Jennifer Ward-Lealand is NZ's acting queen bee

By Kim Knight

She’s all about the ensemble, but Jennifer Ward-Lealand is acting’s queen bee, writes Kim Knight.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Photo / Guy Coombes
Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Photo / Guy Coombes

A few weeks before this interview, Jennifer Ward-Lealand did some other interviews.

"I had some press," the actor announces. It described her thus: A matriarch. A veteran. And, like a well-salted steak or a cast-iron frying pan that has stopped sticking: Seasoned.

"Let's be clear," says Ward-Lealand. "She's getting old!"

Which, actually, is fine by her. "Seasoning is good. Seasoning brings ... oh, it brings a confidence."

Ward-Lealand first appeared on New Zealand television in 1978. The year Maori land protesters were evicted from Bastion Point and National's Robert Muldoon got his second term as Prime Minister (even though Labour had more votes) Ward-Lealand was a teenager from Wellington making her debut on the country's first soap, Close to Home.

"I don't think I was very good. I played Gail's bad influence. If you look at it now, it's so slow.

You watch a clip and it is literally like watching paint dry, because that's the rhythm everything moved at then."

Today: "Everything is cut, cut, cut! Snazzy music. Cut! Cut!"

Ward-Lealand, 53, is sitting in the swivelly chair in her home office. It's a nice house. A villa, with a groomed garden path, and sturdy steps to the front door. She lives here with her husband and fellow actor Michael Hurst, and their children, Jack, 19, and Cameron, 16. She keeps dark chocolate in the refrigerator and can tell you which bus stop will get you back to the city. Stable. Suburban. Sometimes, at night, she engages in ritual dances with a fake giant penis, and people pay to watch. Sometimes, at night, she howls with such anguish, that complete strangers reach out to comfort her because they have forgotten they are in the front row of a play and she is just doing her job.

"I like going there," says Ward-Lealand. "I don't mind being snotty and messy and ugly. That's the joy of theatre. I like, yeah, I like being able to delve into my feelings, or to be taken there by a great director."

Her resumé runs to 108 professional theatre productions (that phallus scene was one of the more recent - an Auckland Theatre Company staging of the 411BC Greek classic Lysistrata; the howling was from Silo Theatre's The Goat, where she played the wife and Hurst played the husband who was having sex with the goat). She has television, film and musical theatre credits and a work ethic that goes back to the days of Auckland's Theatre Corporate, where she first trained: class in the morning, rehearsal in the afternoon, a show in the evening - and a late show after that. It built, she says, discipline, fortitude and a love of the ensemble.

"All of you together, creating one singular event and experience. I find that immensely satisfying."

It's easy to get an audience's attention, she says. "You just turn the lights out. And then the lights come up and the audience is in the palm of your hand. But how do you keep them there? That's what I'm very, very interested in. And that's where the craft comes into play for six, seven, eight, nine shows a week.

"I'm interested in actors learning how to keep the energy alive. It's a communion ... I just think there is an exquisite beauty between what goes on between an audience and performers. When you're reflecting humanity back at them."

Later this month, Ward-Lealand makes a substantial return to television. She had a role recently in Auckland Daze and narrated Find me a Maori Bride, but in TV One's upcoming drama Dirty Laundry, she plays the lead: money-laundering matriarch Donna Rafferty, who is under arrest before the end of episode one.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst in Silo Theatre's production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia at Silo Theatre (now The Basement), September 2005. Photo / Andrew Malmo
Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst in Silo Theatre's production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia at Silo Theatre (now The Basement), September 2005. Photo / Andrew Malmo

"Yes," says the woman who likes to frock up, "I spend a lot of my time in some fetching orange overalls. My fellow actors would be going off and having wardrobe changes between scenes, and I'd be 'oh, I'll just hang around here in my orange overalls, talking to the crew'."

She didn't mind. She'd known some of them for more than 30 years.

Ward-Lealand was 7 years old when she decided to be an actor (though she prefers to call herself an actress, because "I quite like the oldness of the word"). Her father was in a Unity Theatre production of Oedipus and they needed child extras.

"I remember walking into the rehearsal room, and there was something in the air ... it was like a bolt, an epiphanous moment. And I went home and told Mum I was going to be an actor."

Later, in her teens, she sat in the gallery at Wellington's Downstage and watched a visiting Theatre Corporate production of Metamorphosis. She remembers being pulled bolt upright, absolutely captured. Her second epiphany.

You can watch her tell these stories as part of The Depot's Cultural Icons online interview project. Ward-Lealand and Hurst discuss their craft and creative processes for a full 45 minutes, but the conversation starts with her demanding they address the elephant in the room - Hurst's unusual hat.

It is a tiny, yet utterly riveting, domestic moment. This is a couple, three decades in, who still make each other laugh.

Last week, Hurst told Canvas, "We've been together way longer than we ever had lives by ourselves."

How? Why?

"What can I say? We really love each other, there's that, for a start. There are all the trite little answers that I could give like 'good sense of humour' and we both have that, we both know our inner 5-year-olds.

"And, actually, we both really like each other's work, and we're quite independent in that sense. For an acting couple, we don't do that much together."

They met, of course, in the theatre.

"We were rehearsing a play," says Hurst. "It was Steven Berkoff's adaptation of The Trial by Kafka. It was the first or second day of rehearsal and we had a particular moment, where we just had to face each other. One of those orchestrated, back-to-front, turn and face each other turns. From that moment in the play, significant things happen. But from that moment in my life, significant things happened, because exactly when it happened, we both just went ... ping!"

