Scene stealers: Young actors following their famous parents' lead

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Performing on stage or screen takes passion and an inner strength. Three of New Zealand's best-known performers and their daughters tell Rebecca Barry Hill how these qualities appear to run in the family.

Mary Jane and daughter Morgana O'Reilly. Photo / Richard Robinson
Mary Jane and daughter Morgana O'Reilly. Photo / Richard Robinson

Who hasn't fantasised about being an actor, a dancer, an artiste? As a kid, it's easy to glorify the job as a spectacle of constant adoration. The reality, as many working (and not working) actors and dancers will concede, is different. Passion is as vital as a decent memory to get performers through long, hungry winters. Unless you're one of Shortland Street's long-running stars - the likes of whom can barely wander the supermarket aisles unnoticed - making a living solely from your craft can be bleak. Graham Dunster, from agency Auckland Actors (which represents Karl Urban and Lucy Lawless among others), once told the Herald the key to getting plenty of work as a Kiwi actor is to leave the country.

Despite this, we're not without our acting dynasties: the Hawthornes - Raymond and Elizabeth and their daughters, Sophia and Emmeline; actor Paul Gittins and screenwriter Philippa Boyens and their son, Calum. So what is it that makes kids who've seen their parents struggle in the profession want to step into their shoes? For the following local performers, it's about doing what comes naturally, accepting that a life in theatre, stage or screen is simply in the blood.

PETER and SOPHIE HAMBLETON

Peter Hambleton is filming Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, in which he will play a dwarf, Gloin. A well-known Wellington thespian and director, he has appeared in more than 70 productions, including award-winning stage roles in Copenhagen (2002) and The Letter Writer (2010).

Daughter Sophie's first major role since moving to Auckland this year is in Top Girls at Q Theatre, February 23-March 17. She has also starred in The Little Dog Laughs at Downstage and Katydid, a role that won her a Chapman Tripp Theatre Award for Actor of the Year in 2010. On screen she can be seen in local films Home by Christmas and Second-Hand Wedding.

Peter, 51

Sophie was always very alert and energetic and socially engaged, right from the word go. Some of her personality is down to when she was younger and her mum [Aileen Davidson] was teaching exercise classes. Sophie would see her in teaching mode, then act out her own version of her mum at home. She was always very upfront and going for it, bright and quick and witty and fun to be with.

When she was at primary school there was one occasion where she put on a school show and she knew her grandparents were there. She waved to her granddad in the middle of it. She was always very aware of her audience.

When she was old enough, she wanted to come along to the theatre if I was in a show. She has very much grown up in that world.

She's a wonderful character actress. She does comedy as well as the emotional, hard-edged drama. She's well-equipped and individual and you go places by being yourself. Faking it doesn't get you very far.

I think her career will be a really terrific one. The whole scene of film and television is opening up.

It's a very interesting and exciting time to be in theatre. To survive in this country you need to do screen work. And Sophie will no doubt look to go overseas eventually.
She's known enough as the child of a jobbing actor to see how hard you have to work. I was always out at nights. I don't think she had too many illusions about what it entailed.

She's a hard worker. At the appropriate point, I told her how hard it is. It's a precarious job and it can be hard to pay the bills. You come to terms with how brutal the business can be. It's so exciting she's doing well.

I've always passed on my knowledge of people who'd be good to work with and connect with. We'd talk about film and theatre and sometimes we'd have wildly diverging opinions but I haven't tried to give advice, other than to go with your own strong instincts.

Sophie's younger brother Joe is off to film school. I always joke that nobody in the family has a real grown-up job. But I'm enormously proud of them both. I've not pushed it on them, it's just happened of its own accord.

Sophie, 26

I remember Dad in a production called I Hate Hamlet at the old Circa building in Wellington. I was about 8. I was with [actor] Brian Sergent's kids and we were in hysterics. It was the first time I'd seen Dad on stage, but it wasn't my dad.

He was always working. I can't remember a time he didn't have a job. He was often working at night so he wouldn't be home. We were never disadvantaged. I had a lovely childhood. My mother is a performer too. I guess it was never unusual to me. I never really thought about it as being a strange thing.

Both Mum and Dad sat me down and warned me it could be a hard road to follow. Not much money. I wasn't dying to become an actress. I'd done drama at school. After school I was at a loose end. Mum sat me down and said 'why don't you give drama school a shot?' It wasn't until I got there that I really came to appreciate the craft and how hard Dad worked.

