Twelve Questions: Jennifer Ward-Lealand

Jennifer Ward-Lealand has starred on NZ's stages and screens for 30 years and is married to actor Michael Hurst. For the past year she has studied te reo Maori at Te Wananga O Aotearoa.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Photo / Greg Bowker

1. You've had a huge year of performing and producing shows most nights - what makes you get up in the morning and drive from Grey Lynn to Mangere to study Maori language?

I was doing evening classes last year and at the end I went, "Oh, come on, Jennifer. What are you going to do? Continue to muddle along or put your energy where your mind is and just do it?" I always knew that someday I would learn the language, I just didn't know when. Yes, it's a juggle, but no more than any other women are doing. I've never been to university before - I went straight to drama school at 19 and have been working for 30 years.

2. What were your first experiences of te reo?

I remember very clearly a couple of inspiring teachers at primary school, in Te Aro School in Wellington. It was almost pre-bohemian Aro Valley in those days, but very multicultural. We would all sing together and there was this really great sense of community. I have a very strong feeling about that time. I love the sound of the language. There's a world in every word and every place name.

I hear those place names and break the word apart and know there must be some amazing story about that place, something that happened there. Someone felt something there. Yes, it's a poetic language. It's exquisite.

3. What can te reo express more elegantly than English?

I think that elegance can be expressed in many languages, but what I observe in te reo Maori is the manaakitanga (kindness), hurutanga (warmth) and aroha that runs through the whole language.

4. Was it difficult starting at university as a mature student?

I feel really comfortable here and people have been so welcoming. It's not like there are that many white faces out here but there was a group of us who had been studying at each other's sides for some time and that made it easier. By the fourth day of the week here, the first language I want to speak to people in is Maori. I feel really lucky to be able to do this. I say to anyone, if you want it, it's possible. Yes, you'll have to be chasing your tail to keep up with real life, but I think the rewards are huge.

5. You and Michael have juggled big careers and two sons. Has that been hard?

I remember about 15 years ago I said to myself, "Why can't everything just be normal?" I was probably trying to arrange childcare or whatever at the time. But in my next breath I went, "Oh, life has never been normal, Jennifer. Don't sweat it." When I get that rising panic of not being able to organise something I take a breath and say, "It will be all right." It's about faith and trust. Believing the right thing will come along.

6. Do you come from an artistic family?

It's a very musical family.

Mum worked a lot for the opera company as a pianist. There was always the piano playing in our house and a lot of singers. She was a single working mum - my parents separated when I was 4 and my dad was also very artistic, though he managed companies. He was in theatre in Wellington in the 70s. I've got good artistic genes and my boys have that handed down too.

7. Having two actors in the family can't be easy. Has it put your sons off a creative life?

They are both creative boys. I would hope that they would see that hard work will pay off and that a creative life can be a really fulfilling. This life is just their normal really, and they've always seen a lot of both of us. Even if we've both been performing at night, we're up in the morning to get them breakfast. I remember as a naive 19-year-old speaking with an older actress who was working nights. She mentioned getting up to get breakfast for her son and husband and I said: "Oh, you should be sleeping in!" It was only when I became a mother I realised exactly what she was feeling.

8. You're the president of Actors' Equity. What, in your opinion, is the answer to Auckland's flailing film industry?

I am in support of incentives for foreign productions, and these incentives should be to help grow a sustainable local film and television community. A higher incentive could be offered to offshore companies that agree to hire certain percentages of New Zealand actors, crew and directors and others. The incentive could be further increased for companies that agree to do their post-production here. But we can't rely on foreign productions alone to sustain our local businesses. It is crucial that the underfunding of the local industry be addressed before we lose too many skilled workers.

9. How have you managed to keep your career so busy for so many years?

I don't know how you can plan this career. You can't. Auditions come up or plays come up. You get the part or you don't. You do them or you don't. If you are not getting work you make your own work. I saw this play [Between the Sheets, Ward-Lealand's current production] when I was in Canada and thought it was terrific. As soon as I got back home I got in touch with the playwright's agent and now we're putting it on. Yes, it's risky - you just have to hope that what you think is great other people will too. But ultimately you have to be satisfying yourself.

10. Is Michael your biggest critic?

He's someone whose opinion I value. We're not so much gentle with our criticism, as practical. If he likes something I feel happy because I respect his talent enormously.

11. What would your detractors say about you?

Somebody I respect once said to me that in order to survive in life, you have to hold the attitude that it is none of your business what anyone else thinks of you. What's important is who you know yourself to be.

12. What do you know about love?

That it arises unbidden and spontaneously.

Between the Sheets with Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Beth Allen plays at Auckland's The Basement until Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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