They avoided each other. Hurst was in a relationship, Ward-Lealand at the tail end of one.

"Then Jennifer came up to me and said 'can I have a chat?' and I, immediately - this is how I remember it, anyway - I said, 'no, because if we do, I know what will happen'."

That was back in 1983. "We've seen so many of our acquaintances and friends, over the years, meet, fall in love, get married and separate. So yeah, it is quite unusual."

Ask Hurst to describe his wife, and he stops first at her "very keen sense of injustice".

"I mean this in a good way, but you behave badly towards her at your peril. She has a sense of - I want to say righteous anger, but I don't mean to be biblical. I mean a sense of fair play."

In summary: "A sense of humour, a sense of fairness, and inner strength. And she's tall. Which I never fail to notice!"

Jennifer Ward-Lealand wears a frill blouse by Deborah Sweeney. Gold hoop earrings from Stewart Dawson's. Styling by Dan Ahwa, hair and makeup by Michiko Hylands. Photo / Guy Coombes
Jennifer Ward-Lealand wears a frill blouse by Deborah Sweeney. Gold hoop earrings from Stewart Dawson's. Styling by Dan Ahwa, hair and makeup by Michiko Hylands. Photo / Guy Coombes

Ward-Lealand is famously long of limb. Add poised, elegant and Amazonian to that list of words frequently used to describe her. She has never smoked, doesn't drink coffee and her alcohol intake is minimal. She is old-school elegant, more beautiful than pretty, but this is shaky ground because descriptions of her physicality get, inevitably, wound up in attempts to describe her remarkable, leonine presence.

"You're a vessel for somebody else's things," she says. "That writer, that creator, has put their words on a stage. They can be honoured and expressed beautifully - or not. There is the skill of the actor. They can be a thin, pale shadow of what the writer wants, or they can be an earth shattering, life-changing experience for some people ... all of you together, creating one singular event and experience."

She has been called a "transformational actor" unrecognisable from one role to the next. Her canon is diverse. In conversation, she shifts easily from the costuming for her self-devised Marlene Dietrich cabaret, to her delight at voicing Dorable Duck in Buzzy Bee and Friends. She recalls 1993, the year she moved between the core cast of Australia's sketch comedy Full Frontal and trips to Spain on the circuit for the lush, mad movie Desperate Remedies. She is an alto in Auckland's Jubilation choir and that's her voice on those television ads telling you to "pay the fine, or pay the price".

She teaches singing and speaks frequently to community groups about the craft of acting.
"I really want people to be informed about what goes on in the life of an actor. What it really means. That there's only one full-time job for a small amount of people and that's Shortland Street and long may it reign, and that when you go to see someone in a play, they don't have a salaried position. They're doing a seven or eight-week gig and they have to fill up the other 40-thingy weeks."

Fairness. Justice. And this, from the third paragraph of her own website's bio: "She is currently President of Equity New Zealand, Patron of Q Theatre, and serves as a trust board member of Arts Regional Trust, Silo Theatre, Clarence St. Theatre, and Actors Benevolent Fund".

As Marlene Dietrich in the cabaret Falling in Love Again.
As Marlene Dietrich in the cabaret Falling in Love Again.

In 2010, Ward-Lealand fronted the now infamous industrial dispute with the makers of The Hobbit. Actors wanted the right to bargain collectively. Warner Bros threatened to pull production from New Zealand. Anti-union protesters took to the streets. Ward-Lealand and fellow actor Robyn Malcolm were called "damaged goods" and told they'd have trouble finding work again.

The dispute was resolved. The union has more members than ever. Ward-Lealand: "I just kept working in the theatre. Undeniably there was a personal cost to myself and my family. But what is it? Scar tissue's stronger than skin. Sometimes you don't get anything without a fight. Look at Maori ..."

Go with that segue. For the past six years, Ward-Lealand has been a student of te reo Maori.

"I had such a deep yearning that I couldn't put it off any longer," the now-fluent speaker told Mana last month, when she became the magazine's first Pakeha cover star.

She told E-Tangata there had been a "huge change" among her Pakeha friends in their willingness to understand more about the tangata whenua of Aotearoa - "however, I'm still horrified at the amount of racism in this country".

I don't mind being snotty and messy and ugly. That's the joy of theatre. I like, yeah, I like being able to delve into my feelings, or to be taken there by a great director.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand

Imagine, she says to Canvas, if civics were taught in schools. "I think we'd be a much more empathetic society, a much more healthy society, if people actually understood the history of our country and the enormous inequities that have
taken. Wouldn't that be good, don't you think?"

Ward-Lealand's te reo study began with Monday night classes at Unitec, before she moved to total immersion at Te Wananga O Aotearoa.

Classmate Jo Pannell calls her "one of the most humble people I know". Pannell is South African. She moved here 16 years ago, and says she'd heard of Ward-Lealand, but didn't realise the extent of her celebrity until they became friends.

"There is absolutely no sense of celebrity about her whatsoever. She would be the first to tell you that's a load of crock."

Four years ago, the pair made a pact to communicate only in Maori. All phone calls, emails, texts and conversations.

"You come across this a lot, people say 'I'd love to learn Maori, but I'm just too busy'. Jennifer puts paid to that. There was one time, we were in immersion and she had two back-to-back productions going. She would come to class during the day and be on stage that night and straight back in the morning. She got sick, and she said nothing.

She doesn't complain, she doesn't moan, she keeps going."

- Canvas

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