Growing up in a poverty-stricken section of Auckland, New Zealand, Beulah Koale’s past is a far cry from the whirlwind Hollywood lifestyle to which he’s now exposed.
The budding actor, 26, who makes his feature-film debut on Friday in “Thank You For Your Service,” stars alongside Miles Teller in the true story of U.S. soldiers struggling to readjust to civilian life after returning home from combat in Iraq.
Koale, who was plucked from relative obscurity for the role by director Jason Hall, credits the experience of playing former Army specialist Tausolo Aeiti in the drama as wholly transformative.
“My life is a complete 180 of what it used to be,” explains Koale. “When I came to America, I had five bucks in my pocket. I was eating apples from a hotel just because I couldn’t afford to pay for any food.”
The actor also speaks with disarming frankness about the struggles of his youth, noting how the absence of a true father figure led Koale to spend his teenage days with cousins who often lived on the wrong side of the law. “It was so easy for me to get tapped into that kind of lifestyle,” he admits. “They were getting me to do the things they were doing. It was a long journey for a while but I always think adversity builds character and there had to be a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere.”
“Through Jason [Hall] and this film, that kind of happened,” he adds.
Hall, who also penned the film’s screenplay, encouraged Koale to “tap into some darkness” in preparation of portraying the former combat soldier as he coped with extreme PTSD. “A lot of the film I was bringing forth my own personal demons, which is something I’ve never really done before. I needed to tap into that to make it truthful to myself.”
To effectively convey the character’s intense emotional pain, Koale put himself through a rigorous pre-production routine that included poring over war photos and films and utilizing the smell of expired meat as a psychological trigger. “It took me to a pretty dark place,” says the actor, who is of Samoan descent. “My family members struggled with me shaking off the film and it wasn’t until months [after wrapping] when I was like whoa — I was totally different.”
Truly immersing himself in the character forced Koale to “stay in this darkness” throughout the four months of filming. “Afterwards I would never sit with my back facing a doorway in any restaurant and certain noises — like doors slamming — are triggers that I’ve slowly learned to turn off. I tapped into a lot of the PTSD stuff pretty intensely.”
But Koale realizes for the thousands of men and women returning home from fighting, it’s typically not as easy to disconnect recover from post-traumatic stress, which he hopes is the film’s takeaway. “This is not a [fictional] movie like ‘Transformers,’ this actually happened. [These soldiers] are brave enough to go out there and tell this story to help others in the same situations [when returning home].
Although the filming of “Thank You For Your Service” wrapped nearly two years ago, the real life soldiers who inspired the narrative have become “brothers for life” to the actor. “I talk to them everyday,” he says matter-of-factly. “This film has brought us together and helped us save each other in a funny way.”
Closing his eyes, Koale sits upright and willingly offers his broad face to the waiting brush of a makeup artist. The actor is in New York from Honolulu, where he films “Hawaii Five-0” for CBS. In spite of his growing success, Koale exudes gratitude for the opportunities his emerging career is now providing him.
“This whole industry thing, I ain’t never going to let it get to my head because I know what it’s like to be at rock bottom,” he says in his distinctive Kiwi accent. “I want to keep pushing and see how far I can take this thing.”
Vowing to approach every project “with an open heart,” the actor — whose distinctive first name comes from the name of his church in New Zealand — has now emerged from his darkness with an invigorated look at the future. “I think I can go all the way if I really want to do it.”
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