Morgana O'Reilly is an actor/writer who has starred in Neighbours, Housebound, Mean Mums and INSIDE, a series that won an international Emmy in 2021. Back in New Zealand following a smash-hit season of her play Stories About My Body at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, O'Reilly is performing her dynamic solo show at The Basement Theatre, May 17-21.
I grew up in Ponsonby - I'm 36 now, so it was a pretty different landscape back then - and I had a wonderful, barefoot Kiwi childhood. My parents are both creatives, both well-travelled storytellers and I grew up listening to tales of their adventures. I didn't grow up in the woods, or the bush or by a beach but, being brought up in theatres, I had a magical urban childhood. I pranced around empty stages while mum [choreographer and dancer Mary-Jane O'Reilly] was packing in shows. Or I'd have strange areas all to myself, empty rooms full of weird costumes that I was allowed to play in.
I was always beguiled by the arts, which were central to our lives. When I was 11 my mum, took me to Finland to a dance conference in a tiny little town called Kuopio. We also visited a friend of mum's who was a choreographer in Istanbul, then we went to the Edinburgh Festival. Later, when I was 13, my father and I travelled through Vietnam together. Those trips were defining for my life and they contextualised my world in really special ways.
When I was about 13, I was obsessed with the idea of living in a house truck. Travelling around selling my wares, maybe candles. That was my plan. Then I started doing drama. It was all a bit giggly and ridiculous until I joined Ros Gardiner's OutLoud Theatre Company. You had to audition for it, and most of the other kids were a little older than me and they took it really seriously and that's where I absolutely fell in love with that art form and realised I wanted to be an actor.
My first TV job out of drama school was a sketch comedy show where everything was shot on location. I pulled up to set one day, and there was the make-up truck, the lighting truck and the art department truck and I thought, "Oh my god, I've joined The Gypsy Fair". All those trucks felt like an extension of my house truck fantasy, a life of uncertainty coupled with creative expression.
I've never really had a back-up plan. Because I have creative parents - mum's a choreographer and dad's a graphic designer - I saw them live their lives from job to job, contract to contract, always pitching for work. The idea that you can live off creativity, that some years are flush and some years aren't, it's not alien to me. Or maybe I'm just a snobby, privileged twat who doesn't have any grasp on reality. There's definitely a healthy pinch of delusion in there too.
To find my feet, and to ensure I also have any dignity in my artistic practice, I knew I needed to generate work for myself, to be a creative in own right, and not wait around for people to pick me. But then I'd worry about making a show, because what if, at that same time I got another job? Acting can feel incredibly helpless and I still have hard days, but making my own work has been empowering. Although a little splash of validation from an external force is also amazing.
I have come to realise I need physical movement every day. But not for losing weight, which I used to think was the purpose of exercise. Instead, I need exercise to make my brain happy and to keep my demons at bay. I need to walk or do a little routine or something every day, or I think I might just melt into the floor.
Sometimes I put myself in really confronting situations to elicit a courage I didn't have before I put myself in that situation. I sent myself off travelling around the world, around South America, and I was terrified some of the time, but I also knew I needed to be scared.
It's the same with nudity. There is nudity in my play, and being nude in a public space can be confronting. But to be naked and say, it is fine to be revealed, that's something I think about as I work through my love/hate relationship with my body. I worked on a film with full nudity recently called Nude Tuesday, and there was a shot with about 30 people running around outside in the nude, and one particular thing stood out to me. We all looked so normal in the nude. All our skin tones matched nature. Then to turn around and look at the crew, and see someone wearing a bright orange puffer jacket, that was the strange thing in the landscape. White shoes on green grass, that was strange but everyone's bodies? Our skin, our hair, eyes and teeth, we all fit into that natural world.
The Emmy thing was a very slow ball to drop. When Pete [husband and co-creator of INSIDE] first told me, I was sitting, editing a short film I'd made with the kids. I was seriously focusing and Peter repeated that we'd been nominated for an Emmy and I said, "that's cool" because it didn't quite sink in. We totally thought the nomination was awesome, and we never needed to win, or thought we would. Then we won. And Method Man presented our award which means, essentially, I'm part of Wu-Tang Clan now.
There was no way we could go to New York for the ceremony, though. We were just out of lockdown, Pete was working in Australia and I was home with the children. I was in a friend's backyard when we heard we'd won. It felt incredible for about 20 minutes. I skulled a glass of champagne, then went home and made dinner. It was so unglamorous and so hard to comprehend. And very cool.
I believe we're offering our children something beyond the traditional conditioning. Our daughter is 6, and she'll point things out at shops when there are boys' and girls' clothes and we'll scoff together. "Ooh," she'll say, "look, boys' shoes. What have they got that girls' shoes don't? Penis holders?" That's been fun to dismantle and to hear her puzzling it out for herself.
If I could go back in time and talk to younger me? I wouldn't bother with 18-year-old Morgana. She had so much confidence back then. I'd talk to 29-year-old Morgana instead, and let her know it's going to be OK. I'd tell her, you will find you've got more inside you than you know. That it's ok to say, 'I don't know' and it's ok to say 'I'm sorry' if you get something wrong.
There's this cheesy saying that I really like: "What is meant for you won't pass you by." I've had so many close calls with quite big things. Fancy things in America that didn't go my way. At first, when I didn't get them, I'd think it was my fault for not playing it differently. That would keep me up at night, especially when I didn't have my own work to hold up my sense of self-worth. I'd ask myself, what did I do wrong? Or I'd think, if I'd done it differently, maybe I'd be in Hollywood. But I always know to be mindful of where to put the blame and not to let my talent take the hit.
For my play, Stories About My Body, I'm doing a morning show. A Caregiver's Session. You can bring babies under 1 because even though there is swearing and nudity, they won't know what's going on. But I'm most excited about people, for whom it's a big deal to go out at night or to get a babysitter, that whole section of society who used to be theatre-goers to treat them to one hour of a play. Because a lot went into the making of this show. I set out wanting to move people. Wanting them to feel something beyond thinking, that was fun. Or that's nice. I will still make you laugh. Really laugh. And maybe cry too. That means a lot to me because it took that from me - I had to feel a lot - to make it.
I've never been very good at figuring out the future. I'd like to be a little more in charge of my own destiny, which is what I love about creating my own work. Hopefully, over the next few years, I can act in other people's things and in my own things, whether onscreen or onstage. Just to work on things that interest me and jazz me up, that's what I want for the future.