Dominic Ona-Ariki in Rarotonga. Picture: RASHNEEL KUMAR/22092309
When Dominic Ona-Ariki is not playing Detective Ariki Davis, a Cook Island Māori police officer in the New Zealand supernatural crime drama One Lane Bridge, he spends time discovering himself and his Cook Islands heritage.
Dominic Ona-Ariki first visited the Cook Islands when he was 24 – about eight
years ago – for his cousin’s wedding.
Born and raised
in New Zealand, growing up in Manurewa, Ona-Ariki considers himself a South
Auckland boy but the Cook Islands roots through his Nena and Papa – Kimiora Rua
Ona and Teariki Ona of Titikaveka – always had its special place.
“The first time
I came here, as soon as I stepped off the plane and felt that hot heat – man,
you feel like home. It’s just that feeling I had never had it before … it’s
just crazy, I just felt I belong here,” he says.
three more visits since his first trip including a week ago when he was in
Rarotonga for his Nena’s birthday.
“It’s the same
thing I felt when I was flying over this time, just on the plane just feeling
like ‘Ah man I’m heading home’ and you start to reconsider things a little bit
… I can probably live here in between jobs.”
the lead role in One Lane Bridge which will return with Season 3 later in the
year, Ona-Ariki says he has plenty of time on his hands “always waiting for the
“Most of my
work has predominantly been for three to four months maybe five and then rest
of the year I’m kind of chilling out like freelancer or actor’s life waiting
for the next job.
“I don’t have
luxury of picking roles for work … I need a job, that’s it bro, I just need a
job whatever I can get until you get to the point where you can pick and choose
or be picky but at this point in time, I got to pay the bills man.”
up the shooting for Season 3 of One Lane Bridge earlier this year, Ona-Ariki shares
his immediate focus was to look for another role.
But he’s not
disappointed about not being able to get one.
“If I had a job
I wouldn’t have been able to come back home, wouldn’t have been able to
celebrate my Nena’s birthday, wouldn’t have been able to learn (about his
family genealogy), wouldn’t have been able to meet you, wouldn’t have been able
to look at this beautiful beach – so you know all things are meant to be.”
Growing up in Manurewa, Ona-Ariki never thought of acting as something he would
pursue later in life.
He and his
siblings were introduced to theatre by his dad, a papa’a who came into the
picture when Ona-Ariki was eight years old.
“When he came
into my world, he just exposed myself as well as my brothers to opportunities
that I don’t think we would have ever, ever thought about or considered growing
up and drama classes being one of those,” shares Ona-Ariki.
“Him and mum
put me into after school drama class and then from there my drama teacher he
saw there was an audition for a film called The Legend of Johnny Lingo which
was filmed here years ago.”
auditioned for the film which was released in 2003 and scored a part – “it was
really small, I was like friend number one or friend number two (of the main
character), almost like an extra but I had one or two lines”.
were like ‘Oh this could work’, so they got me an agent out of the back of
maybe a newspaper and from there I got one job, another job all the way up
until the point I got Shortland Street.”
his Shortland Street debut in 2007. He played a relative of Dr TK Samuels (Ben
“It was crazy,
it’s insane how as soon as your episodes come on TV life changes a little bit,
people start recognising you everywhere in New Zealand. Some people would say
they don’t watch that show – it’s always dudes aye, they will be like ‘Ah bro,
sorry my Mrs watches it’. Whatever man,” he says with a laugh.
“I never had
that much money before and it’s not crazy money but for a 16-year-old living in
South Auckland, that was a lot of money. I was buying all the takeaways and
that social media wasn’t around then, we had things like Bebo … I had some
great tough lessons back then about having money and the way that you present
yourself … just random people coming up to you asking for photos and stuff like
that was a bit overwhelming.”
Playing Dr TK’s
nephew was a unique experience in itself, he says. Ben Mitchell was an
established actor by then and his character Dr TK was one of the favourites
among the audience.
“It was a bit
of a weird moment seeing someone right in front of you who you have seen on TV
but he was great. He really took us under his wings. I was on screen with
Scotty Cotter, he is a friend of mine, we have actually come from the same
theatre company together. There was a stint where him and I were doing the same
job together almost coming as a package deal. He was a bit older than me and he
took me under his wings as well.”
After Shortland Street where he spent two years, Ona-Ariki joined university
studying business and marketing and advertising because he felt “that was the
right thing to do at that time”.
marketing job for a little while after graduating.
