This much I know: Elizabeth McRae, actress

By Sarah Daniell

Elizabeth McRae.
Elizabeth McRae.

When I said that first line for Shortland Street back in 1992, I felt were all in this new soap together and we had the wonderful Caterina De Nave at the helm. She kept our spirits up in spite of some early reviews spelling out our certain doom. I think the weight of expectation was on every single one of us, not just me.

I knew that acting was my job for life, but not this particular soap. I was at Shortland Street for almost four years then left because I really wanted to explore other opportunities and do some stage work, etc. I certainly didn't envisage Shortland Street lasting for 25 years.

There are hundreds of lines that are touchstones for me in life. In Shakespeare and lines from Samuel Beckett plays and poetry spring to mind for different situations. I try not to spout lines too often, it's not a very popular thing to do these days, you end up sounding like a boring old know-all. But the one that comes to mind when I go out on stage is from Beckett's Not I, the first line: "Out into this world". Or another line by W.B. Yeats - "I have spread my dreams under your feet, tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

I hesitate to give advice to other cast members, that's up to the director usually. I often find I learn from the younger cast members. I would say keep your feet on the ground, don't be swamped by public praise or the reverse from that, by bad reviews. Acting is a job and don't expect glamour. Recently there was an article in the paper about a support group called Changing Minds, that is offering counselling for actors who are going through a difficult time. It is difficult, especially when you are starting out and you wonder if you are going to get another job after the first one. I thought that was an excellent idea, because actors do worry and to do tend to constantly question: "Am I good enough?"

When I started acting, compared with working now ... it's different rather than harder or easier. There was very little TV or film when I began so my experience was almost entirely made of stage work in the early days. Consequently there was an emphasis on voice work and the ability to communicate in a very large theatre such as the Mercury Theatre where I did a lot of work when I started. But TV and film all come from the same truthful core as stage acting, it's just the conveying of ideas, the technique, is different.

It's very easy to get hung up about age when you are as old as I am. You have to be careful not to attribute every little ache and pain to imminent death. I think if you are older you have to be open to new ideas. They say that the past is another country and I think when we are older we do think about the past, but it's important not to live in the past permanently.

Tom and Marj in an early episode of Shortland Street.
Tom and Marj in an early episode of Shortland Street.

I don't have many regrets - or at least I don't dwell on them.

I have lots of laughs with my daughters and granddaughters. We all have a similar sense of the absurd and we often end up laughing until our eyes run when we are together.

I feel like a child again whenever I go for the first swim of the season. Because I'm there again on holiday at Takapuna Beach and my father is with me. His head is coming out of the water and he is puffing like a grampus. It reminds me of how we used to swim together and how much fun he was.

The secret to longevity in a relationship is tolerance, respect and kindness.

I feel the greatest sense of contentment sitting around the table with all of my family. Reading a good book or seeing a great play or film.

I am riled by racist attitudes. And the violently unequal distribution of wealth that is happening in New Zealand at the moment. New Zealand used to be the land of equality.

Elizabeth McRae won the 2016 Equity Lifetime Achievement Award.

Elizabeth McRae stars in The Brokenwood Mysteries on Prime on Sunday at 8.30pm

- Canvas

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