Even before Miriama McDowell had emerged from the Toi Whakaari National Drama School in 2002, she was catching the eye as a special talent. And she's more than fulfilled that promise since then in any number of performances on stage and screen and radio.
One of her latest achievements has been to win the Moa Award this year as New Zealand's best actress for her role in The Great Maiden's Blush. And there's been more kudos for her as the director of Much Ado About Nothing, which has had its season extended at the Pop-up Globe in Auckland until May 19. Here she is talking to Dale Husband.
Kia ora, Miriama. And congratulations not just for winning that award but for all sorts of successes you’ve had as an actor — and now as a director. And among the questions raised by those achievements is how come you’ve been able to work so comfortably with such a range of people and issues.
Well, first of all, Auckland Girls’ Grammar School had a huge influence on me. I’ve just directed a show, Much Ado About Nothing, at the Pop-up Globe, which is a 900-seat theatre, with a 15-people cast. So, it was a really big job. The biggest thing I’ve done artistically.
And it dawned on me that the whole show reflected the influences on me at Auckland Girls’. The diversity and especially the Pasifika experiences that I had there have made a powerful impression on me — and it still informs my work today.
The show starts with all the actors coming on to the stage with pots, pans, wooden spoons, shakers. They make a huge noise that becomes a percussion piece. And the idea of starting the show in this way came from a story that my third form homeroom teacher, Ms Kaitu’u, once told us. She was Tongan, and she said that when she was growing up in Tonga, if a tsunami was coming, they’d all go down to the beach and make a massive noise with pots and pans, because they believed this sound would bounce the storm away.
I set Much Ado About Nothing on an island in the South Pacific, a place where ritual is still very much a part of everyday life. Ritual is also a huge part of Shakespeare’s plays so these two worlds fit together really well.
The diversity at Auckland Girls’ was so enjoyable and satisfying that, when I became a mother, I realised that providing a diverse environment is an experience I want for my daughter, Talanoa. I want her to grow up around different cultures, different languages, different value systems. Economic diversity is important, too — to understand that people have different lives, different opportunities, and that this can make life more difficult for some people.
One of the skills I value as an actor and director is empathy. If you can really imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, you can tell their story with truth and respect.
A lot of my friends were from South Auckland working class families who sent their daughters all the way to the centre of Auckland to go to school. I grew up in Mt Eden with a Pākehā father, so my life was quite different from theirs.
In fifth form, leading up to the Polyfest, I joined the Tokelau group. I think it was because one of my friends had just started it up and I wanted to support her. Anyway, we performed on stage and had a lot of fun.
In my class there were Samoans, Tongans, Māori, Niueans, Fijians, not to mention Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Chinese. I remember feeling so proud that I grew up in a country where all of these languages and cultures played a part — although I think it’s becoming harder and harder to share this diversity as the gap between rich and poor gets more extreme.
Now, what about your little darling, Talanoa? Where did that name come from?
Well, Talanoa’s dad is Fijian-English-Samoan-Kiwi. And we decided to give Talanoa a Pacific name because we wanted her to be connected to her Pacific roots. I felt that she’d always connect with her Māori whakapapa because she’s growing up on this whenua.
Also, I thought that giving her this name would keep her connected to Fiji as well. And, you know, it works. If I call out her name on the street and we pass a group of older Samoans, Fijians or Tongans, they will almost always start a conversation with me: “You called your daughter Talanoa? Why does she have that name?” “Did you say Talanoa? Aren’t you a Māori?” So, in a very practical way, we’re constantly connecting with Pacific people.
Let’s turn for a moment to your whakapapa.
Well, my mum is Te Aroha Henare. Motatau te maunga. Taikirau te awa. Ngātokimatawhaorua te waka. And she grew up in the north. My dad came from Palmerston North. He’s a McDowell with Welsh, Irish, English and Scottish blood.
And, not so many years ago, Dad and I went to Wales to look further into our Welsh links there. Earlier, Aunty Joy had discovered that I had a great-great-grandfather, William Williams, who’d been a Calvinist minister. So that was one bit of information we had. But my brother Tiopira, who’s a Māori historian, had said: “You don’t find whakapapa. Whakapapa finds you.”
Anyway, we went to a national genealogy library and explained to a woman at the front desk that we were looking for records of a William Williams. She burst out laughing and told us there was no way we’d track down someone with such a common name. It’d be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Then, as we turned away, a book fell off a shelf in front of me. And it was written by him. William Williams. Calvinist minister. It was amazing.
You’ve done a whole lot more travelling though than just that visit to Wales, haven’t you?
