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Having never done any high-profile acting before, he was busking in Auckland early last year when he saw an unusual job advertisement at a Work and Income office.
Having tattoos was fine and previous acting experience was not required, the advertisement suggested.
He decided to apply and, unexpectedly, landed a big acting role in The Dark Horse, a movie based on the life of an extraordinary New Zealander and chess enthusiast, the late Genesis Potini, from Gisborne.
Backed by the New Zealand Film Commission, the film focuses on the life of this ''charismatic, brilliant but little-known New Zealand hero and chess champion''.
The film depicts Genesis at a crossroads in his life, a former top chess player who had spent years in and out of mental institutions, battling a severe bipolar disorder.
Having been released from a psychiatric ward, he had moved in with Ariki, his gang-patched brother, played by Hapi.
In real life, Hapi is a skilled Maori carver, designer and musician who strongly supported Dunedin's Kokiri Training Centre through mentoring of young people when he lived in the city from the late 1990s until 2012.
He was back in Dunedin last night to attend a private screening of the film, its first in the city. This was organised by the centre, to raise funds for a planned North Island trip for centre trainees.
Gaining the movie role and undertaking favourably reviewed performances in the film had been an ''overwhelming'' experience.
''It's been very challenging,'' he said, but added it had also been deeply rewarding in many ways, including helping him re-establish contact with his mother.
He urged young people to discover their own hidden passions and not only to acquire further skills, but also to be ready to tackle new challenges.
He still considers Dunedin his home, though he is now based in Auckland.
Once a gang member, by the late 1990s, he decided it was time for a change.
The Dark Horse will be released nationally this Thursday.