Shavaughn Ruakere chats about being a ‘dick’ on TV, living the American Dream and her new role as a wartime hussy.

"I've always been a show pony," Shavaughn Ruakere confesses, not long into our interview. "I feel really comfortable in front of a camera. I like to entertain."

It is said without guile or self-consciousness, not because Ruakere is proud to be a show-off but because she gets that she is what she is. And that's not just a pretty face.

She's gorgeous, to be sure, with her lovely caramel skin (more on that later), doe eyes and big mouth, framed by long, dark shiny hair that's perfectly coiffed on the morning we meet. But the presenter-turned-actress is also a ham, an enthusiast, a grafter and a contradiction in terms.

"I'm a classic introvert who works in an extroverted field," she says. "I like to socialise but I like to do a French exit [leave without telling anyone] at a party. I was the class clown at school and I've always been the goofy one.

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"I will always try to meet people's expectations but I don't like to walk into a room and have people look at me."

She is well known for her small-screen appearances. Here's a rundown of her career trajectory, just in case you're not well-versed: almost 20 years ago, while at university in Auckland, Ruakere was shoulder-tapped to audition for What Now. After many years in Christchurch presenting the children's show, she headed to London and lucked out with a presenting role on SM:tv Live, ITV's Saturday morning children's programme.

"It was the equivalent of a What Now but with a huge budget," explains Ruakere. "On What Now we had a script; it told us what to do but not what to say. We had artistic licence. On this show, we kept to the script and I had to get used to that."

After two years, Ruakere returned home to hosting jobs on Maori Television, C4 and Mai FM radio, but it was no longer what she wanted to do.

"I'd always had romantic notions about being an actor," she says. "I was really into my speech comps at school but we didn't even have drama at our school, so I didn't have many outlets. When I came back [from London], I was like, 'It's time'. I didn't want people to see me as a presenter any more."

Alex Tarrant and Shavaughn Ruakere play brother and sister Manaaki and Awa Kokiri.
Alex Tarrant and Shavaughn Ruakere play brother and sister Manaaki and Awa Kokiri.

So the Opunake, Taranaki, native, of Te Atiawa descent, gave up her presenting gigs and resolved to reinvent herself as an actress.

"I had about a year of being on the breadline," she admits. "I did a course called the Meisner technique [an acting programme based on training performers to get out of their own heads; almost the opposite of the Method technique] every Tuesday night. If you want to be an actor, you have to train in the art of acting. I knew how to do silly-bugger skits. I knew how to be in front of a camera and how to be a dick but through that course I learned a great deal. I wish I'd done it so much earlier because I had a lot of nos [during that time]. And then I had an audition for Shortland Street."

Three years playing Roimata Ngatai on the home-grown soap followed, plus roles in River Queen, Sione's Wedding and The Jaquie Brown Diaries. In November 2013, Ruakere left Shortland Street and almost immediately won a role in When We Go to War, a six-hour period drama about World War I that debuts on TV One next Sunday.

"Doing Shortland Street, you pick up some really specific skills; line-learning, quick turnaround," says Ruakere. "It puts you in good stead for other things. They talk about the two-year curse after Shortland Street - that you don't get work afterwards - but When We Go to War came around almost straight after."

In the series, created by Robin Scholes, Gavin Strawhan and director Peter Burger, Ruakere plays Awa Kokiri, a Maori woman living in 1914 Auckland.

Alex Tarrant and Shavaughn Ruakere enjoyed working together in When We Go to War.
Alex Tarrant and Shavaughn Ruakere enjoyed working together in When We Go to War.

"Originally she was supposed to be a younger sister but I was called in at the last minute to audition and got it, so they aged her. When I first read her, I was like, 'She's a hussy'," says Ruakere, in her broad Kiwi accent. "But she's actually a survivor."

Her character's younger brother, the peaceful and religious Manaaki Kokiri played by Alex Tarrant, is a foil to Kokiri's racy, blousy personality. It was the first time the two actors had worked together but Tarrant says a friendship was forged over the three-month shoot.

"I'd heard of Shavaughn and watched her on TV before," the 23-year-old says. "We didn't actually do that much filming together as I go off to war. But, now, we tend to audition a lot for side-by-side roles."

"We're brownies for hire!" interrupts Ruakere.

Ruakere - who is 37 but looks 27, thanks to good genes, she says - is also working on becoming an international "brownie for hire". She has spent time in Los Angeles, has a manager there and hopes to return for a stint next month.

That pretty, mocha face of hers could make her a valuable commodity in America. If she cracks it, she could be the female Cliff Curtis, I suggest. She's already thought of that. "I get auditions for a lot of African-American and Hispanic roles. In an ensemble cast, there's always a brown girl. And I can play any drug mule, terrorist, fantasy, Amazonian, Native-American, warrior woman!"

Most of her auditions for American productions are filmed in Auckland. "You work on the auditions, you go and shoot it and you send it off into the ether. It's quite disheartening at times," says Ruakere, who lives in central Auckland but declines to say exactly where or with whom. "In LA, it's all about how you market yourself. Americans are super confident and I really like that 'can-do' attitude. Everyone talks so positively and you have to take it with a grain of salt but there's so much opportunity there. The industry isn't big here, so if you want to be a working actor you have to take those chances."

Shavaughan Ruakere. Photo / Michael Craig
Shavaughan Ruakere. Photo / Michael Craig

But despite the small size of the New Zealand industry, Ruakere is enjoying a performing purple patch. She recently filmed a web comedy series called Darryl: An Outward Bound Story, created by Brown Sugar Apple Grunt Productions (the company behind hit comedy show Auckland Daze). That shoot involved spending two weeks at the Anakiwa Outward Bound Centre in the Marlborough Sounds, playing a solo mum of three with a brain tumour and improvising with the rest of the cast on yachts and confidence courses.

"Those guys work together a lot so it took a few days to get up the confidence to say things and give it a go, even though I really like improv," says Ruakere. "I think the nerves mean you care but often I don't feel nervous if I've put the work in beforehand."

Ruakere can also be seen improvising on sketch comedy shows TV One's Best Bits and TV3's 7 Days at present. "I really love observational humour. That's probably my first love, actually," she says. "I'm not a comedian - I don't write gags - but that conversational stuff that people can relate to is great."

Later this year, she will appear on DNA Detective, a TV One series that tracks the genetic history of New Zealanders.

"I'm so much happier when I'm busy," Ruakere admits. "When you're not, you can get yourself in a bit of a hole. If I could have my cake and eat it too, I'd get acting work overseas and I'd live here. I'm not chasing the fame; I want to work on projects that make me feel alive and creative and use those acting muscles."

What else would she do, if the acting dried up, if her plans for taking on Hollywood don't pan out? "I can't see myself doing anything else," she says with a smile. "So, it better bloody keep on working out!"

When We Go To War premieres with a special double episode on TV One next Sunday at 8.30pm.