That’s true because, when I was 16, I left Auckland Girls to do a scholarship at Pearson College in Canada, on Vancouver Island. I studied there for two years. It was one of about a dozen schools around the world that are United World Colleges. It’s a world peace movement. The idea is that if you have a face behind every country in the world — you’ll never drop a bomb on them. So, I lived with 200 students from 83 countries for those two years.
What stands out for you about that period of your life?
It was really amazing. Especially all the languages. I always loved languages at high school. I didn’t particularly get into drama. But I studied French, Latin and some Māori. French was my favourite. And, when I went to Pearson College, I discovered Spanish as well. So, French and Spanish were my major subjects.
And all my mates were Latin Americans — so I got to practise it every day and I still speak fluent Spanish. I love that language. But it’s at that school where I started doing acting. And, with acting, that was the first time I found I could be completely oblivious to anything else that was going on in my life or in my teenage drama heart.
I could just step on stage and be completely in that character or in that world. And I realised that it was a real gift to find something that could hold me like that. And that’s what actors do. They train to be present in the moment. Right in that moment. How do you feel? How does the character feel? What did they say? What’s their impulse? That’s what we do. That’s what I love about it.
Then, after two years there, you were back in Aotearoa and off to drama school where, I imagine, there were all sorts of challenges and influences.
I was strongly influenced by Tom McCrory who was the head of movement at the time. His wife is Nina Nawalowalo. She’s an amazing Fijian director. They run a company called The Conch and they still influence my work. They’re great mentors for me. The beautiful circle of life is that their 16-year-old daughter Salote is directing her first Shakespeare play this year. So she came and sat in on my rehearsals at Pop-Up Globe this year. She was only two years old when I was studying at Toi Whakaari.
Well, I was lucky, too, in that I emerged as an actor at a time when Māori theatre was really humming. That was in the early 2000s. It was when Hone Kouka, Albert Belz, and Briar Grace-Smith were writing amazing works. So I started acting at a wonderful time when writers had developed our storytelling.
But there’s always an issue for women actors. We get a lot less work and our stories are told less. And that’s nothing to do with being Māori. That’s just in our story framework. We’ve always told the story of the man — not the woman.
I look at someone like Rena Owen who was incredible in Once Were Warriors, and then at Tem and Cliff. They’ve gone on to be big Hollywood stars but she never got a vehicle like that. And I go: “What’s that say about the framework of our storytelling?”
When we see the success of a number of our Māori movies — and there’ve been a number since Once Were Warriors — we can, of course, enjoy them as entertainment. But they play a bigger role than that, don’t they?
They do. And I truly believe that the job of artists around the world is to help make changes. And the way we do it is through people. We help people to access ideas in a different way. I’ve just written my first play. It’s called Cellfish and it’s been on at the Auckland Festival. People go away from that play talking and debating. And that’s what we do as artists. We get people to talk about issues.
Anyone who takes a look at the catalogue of your work over the last 15 years or so is likely to be surprised by the range of roles you’ve played. Some of them pretty challenging I suspect.
The challenging roles are the best ones. An actor can do anything if they’re asked to — but we’re not often stretched. But I was in the film The Great Maiden’s Blush. And, wow, the things I had to do in that film. I had to give birth. I had to do drag racing. I had to float down the Hutt River in jeans and a sweatshirt in the middle of winter.
I had to do all that and more. Really hard things. But you feel most alive as an actor when you’re doing things that you don’t get the opportunity to do in real life. Challenge is the best thing that can happen to us. And this was the film that I won the Best Actress award for this year, so all of that challenge really paid off.
I notice that sometimes you’re cast as a Māori woman, and sometimes simply as a woman of no particular ethnicity.
Yeah. I think I’m lucky to straddle two worlds there. Apparently, casting directors are able to see me in both those roles — and I appreciate that. But it’s not the same for all Māori actresses.
We’re all familiar with at least some of your work on stage and screen. But I’ve also heard you on National Radio voicing other people’s stories.
I love working on radio. Because it’s all so close. I like the way you can find emotional truth through the way you change your voice. It’s a really wonderful palette to play with. How to sound when someone’s grieving. Or afraid. I like the closeness of the microphone. I like that you can just create it in a tiny box all by yourself.
I did some reading for the Blind Foundation, for blind people, which I really enjoy. And that can be anything from reading Woman’s Day articles or even the Readers Digest to reading full novels from page one right to the end.
I think, also, in New Zealand, as artists you have to be really diverse. When I first graduated from drama school I thought probably all I’d ever do was theatre. But, as time has gone on, I’ve had to diversify because there’s not enough work to do just one thing in this country.
