Being on the young side didn't stop Nancy Brunning playing the kuia in the new Lee Tamahori-Witi Ihimaera film. She talks to Helen Barlow.

When Lee Tamahori was casting the role of the family matriarch Ramona in his 1950s drama, Mahana, based on Witi Ihimaera's semi-autobiographical novel Bulibasha, he had one actress in mind - Nancy Brunning.

"I'd seen Nancy back in the Once Were Warriors days, then I left the country before I could work with her," Tamahori explains. "I always thought she was one of the finest actresses of her generation without exception."

Now Tamahori gets his chance as the requisite for the character was that the seasoned theatre actress and former Shortland Street star could play young and old, though mostly old, that she had the acting skills to enable her to pull off a pivotal speech at the end - and to stand out among all the men.

"I've really only played around my own age but am really interested in these characters because they remind me of my mother's generation and her mother's generation," Brunning notes. "There a lot of stories about that generation that still need to be explored."

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In order for the 45-year-old to look older Brunning sat in the make-up chair for up to three hours a day and developed a kind of waddle.

"Uncomfortable shoes plus a good wig," she quips are the secret. That and a husky voice.

"I did a lot of research on our old ladies from the Maori world and the voice generally drops when you get older. I got to remember those voices that used to ring in my ears when I was a child. They all came from the gut."

Other than the book Bulibasha itself, reading Ihimaera's 2014 memoir Maori Boy became her biggest inspiration for the role.

"When I was offered this part the memoir came out at the same time and I was able to just grab it and read everything, which was amazing.

"But also just knowing his works over the years, I suddenly realised how much of his writing is dedicated to the women in his life. A lot of the time when his novels are adapted they tend to focus on the male side of the story a lot."

Brunning had been an enormous fan of Ihimaera since they first met when she appeared in a high school production of Whale Rider, aged 15.

"I remember being surprised at how down-to-earth and generous he was. He'd come in and watch our rehearsals and even saw a run of it."

She would go on to work with him on his first play.

Brunning also has great admiration for the likes of Ramona and the Maori women of the 1950s who she believes helped hold the culture together.

"Love is the thing that's going to make everyone economically sound, healthy and educated. So I had to remember that about that generation of women, because without them making sure that everyone got fed, that gardens got tended, that the clothes were sewn, people would have become sick and gone hungry.

"The guys wouldn't have had enough energy to be shearing all day, working on the land, doing really hard back-breaking work. She had to provide the balance - the same amount of effort."

Who:

Nancy Brunning

What: Mahana
When: Opens today