The past few days have been pretty wild for Danny Ligairi. Fresh from a trip to Kenya as an ambassador for The Barefoot Project, he’s now in Italy hobbling around with a broken foot after a friendly rugby game gone wrong during another charity stint. All the while he has been speaking to casting directors about potentially playing a role in the new Bond film after the call was put out for a Polynesian bad guy.
“Life is just surreal at the moment,” he says over Skype from Italy. “In fact, it has been surreal for a while.”
After a career as a professional rugby player in the UK, Fiji and New Zealand, Ligairi has found a remarkable second wind at the age of 47 as an accidental screen star. And it’s all thanks to a chance encounter with Tom Hardy. Well, Tom Hardy’s dog Woody, to be more precise.
“It was back in 2012 and I was coaching rugby in London on a field with my kids and this dog interrupted the pitch,” Ligairi recalls. “He ran up to me and I started stroking him, while the kids are going ‘Danny, Danny! That’s Tom Hardy from Batman!’. I thought they meant the footballer, Tom Brady or whatever. He came up to me and apologised, but said ‘my dog knows good people’, which is true: dogs do know good people.”
That dog was Woody, Tom Hardy’s beloved pooch who he found on the side of a road with Jessica Chastain while shooting Lawless (and who unfortunately passed away in 2017 a week before Hardy and Ligairi’s birthdays: according to Ligairi, “we’re both Virgos”). Hardy posed for pictures with the football team, turning the encounter into a cool story and the basis of a friendship over the years as The Dark Knight Rises actor went off to shoot everything from This Means War to Mad Max: Fury Road.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Ligairi is now living in the Midlands when he gets a message on his LinkedIn page from producers working with Tom Hardy. “I thought they were lying, just someone full of shit and pulling my chain,” he laughs. “It was a Monday and they wanted me to get to London by Wednesday to shoot something with Tom and it just didn’t sound real.”
It was super real, with that ‘something’ turning out to be BBC’s big budget period crime thriller Taboo, starring and produced by Hardy along with his dad, Chips, and Sir Ridley Scott. Ligairi had never acted before in his life, but got his ass to London for what ended up being a life changing experience. “We started shooting in January and didn’t finish until June, so it was a massive six months,” he says. “Outside of school plays, the only kind of performance experience I had was professional sport. There’s a lot of showmanship in Rugby Seven’s obviously … but I’d be coming off set and people would be saying to me ‘you’re amazing, how come I’ve never seen you before?’ and I’d have to say ‘I’ve only been doing this for four weeks’.”
In the 10 part series, Ligairi plays Martinez, a silent and stoic character of mysterious origin and a rare splash of colour among what is usually the overwhelmingly white casts of period dramas. He’s an imposing figure on screen, decked head-to-toe in Polynesian tattoos and facial moko that took four hours each day for the team of BAFTA award winning make-up artists to apply. “We were able to get it down to two hours by the end of the shoot, but they had to put me up at a hotel closer to the set because of the extra time,” says Ligairi. “At first when I went in, they were showing me what they thought was right for the character of Martinez and I went ‘nah’.”
A proud British Polynesian, Ligairi dug up Toa Fraser’s 2014 film The Dead Lands with his “good mate Te Kohe Tuhaka” and played it for the team. “I wanted them to watch how carefully everything was researched in that film, they really did it right. I mean, the character of Martinez is very different: if you look at the style of tattoo I have in the show there’s three or four different types there. He’s got to be a journeyman, he’s someone who collected these marks as he travelled and you never exactly know where that is. Polynesians are the greatest sailors ever and that’s why we’re so big, because we survived those journeys.” He grew his hair long to better facilitate the wig required for his topknot and “a traditional wooden comb, which could also be used as a weapon”.
Going from a personal to professional relationship with Hardy was an interesting experience for the rookie actor, with Ligairi noting the Oscar-nominee was still the kind of guy who would rock up to set each morning “with a hug for everyone”. With Taboo now out in the world, his life has taken an unusual right turn thanks to the success of the show and the impression his character has left with audiences. Ligairi has experienced the world of fan fiction for the first time, reading about the imagined background of Martinez online as well as potential sequel ideas. As for his next role, he hopes to work with Hardy again – “you just never know what will happen” – but Ligairi has also been developing his own projects with Amazon and Netflix. And there were rumoured parts as a henchman in The Equalizer 2 and Game Of Thrones as one of the Dothraki. But even if not every role comes to fruition for the former rugby star, he says “just to have my name thrown in that hat, it’s amazing.”
Taboo airs Wednesdays on SBS at 10:30pm. The entire series is streaming at SBS On Demand: