Rose with no thorns

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Rose McIver is a rare talent: a child star emerging unscathed into adulthood - with a fan in Peter Jackson, no less. She tells Rebecca Barry about her grown-up new role, her desire for dysfunction and why she won't move to Hollywood.

Rose McIver. Photo / Natalie Slade
Rose McIver. Photo / Natalie Slade

There's a star in the room, incognito in track pants and jandals. Her hair is messy. She smells funny.

"I'm not one to dress up," deadpans Rose McIver, who has walked the red carpet alongside Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon looking like a cherubic Charlize Theron. She was sprayed-tanned this morning, hence the smell and the loose clothes, and is at pains to explain she only had it done to look the part of a cheerleader in Madeleine Sami's upcoming TV3 comedy, Super City.

"Actually my worst nightmare is feeling overdressed," she says, toting a plastic bag with the opshop gear she's brought for the shoot.

McIver's unfussy attire suits her. The 22-year-old has been acting for so long she can't remember her earliest jobs, "wandering around" in a commercial at age 2, appearing in Aileen O'Sullivan's short film The Joker. Since the age of 3, when she staggered across the stage with a full bladder in Oscar-winner The Piano, she has featured in Shortland Street, several American television shows and Disney films, local film-maker Harry Sinclair's Topless Women Talk About Their Lives and Toy Love, homegrown TV shows Maddigan's Quest and Rude Awakenings, Peter Jackson's juggernaut adaptation The Lovely Bones, Silo theatre production, That Face, and now, the cinematic interpretation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's novel, Predicament opposite Jemaine Clement, Heath Franklin (Chopper) and Tim Finn.

In person she has none of the pretence you might expect could come with such success.

"It's nothing exceptional," she says of her life growing up in front of the camera. "Some kids played hockey in their school holidays and I just worked. Acting was always more of a hobby than a serious pursuit."

After the intense international experience shooting and promoting The Lovely Bones, McIver wanted to make a New Zealand story. You don't get more Kiwi than Morrieson, the novelist who spent his entire life in Hawera, South Taranaki, where he penned the classics The Scarecrow and Came A Hot Friday. Director and screenwriter Jason Stutter was keen to make a film based on Predicament, his third novel set in the 1930s, in which a trio of Hawera misfits blackmail the locals by pretending to snap them having affairs.

McIver's character of Maybelle is only 15 but it's her most grown-up role yet. She is caught getting it on with an older man and is also the object of the main character's affection.

"I end up just kissing boys the whole film," she laughs.

It's not a big part but one that will galvanise McIver as an actress capable of more mature roles, even if she's used to being cast younger than she is.

McIver's wide-eyed portrayal of Maybelle, a bit of a slapper in the book, had nothing to do with the actress' sunny disposition. It simply made more sense to McIver that Maybelle should be an innocent teen in the throes of love, especially considering Margot Bramwell already owned the sexpot character.

"Rose chose to play the role with a very sweet nature," says Stutter. "Her instincts were bang on ... it made the blackmailing plan [main character] Cedric was tied up in seem much more mean-spirited."

She's unflappable, say those who know her, always smiling, never complaining. In one take of Predicament's opening scene, when Cedric waves to Maybelle as he rides into town, actor Hayden Frost struggled to control the vintage bike and rode straight into a parked car.

"[We] killed ourselves with laughter," says Jason Stutter. "Rose was much more thoughtful and went to investigate Hayden's wellbeing."

Perhaps it's McIver's lifetime of experience working on film sets behind her air of nonchalance toward her craft. It's simply something she's always done. But it's not the only thing she wants to do. After shooting The Lovely Bones, a role with the potential to catapult her into Hollywood, McIver could have moved to Los Angeles, capitalising on the acclaim she received playing the grieving teen forced to grow up after her sister is murdered and her family life begins to crack. Instead, she enrolled at the University of Auckland to study psychology, anthropology and linguistics, subjects with the potential to inform her acting. She also sought out local projects, to stay close to friends and family.

She was in her second year at university while shooting Predicament. The double-act took its toll on her grades but this didn't faze her. The idea was to explore topics that interested her rather than ace them.

"I crave knowledge. So studying seems like the obvious thing to do while I can, while I have no dependents."

McIver has a US agent who does the dirty work for her but with little desire to actively pursue a career in American film, and an urge to inspire herself in new surrounds, she moved to Wellington this year with her architect boyfriend. The arts degree, she says, can wait.

