Singer Whirimako Black makes her acting debut in White Lies, playing a character she helped inspire. She talks to Peter Calder
For veteran songstress Whirimako Black, versatility is second nature. In a career stretching back more than 20 years, she has pushed the boundaries of jazz and blues, lending them the inflections of traditional Maori music, as in the 2001 collection of traditional waiata, Hinepukohurangi: Children of the Mist.
She has worked with Zimbabwean protest singers, uilleann pipers, funk bands and electronic collagists, swing trios and symphony orchestras. On her most recent album, The Late Night Plays, her first entirely in English, covers of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and U2 demonstrated her command of more mainstream genres.
Even so, it was a big ask that her first acting job was the main role in White Lies/Tuakiri Huna, the newest New Zealand feature film which opens in cinemas next week. Speaking to TimeOut from her Whakatane home, Black says she thought the producers' initial approach was a leg-pull.
"I didn't believe it actually," she recalls. "I thought, 'Nah, I've heard this one before'. Maybe twice in my entertainment lifetime, I've been asked to audition, and this one came to me when the casting agent posted on my Facebook, would you believe?
"I thought it was a friendly inquiry rather than a professional inquiry so I was quite flippant with it in my reply. Two weeks later they said, 'Why haven't you answered?' and so I thought I'd better reply."
Set in the 1920s, the film is based on the Witi Ihimaera novella Medicine Woman, which appeared in the 2007 collection Ask the Posts of the House. Black brings an impressive gravitas and composure to the role of Paraiti, an itinerant healer who moves, with packhorse and dog, through Te Urewera, collecting bush medicine and ministering to the sick in remote Maori communities.
In a sense, Black was always in line for the role. Hailing from Mexico, writer-director Dana Rotberg's process of script development involved immersing herself in tikanga Maori and as she wrote she had one of the singer's CDs on the windowsill in front of her, with Black's face with its handsome moko informing the conception of the character.
But on location and on set, Black found the rhythms of film-making alien to her usual modus operandi.
"I felt a bit sorry for the crew, actually, because I was so inexperienced, and the time you are preparing that emotion and getting ready to let it burst on scene was demanding for them because they knew they had to hurry up and get it all together so that they could catch the golden moment.
"Yes, I can hold people when I'm there in the song. I just needed to go to the same place. There is something that happens in there. I don't know quite what it is. But to be honest, most of my work in White Lies is adrenaline. The sheer fear of getting it wrong and the determination to honour it. So there was a basket of tricks I was taught two weeks before - I had two or three weeks' acting training."
Ask Black what she thinks landed her the role and you will get no display of false modesty: beyond the dramatic skill evident in her singing, she cites her command of te reo and the fact that the film is set, and partly shot, on her ancestral land. Born and raised in Ruatoki, a place resonant in our colonial (and recent political) history, she learned to speak Maori at her parents' knees.
"Maori was the only language spoken in our community and on our marae, and my parents were adamant that all their children would speak Maori once they left Ruatoki, they would maintain their language.
"We moved to Kawerau once Tasman was built and the grannies said once you take your children out of Ruatoki they are going to lose their sense of identity."
By all accounts, the film shoot was an object lesson in cross-cultural courtesy. Rotberg, who was born and learned her craft in Mexico, understood the importance of taking the story to the lands that gave it birth. Three of Black's cousins were taken on as advisers on such matters as language (Paraiti speaks in a specific Tuhoe dialect) and rongoa Maori or Maori traditional medicine. Ruatahuna, at the other end of the Ureweras from Ruatoki, was the production base for two weeks; the local Oputao Marae became the accommodation for the whole production team.
"Some of them said to me it was very ... organic," Black recalls, laughing. "Random families of Maori would turn up and dine with us. Random pigs would get out of their pens and race across the marae and random dogs would turn up - just the mutts of the marae - which the film crew really loved. They were keen to stay there and soak it all in."
At the time in which the film is set, the Tohunga Suppression Act had recently outlawed the practice of Maori medicine for the treatment of all but the most trivial complaints (the hostility of the hospital system towards Paraiti's practise is depicted with extravagant drama in one scene).
Black does not have a great familiarity with bush medicine. "It wasn't practised by my mother's immediate family in my time but in my mother's time rongoa Maori was the norm. I was raised to know the ancestors used the flora and fauna not just for food but for medicine as well. It was very cool to have the opportunity to experience and step back and just for a moment walk in our own grandmothers' shoes. My references for building my character were my memories of my own grannies and grandfathers.
"So it was very exciting to know that in doing the part I was imparted with some of the knowledge. I recall saying to someone, 'What Tuhoe woman in her right mind would turn this down?"'
Who: Whirimako Black
What: White Lies, New Zealand feature from a Witi Ihimaera story also starring Antonia Prebble
When: Opens June 27