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NAW2017: The Actors Panel

The final session of the first day of the Nga Aho Whakaari annual hui was a discussion between moderator Christina Asher and four well-regarded Maori actors: Nancy Brunning (pictured, top), Miriama McDowell, James Rolleston, and Te Kohe Tuhaka.

The relationship between actors and directors (as well as producers and writers), and specifically what actors need from their directors, became the dominant subject.

Asher: What attracted you all to acting?

Rolleston: As a kid I loved being the centre of attention. Now, I love meeting people – and the challenge. I feel I’ve done quite a lot for a kid from (gangtown) Opotiki.

Brunning: I started at school – I was pressganged into a trip to Portugal by my Maori teacher.

McDowell: I started at school too. When I graduated from Toi Whakaari I felt that the theatre in Wellington was really fertile.

Tuhaka: I started with the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival at school, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I grew up in an environment where rugby was number one, and acting was for Pahekas. Then I saw (Briar Grace-Smith’s play) Purapuraphetu in Wellington – Maoris were allowed to do it!

When I joined Toi Whakaari, I got lots of awesome growlings from older Maori. But when I was cast in Dead Lands, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, to work with all my heroes in an action movie!

Asher: People are often whakamā, (shy) about asking well-known actors to be in their film.

Tuhaka: Just ask! It’s the story that matters. If I can’t do it, it will only be because I am committed elsewhere.

McDowell: For everyone, actors and others, the best way to learn your craft is in short films.

Brunning: It’s all about the process. I want to have a conversation, see if we fit together.

Asher: Have you ever challenged a director?

McDowell: Yes, it’s part of the process. I remember Jane Campion saying, “If you can’t go there yourself, you can’t ask an actor to.” What a spiritual and sacred journey it is to be an actor.

Asher: It’s the director’s responsibility to free the actor of the burden of their role, at the end of each scene, of each day – to understand the actor’s needs.

Tuhaka: I challenge the director on how the direction adds to the progress of the story, the journey. I need clarity – the confirmation of the interior flow – and not to have to act by numbers!



Sometimes an actor can challenge at the wrong time, or in the wrong way when they get too involved in the directing side.

Brunning: I need to research the character deeply – to create a world for the character. When I go on to set, I look to see if the world there matches my character’s world. I challenge the directors, and the producers, if they have not done the same depth of analysis in preparation. I miss Don Selwyn, Melissa Wikaire and others, because they did the prep. I’m angry when I see a film where the culture, the tikanga, is incorrect and Maori in the audience are cringing.
Actors have to go deep. Maori actors even more so, especially when marae and tangi, et cetera, are involved. Producers, directors, writers all have to check out the cultural safety, because if they don’t, the consequences can be dire.