Shavaughn Ruakere: Out of the blue

By Alan Perrott

Good fortune, rather than good management, has seen Shavaughn Ruakere snare top TV roles. Now, on the eve of her theatre debut, she talks to Alan Perrott about image, her new health kick, and rubbing shoulderswith Dame Judi Dench.

Actor Shavaughn Ruakere. Photo / Richard Robinson
Actor Shavaughn Ruakere. Photo / Richard Robinson

Shavaughn Ruakere is one of those people who can fall into a swamp and come out clutching a shiny nugget.

Setbacks seem only to spawn opportunities, so who knows what'll happen now that her long-term relationship with Auckland radio star Clarke Gayford has ended. Especially as her entire career is the result of being dumped.

Fresh out of New Plymouth and enjoying everything about being 18, beautiful and free in the big city, Ruakere had suspected something was up when her dashes to the letterbox during a trip home became daily disappointments.

So she was braced for bad news when her man popped over to welcome her back to Auckland.

"Look," he'd said, "it just isn't going to work. You're a first year student and I'm a second year, we move in completely different social circles. It was crazy to even try."

A blubbering wreck, Ruakere called her sister, who prescribed an urgent wardrobe makeover.

The pair were flicking through the clothing racks in Zambesi when a woman walked up, handed over a card and invited her to sign with their talent agency.

"No way. Wasn't going to happen," says Ruakere. "I was way too shy and scared back then to call anyone."

Two things changed her mind. First, the former boyfriend called to apologise. The problem wasn't their social circles, it was more that he was gay. "At least it meant I didn't have to see him with another woman," she says.

Then some friends heard about the agency offer and badgered her into making the call.

She was immediately offered an audition but it wasn't until she'd got the part that she was told it was for a Saturday morning children's television show called What Now. Three years later, a producer pulled her aside at her 21st birthday drinks to ask if she wanted to know how she'd got the job despite a total lack of experience. It seems they had been fast forwarding through the auditions when the boss told them to stop the tape. "I like her lips, get her back in."

Just like that, a celebrity was born - one who is about to realise her theatrical ambitions when Dog opens on August 19 at The Basement Theatre.

Her first stage role only boosts the image Ruakere's family and friends back home have always had of her as a star-in-waiting. For starters, she's never minded a bit of flash.

When her parents dropped her off at school in their gold Mercedes, she'd roll the window down with as little arm movement as possible to make it look electric-powered. If they were driving the "brown bomb" she'd make them stop the car around the corner so no one saw.

When the Ruakeres moved to New Plymouth from Opunake, their youngest of four was packed off to the Catholic Saint John Bosco School where the 7-year-old was not only a newbie, her jam jar glasses identified her as an easy target. So: "Hey new girl, let's have a race," they said.

"She beat me," says one of her primary school challengers, Ana Southee, "so I decided to be her best friend and we've been mates ever since."

There were no such problems at Sacred Heart Girls' College. If Ruakere was in the school play she was the lead, if she was in the speech competition she won (even going on to win the inter-Catholic school O'Shea Shield competition), and her stories, poems and art projects were rewarded with a string of prizes. Yet she still came off as someone masking her natural introversion.

"Yeah, she's a bit funny," says Southee. "She was the class clown and she was good at everything - I think we all knew she'd be an actor - but she's got a real shy side. Unless she knows you pretty well she's quite self-conscious."

When it eventually came to university, her friends scattered themselves around Victoria, Otago and Waikato.

"This will come out wrong," says Ruakere, "but I had bigger dreams. I wanted to go to Auckland and I chose to go by myself. That was a really big deal for me, quite scary, but I did it and had a debaucherous time in a hostel."

So, there she was, finding her feet and midway through her first year of random BA courses, when What Now snapped her up and sent her to Christchurch. Two weeks later she was acting the goat on live television and ended up staying there for another five years, an association she'll carry with her forever.

