Theresa Healey, star of stage and screen, is soon to appear in Head High, a six-part drama series about the hopes and dreams of high school rugby players in New Zealand, premiering on Three, Sunday, June 28 at 8.30pm.
Dad could've been a professional tennis player but he put family first and got a job with the Farmers' Trading Company. He started as a watchmaker and eventually became CEO. Mum had trained with the Royal Ballet in London, so it was a beautiful marriage of business and art.
Mum ran a dance school above McDonald's on Queen St, and my sister and I both danced, but I hated it, partly because it was so rigid, and also because my sister was way better than me. She's a very successful choreographer now, but I was never going to be a dancer – at 13, I was five foot eight and 10 stone with knock knees and all the others were tiny - so I became an actor instead.
Lots of Catholics become actors. I think it's because we're introduced to the concept of spirituality from an early age. Mass is a performance, it's all rituals, mystery and symbolism. The transubstantiation, wine becomes blood, bread the body. The church was my first theatre, then the theatre became my church.
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In the summer holidays, Mum sent us off to this wonderful drama and dance camp in Napier and the teachers there suggested I move to Wellington to study drama at Victoria. So I did. I took the overnight train and arrived in Wellington early one morning. I had my big red bag and no idea where I would stay. I didn't know anybody and my parents had never heard of halls of residence. Because Mum had gone to London at 16 by herself, she just expected us to be like her. But it made me very resourceful.
Wellington was so different to Auckland. There was so much political stuff going on. My flatmates read Socialist Action at breakfast, we protested about the tour, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and better wages. Wellington was also very feminist, especially in the acting scene, where there were all these amazing activist women. I'd lived such a sheltered life so this was an awakening as to how life should be. We were not actresses, we were actors, and we wanted to have our own voices. We shopped at op shops, we wore bushman's singlets and old men's clothes and I loved it.
After drama school I worked at all the theatres in Wellington. We never stopped. We'd do school shows in the morning, rehearse the next show, perform every night and often did late night cabarets too. I did 50 plays in seven years. I also think I had a nervous breakdown during that time, although I didn't know at the time that's what it was.
If I had not bought a house when I was 25, I would not have one now. Somehow I was smart enough to realise, even on an actor's wage, I could do it. An amazing woman at Trust Bank went to the trouble of researching every play I'd been in, she took all the newspaper reviews to the bank manager with the good bits about me highlighted and said, "We should invest in this girl." Ten years later I bumped into that woman and asked her how I ever got a mortgage and she told me that story – I don't think banks would do that now.
As an actor, most people have to do something else to make money, so I've been really lucky to have only ever done acting. Though it's still not a profession in this country, it's a vocation.
Being cast on Shortland Street was a big transition. I loved the naturalism of TV. I loved not having to be so big, to take it down and make it more internal. I also loved the money, as it was the first time in my life I'd been on a real wage.
In my 30s, I was desperate to have children but I found it really hard. After a couple of devastating miscarriages I went to America to get an agent then, at 37, I found out I was pregnant, so I came home. Once I had the two boys, everything changed. Because it was something I'd wanted for such a long time, I put all my energy into them and the school. I was that crazy mother who helped in the garden and looked after the worm farm. I directed the end-of-year concert and organised the fundraisers. The teachers thought I was a nutcase but, as a mother, I had this desire to create things for the kids. The boys, Zac and Xav, are 19 and 16 now - although maybe someone should tell women who have their kids later in life, that you'll be going through menopause when they're hitting puberty.
Acting is tough. We're made redundant after every job, we're rejected for the colour of our hair, the shape of our faces, our bodies, our voices, our personalities. When I miss out on something I really feel it. I tell people I didn't get the job I really wanted. I let people see me work really hard at auditions and be distraught. I try not to be stoic, but then I move on.
I've never been very ambitious, at least until somebody gives me something and then I'll work so hard. There's this little river inside of me, no matter how dark it gets, in spite of the terrible moments, I know that something will come up. I always expect it to and it does.
Theatre is so masochistic, but it's also addictive. Sometimes I think I never want to do it again, but then someone will offer me a part I can't refuse. Theatre is special because it is something that happens in a moment in time, and there is no record of it. You've got to be there in that space to experience it. That's what I missed in lockdown. I wanted to see people sweating and yelling, talking and creating, on stage, in front of me. I'm sick of watching screens, I want to see real people.
I've always wanted to make people laugh and make people cry and that's what I've done and, in spite of it all, I will always be telling stories in some form or other, because that's what actors are, we're storytellers.