Miriama McDowell's new drama Head High is about rugby. But it's also about bigger topics, bigger issues, bigger things. And as neither of us has much of a clue about our national game the conversation naturally spirals out to the wings of the show.
We talk about privilege and what that looks like in New Zealand. We talk about the haves and the have-nots. We talk about the marginalisation of women's sports. We talk about what it means for a local, primetime, flagship drama series to predominantly feature young Māori and Pacific Island actors in the lead roles. We talk about parenting and relationship struggles. And we talk about toxicity in sports. But before we talk about all that, we talk about her own personal athletic history.
"I'm definitely more of an arts person than a sports person," she laughs. "I played netball. I did the whole Saturday morning thing for all of my high school years. I was an umpire and a player. But I was also in the G team, so that says a lot about my skill ... and my commitment to the game."
Fittingly, for someone in love with performing, she says her position was either Goal Shoot or Goal Attack - aka the glory positions.
"I used to practise the goals," she recalls. "My dad put a hoop up on the lamp post."
On the show she plays Renee, a police constable and rugby-mad mum whose rugby-mad husband Vince is the coach of their two rugby-mad sons' First IX college rugby team. The action of the show revolves around the consequences of the fierce rivalry between their lower-decile school Southdown High and the wealthy private college Saint Isaac's.
"I was like, 'I'm not a rugby person, how am I gonna do this? How does this relate to me?'" she says of joining the show. "I based the character on one of my besties who comes from a rugby family and that really is her life. That helped me."
It was only much later at a screening of the first two episodes that she realised how closely the show actually mirrored her own life.
"It was mindblowing when I realised that the Vince and Renee characters were like my mum and dad. I grew up in Māngere Bridge, which is where we shot a lot of it. My mum's Māori and my dad's Pākehā and he worked at underprivileged South Auckland schools. I did not see those parallels at all when I was inside it. But that's where I come from."
Despite missing that huge connection McDowell says the show's focus on inequality is what sold her.
"Really looking at inequality – the haves and the have-nots is the thing that grabbed me about the story. When I watched it I thought, 'Wow, look at us talking about privilege in a way we haven't seen before.' If you think about the mainstream stories we tell, we don't put people of colour into the lead roles. It's really significant to watch this show and go, 'Look at these brown people leading like this.'"
The recent and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the United States has seen a lot of people becoming aware of - or examining their own circumstances - for the first time. It's incredibly topical.
"It's a great time to be watching this show," she agrees. "My big thing as a storyteller in this country is that there's not enough diversity on screen. I have two Māori children, they're both in bilingual education and, on our mainstream television, they don't see many representations of themselves. I want them to be on the TV and see themselves and feel validated, because their stories are as important as white mainstream culture, Pākehā culture, in this country. I read this script and went, 'Yes there it is! Let's go inside this house and see what life is like for this South Auckland family.' This is New Zealand. This is our country. I see myself here. I'm not just talking about people of colour. I'm talking about Pākehā as well. People like my dad who worked in brown schools. That's what I want. I want people to go, 'I see myself, finally, on screen.'"
With the conversation around privilege moving into the mainstream for the first time, I ask how she thinks people can become more aware and change behaviours.
"I feel that my access to diversity in all its forms is a privilege. Part of it is because I have brown skin and part of it is because I am an artist, so we naturally don't work within privileged groups anyway. We're always at the bottom of the rung," she laughs. "So already I have ways in. If I think of my great, Pākehā, privileged friends and they asked how to access those communities and how to make a change, I'd say it's about looking at charities and volunteering your time. That's a really good start."
She gives the example of the Garden to Table movement, which teaches primary school children in lower decile schools to grow and harvest vegetable gardens as an easy entry point.
"You have to make a decision to see poverty in this country. It's very easy to live around here and not have any connection at all with diversity or financial diversity. I'm privileged that I work with young people all over Auckland, so I do get to connect to less privileged kids. I choose to do that and choose to see it."
I ask her if she thinks this situation is something that can be improved.
"I think the starting point is that people have to choose to see it," she says. "I also think there's a conversation happening about really being realistic about who we are as a country and what that really looks like. The way we'll see it is that we'll reflect it on our screens."
* Head High premieres on Three tomorrow night at 8.30pm