Although it's always great to hear from someone like the woman who told her how she'd always remember the day Ruakere attended a fair in Dunedin, picked the then 6-year-old up and swung her around in the air, there was also the time when Ruakere was lying dazed and bloody on a Wellington footpath after a car crash and instead of helping, a passerby just pointed and yelled, "Hey, it's that girl from What Now."

But, as much as she loved the show's spontaneity and upbeat vibe, she was in danger of becoming typecast and even if only her closest friends knew of her secret dream to become an actor ("I couldn't admit that to anyone else because it'd sound like I thought I'd be good at it or something") she was highly aware she was yet to try her hand at it.
It was time for an OE to see if she could make something happen in London. Which still wasn't far enough to escape her old job. Passing New Zealanders would inevitably ask why she was working in a bar. "You were on the telly. Aren't you rich?"

"Everyone on television gets that, I think," she says. "Some of the kids used to think I flew to work in a helicopter."

Acting seemed even further away when she moved into a flat in Camberwell. Her first night there was highlighted by someone breaking down the front door, then she became spooked by an odd hissing sound that sometimes followed her to and from the train station. It turned out to be the African immigrants' version of a wolf whistle.

One time she was approached by a guy repeating, "Hello my darling, how are you?"

Hardened to such approaches, she ignored him at first then thought, "What the hell" and turned to answer him, only to get a bag of McDonald's in her face.

"I went back to my room and bawled my eyes out. I was thinking, 'I'm just a little girl from New Zealand minding my own business. I want to go home'."

London was proving a hard place for an outsider to crack, especially when her dream jobs attracted every former pop, soap and reality star in town. Then from "out of the blue" (she says that a lot) an email arrived from SM:tv Live, ITV's Saturday morning children's flagship show with an audience of millions and the pick of the biggest celebrity guests.

Too good to be true, thought Ruakere. It must be a fake.

Then a follow-up email called her in to meet the producers who were searching to replace star hosts Ant and Dec.

So, she was back where she started, live Saturday morning children's television, except that this time she was working alongside British Celebrity Big Brother winner Brian Dowling and model Tess Daly. It paid pretty well, too, and Ruakere, still only 23, took her first pay cheque to Harrods and bought an $1800 dress and Stella McCartney heels before taking a friend to lunch, where they sat next to Kate Moss.

"It felt like I'd made it and my mate was all 'It's Kate Moss, it's Kate Moss' but I couldn't move, I couldn't look at her at all."

Her gravy train ran for only another nine months before the show was axed and, if interviewing Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp while rubbing shoulders with Dame Judi Dench at private functions sounds glamorous, she never really felt she fitted in.

"The worst part was sitting in makeup, all [Brian and Tess] would talk about was what magazines they'd been in and how much they'd been paid. It all felt very foreign to me and, as much as it was a great opportunity, I'd have to admit I ended up not making too much of my time there. I wish I had now." The show ended at the same time as her visa, so home she came.

Straightaway Maori TV nabbed her for their music show Coast and she also started co-hosting the Mai FM breakfast show, which was new and fun until things went sour and she resigned.

"I was walking out the door when out of the blue [see?] I got a call from [music channel] C4."

They wanted her to front a new gossip show called Meaty. If nothing else, Ruakere saw it as a chance to step up to youth television, which is as close as she comes to having a plan. She admits she's always relied on good fortune more than good management.

But after two years, the acting bug returned. It was now or never and it might have been never if she hadn't been able to make the jump with fellow C4 presenter Helena MacAlpine. Bonded by unemployment, they were so broke they'd pool whatever coins they could find to buy a coffee at their local bakery and share the free muffin.

Still, just like her fake electric car window, image was everything, so any available cash went toward drycleaning the clothes she needed to shine at the right events ("It's perception, right?").

It helped that she has designer friends willing to lend her clothes, but not even fancy frocks could disguise how testing those 18 months became.

As any actor will tell you, the barrage of rejections is a confidence shredder. If she scored the odd line here and there, along with some MC-ing and a few episodes of panel show 7 Days, it wasn't enough for her to see herself as an actor.