McIver's perfect day is wet and wild, when she can hole up in the Wellington public library for a day to read and write. She is hesistant to discuss her writing in case nothing comes of it, downplaying it as "just one of those things actors do". But it's something that has been brimming up in her for a long time. The recent film festival, where she got on a "documentary buzz", has left her feeling inspired. As have books by John Steinbeck, Wally Lamb and Franz Kafka.

"I don't really want to sit around waiting for work," she explains. "I'd rather make things happen."

She pays the bills between acting gigs with odd jobs babysitting and a part-time job importing bananas with Fair Trade. Gigs like Super City, which she's not allowed to talk about because it's in its early production stages, keep her coming back to Auckland.

"I don't think I'm a big planner. I'd rather be able to just go with things as they happen. I don't really know what I'm doing for the next few months and years and I don't really have any desire to know. I think I'd be much more restless if I was chasing it desperately and wanting all these things.

"I enjoy acting at the moment but I don't know if it's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. I'll see how it goes and let that decide for me. I'm not a very decisive person."

The only hint of nuttiness is that she often stays up until 2am, and has been in semi-serious discussions with Sami as to whether they should start a late-night runners' club.

"She's obviously a lot younger than me but she has this incredible wisdom to her, Rose," says friend and fellow actress Danielle Cormack, who has co-starred with McIver many times, including Topless Women, Maddigan's Quest, and Rude Awakenings.

"There's a level-headedness to her that belies her years, always has done. I think it's down to the family she grew up in coupled with the experiences she's had as an actor. From a young age she's worked around film and TV sets - you're exposed to a lot of different people of different ages and it's given her a breadth of experience maybe you wouldn't have otherwise."

As a child McIver was talkative and precocious. It was her older brother, Paul, now a musician, who led her into acting. At four he was scouted at a bank and had gone on to do a TV ad.

"My parents were very hesitant at first," she says. "They didn't want us to be out there as working children but we enjoyed it, so they thought, 'what's the harm?'"

So Paul's sister became involved in acting too, Mum and Dad keeping an eye on her education as she steadily progressed, with no acting training, from job to job. It's no surprise McIver wound up in the arts. Mum Annie is a ceramicist; Dad Mac is a photographer. The floor of their Titirangi home was always cluttered with sculptures; the walls groaning with paintings, the camera quickly becoming a familiar piece of equipment.

McIver can't recall her first "acting" gig at age 2 but vividly remembers filming The Piano, a scene in which she was part of a school production.

"I remember being desperate for the toilet and they said I wasn't allowed to because it looked cute and my character needs to go to the toilet. So they kept it in, it was a bit of method acting. I remember feeling the injustice even at that age."

From there, enamoured casting directors hired McIver not just for the preppy schoolgirl roles - in the Disney films, Eddie's Million Dollar Cook-Off and Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board, she plays bright-as-a-button, complete with American accent - but edgier parts too. Harry Sinclair let her improvise in Topless Women and Toy Love. She tightrope-walked her way through Margaret Mahy's apocalyptic fantasy series Maddigan's Quest, in which she played the lead part of Garland. In Rude Awakenings, one of her favourite roles because it allowed her the chance to play nasty, she sported brown hair, glasses and a conniving nature.

"That's what I like about acting," she says. "You can step into someone else's personality for a while and then leave it and not have to treat people like that."

The role she is best known for, of course is The Lovely Bones. McIver held her own opposite Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg, having studied the grieving process under the tutelage of local actress Miranda Harcourt.

"Rosie is surprising as an actress," says director Peter Jackson. "As funny and light-hearted as she is in person, she can summon real depth and strength to a performance as an actor. She's able to bring true grit to a character and there aren't many young actresses out there who can do that."

In March McIver starred in That Face, her first professional theatre role, a challenge she'd long been hoping to take on. The long rehearsal process, the exploratory work nailing a character, was a new process for an actress used to relying on instinct.

As one of New Zealand's only child stars, McIver has emerged from the spotlight with a healthy sense of confidence and poise, and none of the damaged goods behaviour of some of her US peers.

"There's always the risk of young people falling off the rails," says Cormack. "Rose is just so far removed from that. She has always had a sure sense of herself."

"[My parents] have always been quick to remind me that I'm like everyone else," says McIver. "When I'd come home I'd be expected to pick up my washing. And I've never been told acting is an unrealistic thing to do or that I'm wasting my time, which has given me quite a lot of faith in myself."

- NZ Herald

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