was the hardest part about this role?
A: I found out pretty early (in my career) that when I do work, I try to come from a place of truth, and the only way I can do that is using my own personal experiences growing up. I opened up this little door to my demons — everybody has their own skeletons and their dark side. I told Jason that I was going to open up this door that sucks and he’s got to make sure that I’m safe. So I mixed my darkness and Solo’s darkness and all the research I’d done into this potion and just sat in it for four months.
Q: My mother retired from the Army after 23 years in February. After being deployed a number of times to Afghanistan and Iraq, she returned forever changed. Your performance captured that idea well. Did you get a chance to meet the real Solo?
A: Solo and his wife wanted nothing to do with the project. I don’t think he even read the book … because it’s looking back at your past and opening that door. But everyone in the film had the people they were playing with them on set, and I didn’t. A quarter of the way through the shoot, I was really struggling, and I called him up — and I had called him up a couple times before that, but anytime anyone gets him on the phone, it’s not longer than a minute. Before he could even say anything, I said, “Bro, I’m going to tell you who I am. Don’t say anything. I’ll tell you my story.” I spoke in Samoan, and that really clicked for him, and it broke the ice.
I spoke to him for about 20 minutes, and he spoke to me for about two and a half hours and told me things that I don’t think David Finkel or Jason had ever heard. And he told me he wanted to come down and help me out. I told Jason, and he kind of freaked out (because no one had been able to get through to Solo).
Q: I find that very interesting, especially as we continue to have these conversations about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, that he did not want to be part of the project until he knew you, another Samoan, would be playing him.
A: Jason really wanted a Samoan to play a Samoan, as did I. But I know a lot of people higher up did not. They wanted the guy that could bring in the dollars and has a face. But I’m so competitive that I knew there was no one else for the role. The fact that Jason said he wanted this Samoan kid from New Zealand and that Solo is proud that a Samoan is playing a Samoan … I think Solo realized that these guys weren’t playing around with his story, which is what anyone would think when Hollywood takes your story — that it’s theirs now and you have no ownership of it and they’re going to cast some one that vaguely looks like you but doesn’t know your language or culture. But Jason is different. He comes from a place of truth and authenticity.
Q: And you were able to speak a bit of Samoan in the film … .
A: When I heard my language part of the film, I cried. I represent so many people, Pacific Islanders, Polynesian people. The fact that this indigenous language is in a Hollywood film … I love I represent that.
Q: What is something you want the audience to take away from your character in this movie?
A: This film is about trauma, and anyone can suffer from trauma. I want civilians to think about these men and women that go out and serve their country. Some of their injuries you can’t see, and it’s the ones you can’t see that are often the worse.
It’s also terrible that these men and women are going out there fighting for this country and they have to jump through hoops to get benefits and help, causing these people to self-medicate. That self-medication leads down a dark road that causes 22 veterans a day to kill themselves. There’s something wrong (with the system) because you can spend so much money sending them out to fire weapons but you can’t put some of that same money into bringing them home and giving them the dream that they fought for.
Q: What’s the biggest goal you have for your career?
A: The biggest goal is that when people think of Beulah Koale, they think of a guy who can carry a film. I want to be that name in Hollywood — without actually being Hollywood. I want to be the Polynesian version of Denzel Washington or Tom Hanks. I’ve been put on this Earth with the gift of telling stories, so I want to tell a whole bunch of stories.