Next Goal Wins Star Talks “Vital” Role In Taika Waititi Comedy

Many sports biopics play around with the truth to make a real story more cinematic, but director Taika Waititi’s story of the world’s worst football team is the rare one that announces this upfront.

Next Goal Wins, an adaptation of the 2014 documentary about the American Samoa national team – infamous for once losing a game 31-0 – is heavily indebted to the underdog sports comedies of the nineties, and plays fast-and-loose with the truth to help it fit that narrative formula. A fourth-wall breaking introduction by Waititi tells audiences this directly; if you want to know how this story went down exactly, then this isn’t the film for you.

As a result, actress Kaimana, who makes her acting debut as the footballer Jaiyah Saelua, stresses that she never once felt daunted about doing justice to her real-life inspiration, a trailblazer for transgender women in the sport.

She told Zavvi: “When I first met Jaiyah, she gave me the best piece of advice; this character wasn’t an exact replica of who she is, it only represents part of her story. There’s a lot of pressure when it comes to taking on a character patterned on a living, breathing person and doing justice to who they are, but by telling me that it took a lot of pressure off of me.

“I had no idea what I was doing when I went into that first audition, but getting to meet her a couple of days before we started shooting was really important for me. I took elements of her, but she reminded me that what was most important was injecting a lot of my own experiences into the character.”

The movie documents the team’s hiring of Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (played here by Michael Fassbender) to help break their decade long losing streak. He’s hired in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers to try and get them to score their first competitive goal in years – anything beyond that is a bonus.

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Kaimana shares almost all of her scenes with Fassbender, who praised his co-star for being a “natural” in her debut role, something she still struggles to fathom, even as her performance regularly gets singled out for praise.

“I didn’t feel like a natural!” she laughed. “It was such a subjective experience for me, every time people would tell me I was good, my instincts were questioning it. It’s hard to perceive yourself in the objective way other people do.

“All I knew Michael from was X-Men, so I was intimidated to have Magneto in front of me – a great actor and a handsome guy, and who am I, just some rando off the street? But he was always encouraging and never intimidating, the best scene partner I could have asked to start off with.”

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It’s important to acknowledge that Next Goal Wins has faced some criticism for the way it handles the relationship between Thomas and Jaiyah, with the coach initially portrayed as transphobic towards her, with the trans character eventually apologising to him for her response to his comments, instead of the other way round.

The actress is open to this critique – “art is art, and people are allowed to perceive what they will within the art itself” – but doesn’t entirely agree with it.

“For me, it’s interesting; in our lives, we always end up having to explain our identities to people who don’t understand, so I didn’t have any thoughts about it being portrayed in this way. I found moments like this normal, as I often have to help people come to terms with my identity.

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“We made this movie all the way back in 2019, and four years later, the topic of trans people exploded, so I think it’s great that the film is coming out at a much needed time. I think the film is going to help when it comes to showcasing us as human, especially when there are so many contrasting narratives out there trying to paint us otherwise.”

The experience of watching the movie is far more surreal for Jaiyah Saelua herself, with the fa’afafine (a Samoan term for transgender or non-gender-conforming people) footballer acknowledging that it’s “not very accurate”, but as an LGBTQ+ ambassador for FIFA, felt that many of the narrative embellishments were “vital”.

She told Zavvi: “The experiences that this character has are the experiences of trans women in general, and I thought it was nice for these to be added to the movie so people around the world can see what we go through. On a daily basis, we have to deal with being called our dead name, being misgendered, being asked what’s between our legs – it may be perceived as a portrayal of transphobia, but I thought it was a really important thing to include.

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“However, it also introduces us to the beauty of the fa’afafine identity, and all the good things associated with it, in terms of the culture and the people. Within the climate that surrounds trans people at the moment, especially within sport, showing all these sides of our experience was crucial.”

In real life, Jaiyah and Thomas had the typical relationship of player and coach, not getting close until they were on the promotional circuit for the documentary a few years after they first met. The footballer is perfectly fine with Waititi changing this for the movie, especially as she believes it’s what enables the movie to explore some of the harsher realities trans people face.

“At the end of the day, Taika was going to do what he wanted with that relationship, and I do appreciate that he took the liberty of making Jaiya the lead female role. But within a film, you have to create a narrative, which is why you have someone introduced as a bad guy and a player who changes his views.

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“It’s not very accurate to my relationship with Thomas, we didn’t have a special relationship until touring that documentary. I didn’t truly get to know him until then, and we became friends after that.

“The friendship is inaccurate for the time it’s set in, but I have that close relationship with him now.”

This would have even been more surreal for the player if some reports are to believed, which suggested that Waititi wanted her to play this fictitious version of herself before he began searching for his female lead. Saelua is relieved that never happened.

“I wouldn’t have done it!” she laughed. “It’s too much pressure – and after all, I would have probably gotten in the way of his version of this story…”

Next Goal Wins is released in UK cinemas on Tuesday, 26th December.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder

Contributing Writer

Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. A regular writer for Film Inquiry and The Digital Fix, his work has also been found at the BFI, British GQ, Digital Spy, Little White Lies and more. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.