I think we both have an awareness of the unusual or quirky qualities about people. We're both into the details of a character.

The best piece of advice Dad's ever given me is to trust your instincts and yourself. Because it can be confusing and challenging. The other thing I've learnt from watching him is that he's very lovely with people, very polite and respectful. He learns people's names on every job he works on.

People recognise my surname and it can be a good ice-breaker, because people love and respect my dad. It gives you common ground. But other people's attitudes and insecurities can be a problem. When I was studying I'd sometimes get, 'I bet your dad got you that role'. It used to bother me because when you're at drama school you're really trying to be your own person. I was also conscious of my mistakes reflecting on him. But I notice it less now that I've established myself. I surround myself with people who believe in me.

MARY JANE AND MORGANA O'REILLY

The former artistic director of the Tempo Dance Festival and co-founder of Limbs Dance Company, acclaimed contemporary dancer Mary Jane has returned to her core skills: choreography and teaching. She explores fetish in her sexy new burlesque show, In Flagrante. O'Reilly also created her solo dance routine, Witch Bitch, which she performed as the opening dance for daughter Morgana's solo show, Height of the Eiffel Tower.

Morgana is an emerging dramatic and comedic talent, who has just moved to Sydney for new work challenges. Last year she played Mac's love interest, Alison, on TV One drama Nothing Trivial and in 2008 she toured the country starring in Toa Fraser's solo show, Bare. She also wrote and performed in her solo show, The Height of the Eiffel Tower.

Mary Jane, 62

I first noticed Morgana was a performer when she started to talk. She always entertained me. She studied tap, and danced at home. She was always in the theatre with me or on sick days while I was rehearsing, sitting in the corner, drawing. She's a very talented drawer.

She'd put on dance shows early. She was not immediately a brilliant performer but she was always very funny. She always had a dose of fantasy and a fantastic imagination.
Drama and tap clashed when she was about 15. The classes were on the same night. She chose drama. She was desperate to leave school early and study drama full-time. She wrote me a letter, that's how serious she was. Phil [her father] and I said, "You can't. You need an education. It's not just good for your mind, it'll make you a better actress." So she stayed and did seventh form, then went to Unitec.

I was relieved she didn't want to be a dancer. It's so hard. Physically it's the hardest performing art. It's so low in resources. Drama has more opportunities. She's going for it.

My advice to her was "always be ready". You can have all the talent in the world but it's about fate and timing. You've got to be ready for opportunities to come your way. I also encouraged her to think beyond being an artist who realises other people's visions. You've got to initiate ideas and opportunities in New Zealand. You can't just sit back and wait to be asked.

I am amazed to see her perform. It transcends being our daughter. You believe her as the character. It's happened a lot. At the Silo, in When the Rain Stops Falling, I wanted to cry when I saw her, it's just beautiful. In the Billy T telemovie, when she played his wife. As Desdemona in Othello. She excites me often.

I did say "it's a tough life, how about being a lawyer or an accountant or something sensible? Get a regular income." That concerned me, a life where it's not clear what's next. But she's proven herself.

Morgana, 26

I used to sit in rehearsals on sick days with blankets and pencils and draw as the country's best dancers were flinging themselves around the room. I'd get tossed between someone's legs.

I remember the Commonwealth Games rehearsals, playing with fabrics, dressing up in costumes, watching Mum dance, helping her with her yoga in the mornings.

I didn't think consciously about it as a kid, but I did the only form of dance Mum never did: tap. That's not why I did it but I think it's why I became an actor, not a dancer. I liked making noise too much.

Mum always had this in-joke whenever we talked about me working as an artist. Whenever I'd say I want to be a painter or a tattoo artist, she'd say "be a lawyer". And we'd have a giggle about it.

When I was 11 or 12 we did this amazing trip to Finland for a conference, then to Instanbul to visit Mum's friend who was a ballet choreographer. We went to Edinburgh to check out the festival. I was exposed to so much.

She had normal motherly instincts that were influenced by dance. She'd never let me wear high heels until I was 13 or 14. As a kid, all you want to wear is those little heels. She'd say, 'you'll break your ankle'. She always taught me to take care of my body.

There were hard times. The biggest thing she taught me was the recognition of those hard times, that even though there are bad reviews or shit money, as a creative you're putting your heart and soul on the line for everybody to judge, good feedback or bad.