So her expectations weren't high when she auditioned for Shortland Street. "But I walked out feeling I'd done the best I could, which is, you know, a usual feeling. I have this terrible habit of walking along the street talking to myself and I walked away from there telling myself, 'Hey, that was really cool'."

Ruakere played Roimata Ngatai, the troublesome third party of a love triangle, and invited some friends over to watch her first appearance on January 26, 2011. At least they watched. She was too scared to look and left the room. But it seems her most memorable scene was one we barely saw, Roimata's sexual assault. Filmed in a back alley off Karangahape Rd, she says it was the heaviest thing she's ever done: "Yeah, for sure, but it was amazing to shoot and when I saw the first cut I was really proud of it. I felt like a proper actor for the first time in my life. So it was a bit of a shock when I saw how much was eventually chopped out of it. Even then it got a lot of complaints. It's family viewing time, I guess, and it upset a lot of people."

Then women began contacting her to describe their own assaults, with several saying it was the push they needed to go to the police. It was enough for Ruakere to add her face to a campaign to save the funding for the Rape Crisis helpline.

Three years of playing Ngatai showed her how massive the show is here - "friends were coming out of the woodwork as Shorty fans, it was like their secret shame" - while boosting her profile, even if she's already over the demand for selfies. Autograph hunters at least had a bit of a chat with her but the new generation barge in, get their pic and go with barely a word. "It feels like an empty exchange," she says.

But after almost three years on Shortland Street, Ruakere had had her fill of hospital cafeteria baking competitions and, in November 2013 she left the show and flew to Los Angeles to find an agent and have a crack at the US TV pilot season.

Then "out of the blue" she got a call to join a mini-series being filmed here and set to screen next year during the Gallipoli commemorations. Guaranteed work at home trumped auditions, so back she came again. All going well she hopes to return to the US later this year.

In the meantime, there's the matter of her upcoming play, Dog. Theatre is something she's always wanted to do but never known who to talk to about it, while dogs are a subject that are especially close to her heart since her pooch, Paua, was run over in January.

The show is a risky move - apart from What Now and SM: tv Live, Ruakere hasn't performed in front of a live audience since school. Which makes it a nice fit for Ruakere's new regime - which includes an on-again-off-again paleo diet, taking on a personal trainer and finally getting her driving licence - she kicked off when her relationship with Gayford ended.

The regime means she's too busy to be nervous, although she's sure she'll be a wreck on opening night: "If you're not nervous, you don't care."

So, if she's short of advice and support, here are some wise words from Sir George Henare, who played her father on Shortland Street and once performed with her uncle, Robin Ruakere, in Porgy and Bess.

Starting with the most obvious, Henare points out that there are no cameras or microphones on stage. It's up to you to be seen and heard from the worst seat in the house. If television acting is mostly done through the eyes with minimal movement depending on how far away the camera is, theatre work is, well, more theatrical: "Your performance comes up from your base and rises into your core, then the trick is to take it from there and project it outwards."

The voice is a brilliant tool for controlling an audience, says Sir George. Lowering the volume while speaking clearly pulls people in while pitching it a little higher than normal can make it carry better. Otherwise, his main advice for Ruakere is: remember your lines and constantly check to see the audience is interested and engaged with your performance.

But he's confident she'll be fine.

"She was lovely to work with. There was this natural rapport between us during our scenes and I've worked with some people where you can see they're just trying to remember the next line and I'm 'Hello, are you there?'. Shavaughn goes with the rhythm and has all the intensity you could want."

It seems she's also braver than Bruno Lawrence.

"I asked him to come work with us at the Mercury Theatre, but he said 'No, not doing that stuff, too hard'."

Still, the chances are that something will happen at some point in the show and there won't be a TV crew member to shout "Cut".

In a play, you're all on your own. Maybe she could pull out her electric window gag.

Dog is at The Basement Theatre, Auckland, from August 19-30, 8pm.

- NZ Herald

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