Nor did many of her fellow young cast members in The Panthers.
She is now hoping to change that for future generations.
“It might not be taught in schools yet, but telling the story on screen is a huge stepping stone,” says the 22-year-old.
Lealani, who makes her acting debut in the mini-series, had been working with production company, Four Knights Film for just four months as a production assistant, before she landed the role as young Polynesian activist Melani Anae.
The character couldn’t be more suited to Lealani, who has always wanted to be a storyteller in some form.
“I feel like Melani and I are very similar – both in life story, how we are brought up and the events that have happened in our lives. We also share the understanding of what it’s like to be a teine Samoa living in Aotearoa – it’s quite different to being a New Zealander living in Samoa.”
Lealani says it’s incredibly important to have visible strong female Pasifika representation on screens and as it stands, there are very few relatable characters for women or girls.
“Portrayals of Polynesian women to this point haven’t been very accurate. We’re either the butt of the joke or violent and aggressive and undesirable, so it was so nice to have someone like Melani, who was strong without coming across as the villain. She was empowering if anything.”
Being so in tune with her Samoan culture has helped shape Lealani’s purpose and identity but she hasn’t always felt comfortable expressing that.
“When I was living in Hawke's Bay I was very white-washed and I hated being Samoan because I didn’t see Samoans. So I did everything I could to not associate myself with that. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t join in anything cultural. I was embarrassed to be with my family because we always gathered in such big groups. Pākehā just don’t do that really.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Auckland and found a strong Polynesian presence she was able to express herself authentically.
“Being in touch with my culture has helped with my own sense of identity and belonging. I’m really relieved I moved to Auckland and could see more of my own people.”
Through her fellow cast member, she was introduced too to the Mangere Arts Centre and the huge wealth of Polynesian talent in the community.
“Everyone can act, sing and dance. I think we need to get behind that a bit more.”
Currently in lockdown in Auckland, Lealani considers herself very lucky that she has been able to continue working, and does not have the pressures of having to put food on the table for anyone but herself.
“Because of that, the lockdown has been a nice pause for me and given me a chance to catch my breath because the release of The Panthers was really overwhelming.”
Alongside her role as a cast member, Lealani is production assistant and runs the social media for The Panthers. The latter has been overwhelming for the fact she sees “everything”. To protect other cast members from nasty and racist comments, Lealani would filter out negative Instagram comments.
“It’s quite a lot and very draining so every Sunday I just don’t touch my phone. I don’t go on Instagram or any social media.”
Lealani compares the racism highlighted in the show to that being directed at Polynesian communities in today’s era.
“Back in the 70s Polynesian people were used as scapegoats for the economic crisis New Zealand was going through and now how many years on, we’re being used as scapegoats again for COVID. It’s insane.”
Lealani says an attack on South Auckland is a direct attack on all Polynesian people.
To the Polynesian community, the Auckland resident has this to say:
“Thank you for all you’re doing at the moment. Thank you for the sacrifices you’re making. I know a lot of you are essential workers and a lot of you have had to leave school to provide for families – you’re the ones on the front line so thank you for being resilient despite everything that is thrown your way.”