She wouldn't really give advice. She was respectful that I did a different craft. But if I came home complaining about having sore muscles, she'd just grunt and say 'you think that's sore!' Or if I complained about having to be at the theatre an hour and a half before a show, she'd say, 'if you were a dancer you'd have to be there three hours before, warming up'.

I notice my mother in all my mannerisms, my personal choreography. She's like my sister, a friend.

STUART AND LAUREL DEVENIE

Stuart plays a film producer in the Hollywood satire Four Dogs and A Bone at the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival, February 27-March 1. For the last three decades, Devenie has worked in screen and theatre roles, Spin Doctors, Mercy Peak and Legend of the Seeker. He co-starred with and directed his daughter Laurel in The Tempest and will star alongside her in the ATC's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Maidment Theatre in May.

Laurel is directing Quarry for the Northland Youth Senior Theatre (February 8-25 at Quarry Arts Centre), a devised piece starring 16-18-year-old actors about a group on their way to a music festival who break down in an old van. As well as her roles with her dad, last year she played the lead of Lady Ann Martin in the ATC's Upside-Down of the World, and directed Eli Kent's Young and Hungry for the New Zealand Youth Theatre.

Stuart, 61

I used to do plays for Laurel's birthday. She'd choose one she liked, Winnie the Pooh, something like that.

I'd take her into the recording studio and record the lines. She and her friends mimed until they'd learnt them. She'd also come to rehearsals. The first time she was only 6 months old. I remember directing a play, a bloody, Jacobean tragedy. Laurel was riveted. She was a little bit shy but very interested in that process of theatre. She's an only child, as I was. So friends were very important.

Curious patterns emerge. The Twelfth Night was the directing debut for both of us, at age 17. She played Cecily in the Importance of Being Earnest; her mother [Gillian] played the role at Downstage at the same age. She played Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Gillian did too, when she was at university. We've both done Victorian solo shows, Laurel as Lady Martin, me in Hatch.

We moved around the country a lot. I was at Centrepoint as artistic director in 1983 when she was barely 3, then Whangarei Polytechnic as the head of acting. She had no illusions about it.

She was not starstruck at all. Laurel's got the ability to do a lot of things. You need to to make a living here. You can't just do TV or film or theatre. She's an excellent teacher too.

People are appalled to hear that when she was 12 I said to her, 'I'll never be
proud of anything you do. But I'll be tremendously pleased'.

She had a very difficult time after she graduated. The first couple of years were really tough. There were moments I thought, 'please, please hang in there'. But I couldn't say it. I could see she was building a really solid base but she had to go through that dark period to find out if she really wanted to do this.

There are little similarities between us. She's inherited more of her mother's nature than mine, meaning she has excellent people skills. I say she's got just enough of my chin. Any more and she'd be in trouble.

Laurel, 28

I have a very strong memory of Dad as Dame Edna, which is alarming for a small child. I think I still have the gloves in the dress-up box. When I was 8 he was working at the Court Theatre in Christchurch: On the Razzle, Noel Coward in Noel and Gertie; looking really dapper. He would've been in his 30s, playing these long, thin 1940s roles. I remember being dragged into the dressing room as a shy child and there were all these naked men. I was mortified.

I was attracted to the eclectic nature of life and Dad's work, the way he'd collect these strange people while working on community theatre projects. Mum and Dad were attracted to diversity. I experienced what theatre could do for people.

Dad's been incredibly, well, not lucky because he's earned it and deserved it, but he's been in work for long periods of time. Mum came from a different world. She had a stable job, so they were a good combination. I experienced the light and dark of it. If you want money, there's just not a hell of a lot immediately. I saw what it's like to be in work and out of work and to do the hard yards. It's gruelling and there's that uncertainty. It's about keeping going and knowing it's worth something. It took me three years to get used to that feeling.

You've got to spearhead projects. Quarry was initiated by me. I'm still learning, flying by the seat of my pants. Dad was inspirational in terms of his optimism. He loves theatre as a form of social change, something that helps people. I've held on to that. I love performing but when you're working you've got to know you're not just doing it for a clap.

Many times I've taken his advice. It's always perfect.

I pick my moments when I seek it. It took me a while to feel confident enough with my acting. I had a shy beginning. He always gave the most pragmatic advice. I trust him implicitly.

- NZ Herald

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