I like that diversity. And now I’m directing as well. It’s a really new thing for me over the last couple of years. It challenges me in a way I’ve never experienced before, and I really love it.
But there’s yet another role you’ve been playing for some years now. That’s motherhood. That can’t help but affect you and your work.
There’s a lot of things to say about that — about being a mother and an actress. I know a lot of people who, once they had children, they ended up getting more work. It’s something about putting things into perspective.
Suddenly, acting is not the most important thing in the world anymore. And so, because you relax and because you shift your priorities, the work you do is much better. You’re not so desperate or worried anymore. I think that’s happened for me.
I really enjoy the fact that I can go and do a job but, at the end of the day, I go home and I’m with Talanoa, my daughter. And that’s the most important thing to me. Once again, that’s about finding balance in an artistic life.
Let’s return to your success with directing Much Ado About Nothing. That’s been something really special. A Shakepearean play, set in the South Pacific — and staged at the Ellerslie Racecourse in the Pop-up Globe theatre. How do you feel now about such an unconventional venture?
It was huge. When the artistic director asked me if I’d direct it, it was one of those moments when I thought: “I’m not ready for this.” But I felt I had to do it partly because I knew I’d learn so much. So I agreed.
Then I spent about three months regretting my decision. But it was a triumph and the show is beautiful. At times I found it overwhelming. But I just had to focus on it scene by scene — regardless of however any other production had presented the play through the centuries.
And one thing it taught me was the value of the relationships built up at drama school. Two of the cast members are people I was at school with. Semu Filipo who plays my lead Benedick in Much Ado, was one, although I hadn’t worked with him since Toi Whakaari. I feel proud that we were able to work in this way on such a big production.
And I feel proud that we were able to follow through on what I said on the first day. I said I was interested in making theatre and making Shakespeare where brown people stand in the audience and they go: “Oh, this is about me. I thought it was about white people in England — but it’s actually about me.”
That was the thing I wanted to achieve. And one night when I went to see the show, I watched this Samoan woman standing there for three hours with her three children and loving and laughing and pointing! And I just thought: “We’ve done it. We’ve done it.”
Well, the reviewers and others who saw Much Ado all spoke highly of your efforts. So congratulations. That must’ve been awesome. Just like so much of your other work stretching way back to Shortland Street days, Mataku and Spring Flames, Kerosene Creek, Outrageous Fortune and so on. You’ve made a wonderful, talented commitment to the craft. So I’m assuming you’ve made a fortune.
I can tell you, unequivocally, that I haven’t made a fortune. It’s a really hard industry to work in. Because you don’t get employed all the time. If anything, I’ve become really good at making an income last over a long period of time.
For example, this year I worked pretty much every day from early January until mid-March. Then there’s been six weeks of nothing until I start on a new project on May 1. That’s six weeks of rent and food and petrol and all those things when I’m not getting an income. I’m good at figuring out how to do that.
That takes some real skill — as well as a taste for red beans and alfalfa sprouts.
How did you know?
For some time now you’ve been mentoring newcomers to the drama world. But, no doubt, you’ve had a hand from some of your peers and colleagues, too.
When you look at Shakespeare, you can’t escape the fact that every artistic choice you make has probably been made before, somewhere in the past 400 years. So of course you should learn from the people who have come before you. But, of course, there’s a fine line between acknowledging the work that has come before, and being courageous enough to back your own ideas and artistry.
Samantha Scott, the artistic director of Massive Company has been a consistent employer, mentor, collaborator and friend over the past 10 years. She’s the first person I call when I need to talk something out. In every single directing project I’ve done, I always end up calling her in tears during production week. Sam has helped me to develop as a teacher and as a director within Massive. I love working with young people and I learned how to do this through Massive.
Nancy Brunning has always been a big influence in my life. Still is. She was actually one of the people who auditioned me for Toi. Through the years, what I’ve admired about her is that she’s always challenging others to keep working and pushing and developing.
And even as recently as the night of the film awards she was still pushing my buttons going: “All right. That’s good. You won an award. What are you going to do next?”
We need those people in our lives, don’t we? People who keep pushing us to grow.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand is another actress who has really influenced me — in the way I work with people and the way I listen to a play. She’s taught me about generosity, how you can pass on your knowledge and experience to younger actors who’re trying to find their place in the world. And what has also been a great inspiration for me is how she embarked on her journey to learn te reo Māori.
Ka pai. And what’s coming up?
In June, I’m doing a show called Kororareka which is a physical theatre show. I’m looking forward to that. We’re taking that up north too, for a little tour. It’s about the early days in our colonial history. It has a cast of five women playing all the characters.