15 Mar 2024

Tom Sainsbury: Comedy, Characters & Children

From It's Personal with Anika Moa, 5:00 am on 15 March 2024

Tom Sainsbury is a man of many faces, from his social media characters to his true crime podcast host persona and more recently feature film maker and star. 

He talks to Anika Moa about the trajectory of his life on screen and the personal highlights and lowlights along the way.

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Tom Sainsbury

Tom Sainsbury Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Grassroots beginnings

"People assume it was a lot tougher than it was. The thing is that there's a thriving amateur dramatic society in Matamata. So pretty early on, I kind of discovered this as an avenue and found my people."

"I auditioned for drama school and failed miserably. I was just so ill prepared. And I argued with the person doing the audition about the acoustics of the place. Like why did I do that? My soul still cringes about it."

"I worked the traps and I would hang out with all these actors, lots of them still doing acting now. But they were all very kind of serious about it and they held up Robert De Niro as their kind of hero and stuff like that. And it wasn't until and I thought maybe this isn't for me this acting style. And it was twice to hang out with your Morgana O'Reilly's and your Madeleine Sami's and stuff.

Tom Sainsbury

Tom got his start through the Matamata amateur dramatic and operatic society. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The move into podcasts

"I've spent a lot of time listening to true crime podcasts. So, like S TownSerial, those kind of ones. I was so aware of the tropes, I was like, this would be great for a parody. So I've done Small Town Scandal, where I play all the characters in the town, and it's solving the mystery of who killed the main character. His uncle's the richest man in town, and his body's found kind of torn up by automated lawnmower"

Feature Films

There's a competition called the 48hour film competition and we won it in 2016 and then again in 2018. So we had this kind of prize money that we could do something with and it would have been a really good short film, but we were like, let's make a feature film. And so we started writing it back then, and then just slowly and surely, once you get other people involved and suddenly you've got deadlines, suddenly a film is getting made. and then we finished it in 2022, but we decided to kind of hold it and release it as part of the New Zealand Film Festival.

Stressed-looking man in his early 40s alone in the New Zealand bush carrying a tramping pack.

Tom's feature film Loop Track is out now Photo: Milon Tesiram

Social Media

"Inspiration kind of happens all the time. And when you do switch off and you go on a holiday or something, that's when the most inspiration comes. You're suddenly hyper aware of human behavior and then you just kind of take it all on board. I definitely don't work around the clock, and there's definitely, like, many hours essentially wasted or lying in the bed, staring at the ceiling."

"I come from a family of observers. I definitely remember, we'd be driving in the car as a family and we'd be kind of commenting on some person's choice of cardigan or something and that would be a discussion point. Yes, it is really judgey. Essentially, when I make characters, I am judging them and I'm being cruel and teasing them, but at the same time, I've got so much love for them as well."

"Well the perimenopausal thing came because, I did a show down in Christchurch and these five women kind of gravitated towards me afterwards and they're like, 'You have to do one of it!', because they were all perimenopausal at the same time. They're all going 'I've just been yelling at my husband for the way he was holding his spoon' and I was like, 'I don't know if it's really my story to talk about being perimenopausal', but I did it anyway and everyone loved it.

Tom admits his social media characters are a bit judgey, but they are made with love. Photo:

Comedy and mental health

"Sometimes when you look back on behaviors, I think I've got maybe situational anxiety rather than inexplicable anxiety. So when things are kind of going wrong or things are falling apart, I don't really cope with it well and I kind of just resort to going straight to the nearest BP and just grabbing all the chips and eating them quietly, scurrying away in the bedroom."

"I did go and see a therapist for a short time and they really helped. She ended up moving and I didn't kind of pick it up again. But we did it the way that suited me so well, we had a whiteboard of pros and cons and ways to kind of work with it and stuff like that. And it's definitely, a work in progress, and it's constant. It's just not an easy fix."

"People definitely expect me to be funny, especially when I'm touring, doing stand up around the country. You hang out with people afterwards and they're expecting a good old laugh from you. And it's like, it couldn't be further from the truth. I'm quite shy and stuff in big public situations, so the comedy doesn't come easily. And then you're like, 'Oh, God, I'm disappointing these people'. I wouldn't use humor to alleviate the situation, I would tend to more towards filling the space with chitchat rather than needing it to be comedic. I'll be like, let's just find some small talk to get us through this."

Being a donor and funcle-guncle to a girl and boy 

"My friend rang up and said, 'I've got this couple here, would you be open to meeting them?' And I said, 'Sure'. Because I started doing regular comedy improv and that's all about saying yes to every offer. So I was like, I'm going to apply this to life and just say yes to everything. And so I went and had coffee with them and I really liked them and I've grown to like them even more now. But it was a very long process. First of all, we did it the official way through the fertility clinic. So lots of blood tests. And there's no exaggeration here. I'm the most squeamish person I know, you ask my friends. If they get cut or something, I go and lie down on the floor and pass out. So giving blood, the first time I thought I was strong enough to do it on the chair, but they took my blood and I collapsed out of the chair. And the little tiny Filipino nurse, who would have been literally half my weight, had to kind of nurse me down to the ground. And then I get a phone call from the fertility clinic going, 'We forgot to tick syphilis. Can you go back and do another test for syphilis?'.

Tom Sainsbury

"Tom the Donor" Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

"So when [the boy] was three, he loves the library. So we went into the library. He's like, to the librarians, this is my donor. I haven't really sat down and talked to them about what donor actually means, but for them, I'm Tom the donor.

"I've got it really good. I like them. I'm in their lives. But also I'm not responsible for their child rearing, which is great because I do like to sleep, in. But it's also a beautiful experiment - not experiment - I've got an invested interest in two children to see what they're going to turn out like and who they are and all that kind of stuff. It's great."

The key to his success

"I've been around for a long time. The life lesson I've learned is it all just comes down to you and that laptop every day. The routine of getting the things and building the blocks, because I've been going over to the States back and forth, and if you don't have the goods to give them all the good ideas, then it's kind of fruitless. So it's more about having that as a concept and just focusing on the day."

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