“I will be
honest I was probably s*** at both of those things (business and marketing and
advertising). It was an expensive lesson but a lesson that needed to be done
and I just figured out that isn’t for me so I went back to the theatre company
I was with and kind of had to start from scratch.”
hardly received calls for auditions because he had been out of the theatre
scene for so long and almost quit.
“I was not
getting any jobs and I remember chatting to one of my best mates. He said ‘Dude,
if you quit now what was it all for’, that stuck with me forever. I just kept
at it – acting or anything – it’s all about persistence.”
And then the
opportunity came in the 2019 mini-series Jonah where he played rugby player
bagged a role in the 2019 film Savage before moving to Australia to play a
major support role in Australian sci-fi drama series The Commons.
“It’s crazy how
things happen once you start to believe in yourself,” he says. “While I was
over in Aussie doing that job, I did this audition for One Lane Bridge and
booked it. I finished that Australia job and came straight to Queenstown to
start One Lane Bridge – that’s how that came about. Honestly it was just fate.”
One Lane Bridge,
which premiered on TVNZ 1 in 2020, stars Ona-Ariki in the lead role as
Detective Ariki Davis, a Cook Island Māori police officer who relocates from
Auckland to Queenstown.
has matakite (second sight), in which he has visions of dead people.
wanted that (role) so bad. I was reading through the brief of the character and
it said his name was Ariki, I was like surely this is meant for me. And this
character grew up in South Auckland, Manurewa, I was like ‘Bro, this is meant
for me’. I’m a big believer of universe works in mysterious ways, if you ask
for it, it will provide.”
The role was written
for someone of New Zealand Māori descent and it was between Ona-Ariki and one
really lucky it came my way. They (the makers) were super lovely, I don’t know
how hard it was in the background but they were like why don’t we make it a
Cook Islands Māori (character).”
the skin of the character was not an easy part for Ona-Ariki despite the
similarities they shared.
“It was a lead
role and lot more work goes into doing a lead role and portraying that
character and different shades of that character, different personalities but I
feel like as I got more into the character, I made him more like my own.
you’re learning more about the character as the character grows but also
Dominic, myself as a person is growing at the same time. Its real interesting
how you see lot of similarities between the character’s growth and your own
personal growth which helps because you can apply that to the work.
“Playing a Cook
Islands Māori is a massive honour, massive privilege. I hope and I guess it’s
kind of inevitable because when Cook Islanders might see the show and see that
Cook Islands being presented on national TV and wherever it airs, they can go
‘Oh well yeah that’s what it can look like’ – it means a leading cop on a New
Zealand show doesn’t have to be a white.”
Ona-Ariki has no shame in admitting he’s “plastic as” when it
comes to Cook Islands and its culture. But he’s eager to learn.
“I feel really
proud to be a Cook Islander and to be at a place that I am now makes me even
more proud because I’m plastic as man. It’s pretty evident, I know how to
pronounce ika mata but I don’t know how to climb a coconut tree, I just only
learnt how to husk it.
“A lot of that
is my fault, I could do lot more learning and be more proactive. This trip has
actually been great, I have been learning about family genealogy. Sitting next
to my Nena having her tell stories, being around aunties and mamas hearing them
tell stories, I could sit there for days and listen to them which is funny
because being a 12-year-old in that position I would have been like ‘Tsk I
don’t want to listen to this’ but as an adult I’m just downloading everything.
sometimes it’s hard in New Zealand because I don’t really have many Cook
Islanders in the mix and you cling onto the closest thing to you which might be
Māori, might be Samoan and South Auckland in itself is a culture. But to be
here on the land and the position that I’m at, I just feel really proud. If
anything, it kind of lights the fire in me to want to learn more about my
culture so that when I move along with my career, I have more fruits from my
culture to bring along with me and share with the world.
“It’s one thing
to say you are a Cook Islander which is great to fly that flag but you got to
be a Cook Islander to really understand what it means.”
to budding filmmakers and actors is to always reach out for support and
opportunities available in New Zealand and abroad.
“Make your own
stuff, if you have a phone you’re halfway there. And start writing, even if it
is as small as a diary. I don’t know what it’s like in the Cook Islands because
kids seem very confident over here. They already have the presence; they are
incredibly capable and so watchable.
“A friend of
mine shared this to me about what’s the thing that drives you – and he said, ‘My
ancestors were too big for me to be too small’. I think our ancestors travelled
thousands of miles, the best navigators in the world, they didn’t make this big
trip for us to be that small.
“To me this is success,
being here right now, being able to pay for a flight, being able to pay for
food – that is success.”