Jackie van Beek has won awards and international acclaim as an actress, writer and director for her work in What We Do in the Shadows, Wellington Paranormal and The Breaker Upperers. She is currently playing careers adviser Robyn in the second series of The Educators, which can be found on TVNZ OnDemand. tvnz.co.nz
My mother was a puppeteer trainer with CCS, originally the Crippled Children Society, and they had these very large puppets that travelled to primary schools back in the 80s, to educate kids about people with disabilities, it was a show called Kids Up the Road. My sister and I were quite friendly with these puppets and played with them a lot. But if I was feeling naughty I would throw my little sister into the huge duffel bag the puppets were kept in, and I'd trap her in with the Velcro fasteners and not let her out.
After school, I simultaneously enrolled in a fulltime contemporary dance course as well as university. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be a dancer or an actor, and I'd always grown up thinking I'd go to university, I never questioned that. But I kept dropping out of both courses to do Theatre In Education shows because you could earn what felt like a lot of cash for a 19-year-old and travel up and down the country. Eventually, I ended up with a BA in linguistics, which took five years to finish, although overall I realised I preferred the theatre lifestyle, which involved working erratic hours and drinking too much, which suited me at that stage of life.
I met my husband, Jesse [Griffin] at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Jonny [Brugh] and I were touring our show My Brother And I Are Pornstars. Jonny had arranged to stay with Jesse, who was living in Melbourne, and I was staying with my sister. But the day after I met Jesse, I went back to my sister's place, collected all my things and moved into his house. That's how it started. I'd also taken over five years of tax returns. I'd planned to do the show each night, then spend the rest of the festival doing my tax returns. I was at a turning point. I knew I needed to start acting more responsibly. I'd been doing a lot of partying, and it was time to knuckle down and get more serious. That only lasted two days, getting more serious didn't work out, and I had to hire an accountant.
When I was living with Jesse in Melbourne, he was invited to Alice Springs for a week, to work as a clown doctor in a hospital. He asked if I wanted to come too. I said I'd do anything, so he rang a few of his contacts in Alice and I ended up teaching clown to a group of indigenous kids living on the town camps up there. They did a beautiful performance for The Desert Symposium and it went so well the producer asked if I wanted to return and do something else. I said I'd like to try making a film because I'd never made one before. It was called One Shoe Short, based on a story the kids had told us. I shot that film when I was eight months pregnant with our first child. The kids in the camp would all point at me and call me Big Fat One, then I flew home on the last day Qantas would let me fly.
I'm blindly optimistic. Maybe it's a flaw, but I always think something will go great, then I'm surprised if it doesn't. If a funding proposal is declined - and it happens a lot - I'll be shocked. Perhaps it's how I was brought up; I think my parents endowed me with the reassurance that things would go well for me with simple nurturing and encouragement and positivity. Somehow they gave me a wonderful sense of optimism, which I still carry, in spite of everything not always going well. I'm very grateful for this attitude because it propels me to try new things and take risks.
One of Celine Dion's songs, It's All Coming Back To Me Now featured in The Breaker Upperers. We made the crappiest music video ever for it and Courtney, our publicist, managed to incite some excitement around it, she even got Russell Crowe tweeting about it, and somehow we were invited to Celine's Melbourne show. I love Celine but Madeleine [Sami] is an actual diehard fan. We're backstage in the VIP area and Madeleine is so nervous, she had to sit down and do her breathing exercises. Celine was quite kooky and so little. She was wearing a glittery gold outfit and her skin was also golden. We watched her concert, which was almost as much stand-up as singing. She even suggested she could be in our next movie and of course, we said yes. I must remind Madeleine about that.
When I went to Sundance for What We Do in the Shadows, it was my first festival publicity experience. We'd go into a store where a media booth had been set up and, after you do your interview and have your photo taken, they'd say 'help yourself to anything' as you leave. We couldn't believe it. It happened four or five times that afternoon. So some of us Kiwis, being the scumbags we were, we grabbed stuff we didn't need or want, we carried large piles of stuff up the street. Jemaine [Clement] and Taika [Waititi] were classier and I don't think they took anything. But the rest of us were in a frenzy. It was like a smash and grab, and we're on our phones to our partners asking what size shoe they took. It was horrible in terms of the environment, and we tried to give a lot of it away, but it was the first time I'd experienced that sort of thing.
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People do recognise me at supermarkets or walking the dog, but there's not a huge amount of excitement. I'm thankful that I'm a 44-year-old mum and not a 19-year-old pop star, so it's really just polite people telling me they love my work.
I believe that theatre and film can have a huge impact on the world, and the messaging can make a huge difference to attitudes. Madeleine and I talked about how inclusive and diverse we wanted The Breaker Upperers to be. We wanted to break down prejudice around gender, to make a female buddy comedy that doesn't end up at a church with a double wedding. We got great feedback for it too because we reached out and said to the females in the audience, it's okay to live your life the way you want to live it, so don't let people pressure you into doing certain things. The arts are valuable, and it is the responsibility of storytellers to ask themselves, what's the message I want to convey? How am I going to break down prejudice, while also being entertaining of course? And that's what I love about comedy, because I can entertain and also slip in some messaging along with the laughter.