Sarah Peirse is an actress best known for her screen roles as Kate in Rain and Pauline Parker’s mother, Honora, in Heavenly Creatures. She works mostly in theatre here and in Australia.
1. Describe your childhood:
It was a rowdy household of seven, musical, bookish, articulate, funny. In Wellington. My father was an economist and political scientist. My mother a speech therapist and teacher. We were voluble. It was a house of debate and vigorous assertion. We were defined in part by the disabilities of my father polio and my youngest sister cerebral palsy. Disability shaped our entire lives. Even from the point of view of when we got out of a car as a family, someone got out and wore irons and had sticks and someone else was in a wheelchair. Whatever we had was catching! People could make neither heads nor tails of it. So we were very determined to be an intact group. And that was the ethos instilled by our parents. We are a tight group now. And [my sister] is the nexus around which we all move.
2. Does growing up around people living with disability change you at all?
As it was my experience, it's hard to know. I guess my siblings and I would all agree that there's a degree of resilience. Yes, and empathy though it's an interesting thing because you feel that adversity will engender more empathy but peculiarly it's the other way around. In contrast to our family experience, I read an article where a sociologist was talking about the fact that 'against expectations, statistically, the actual response to adversity is to reduce rather than enhance empathy'.
3. What kind of mother have you been?
Probably rather similar to my own, at least I hope so. Encouraging of curiosity, engagement, conversation, a capacity for insight. Perhaps too confrontational at times it's the emotional engagement, I used to find it hard to step back. But fearlessness has its own kind of freedom so I've been, perhaps, reluctant to forgo the moment of contact.
4. Were you always going to act?
As a child I was endlessly acting but I went straight from school to work on a farm in Taihape and did clerical work for Borthwicks, the meat exporters. I couldn't wait to get out of the education system and there was nothing I wanted to study at university. Then after Id gone flatting and bought some nice shoes and clothes I saw an advertisement for a singer in a children's show, A Bear Called Paddington, and I auditioned for that and spent a year travelling the country with it. John Bach was in it too. It was marvellous. Hysterical. Great fun and challenging. I decided I definitely wanted to be an actor.
5. You're best known for playing two memorable Kiwi mothers on screen Honora Parker in Heavenly Creatures and Kate in Rain. Which of their traits were more like the real you?
Aspects of Honora were my grandmother the way she moved, the slight deferring reticence but with steel and an inner conviction. Kate was maybe a freer version of my younger self encased in a self-absorbed, destructive sadness.
6. Are your best known roles always the most satisfying?
Not necessarily, although both Kate and Honora were very satisfying. I guess you get known for successful roles because they encompass a depth and stretch that give room for thought, for the actor and audience. Theatre roles are demanding and satisfying in different ways. I loved playing in Molly Sweeney for the Melbourne Theatre Company, in Gethsemane for Belvoir and in Fury for the Sydney Theatre Company. All of those roles were demanding and at times magnificently exacting in performance.
7. You have such distinctive looks: are you often recognised on the street?
I sometimes get approached and people feel they know me, went to school with me or something. I have found its my voice that will confirm me once I speak someone might say something. Its interesting that also I can hide in a role and some people are flummoxed when they are told it was me.
8. When has been the most difficult time of your career?
We moved to Australia for my husbands work in 1989. My youngest [of three] children was born there. My career languished for some years in Sydney and I was unable to make much headway into live theatre. It took moving to the UK to get them to wake up. Actually, I think Rain put me back on a bigger radar in Australia. It hasn't always been easy but I've been fortunate in the sense that since my late 40s I've been doing some really great women's roles.
9. There are those who believe that the creative adult is the child who survived do you agree?
Actually, no. I've found my creative self is more available as I've matured, perhaps the maturity of caring less and less about what people think of me. Its been quite freeing. Maybe people who subscribe to the child within idea are naming that part of themselves which is not confined. I don't regard that part of myself as being the child, though that may say more about my childhood.
10. When and where are you happiest?
Ah. Piha on a good day. A walk. A swim, good friends, my family. And a fire.
11. How is age treating you?
Very well. The grey hair is great for work. I have good energy. I walk, I meditate, I enjoy company and solitude they are all strengthening. I find silence extremely necessary. I tried meditation as a child when I was anxious about upcoming exams. I found it again about nine years ago as I was recovering from the end of my marriage. Its been interesting. I love people but I think a capacity to be alone and silent is a very restorative act.
12. What do you know about love?
That it can sweetly awaken, and joyously strengthen and that you need to give it to get it.
• Sarah Peirse is starring in the Auckland Theatre Company's Other Desert Cities, playing until May 25.