She’s been a body double in the blockbuster Avatar, made a winning film about roadkill and is one of our brightest rising theatre stars. Alan Perrott meets Laurel Devenie and talks to her about her unorthodox career, and letting go.

The tales of her parents' wild university days had Laurel Devenie expecting every day at Victoria University would leave her bug-eyed with new knowledge and clever friends. Instead: "I was lonely and depressed. I ended up lost in a sea of people in these really big lecture theatres. There were no connections with anybody at all."

With her first year only half done, Devenie was already casting around for better options when she remembered the fun two years earlier when a teacher had encouraged her to make a short film. With her dear old grandmother among the cast, it had been set at her local hairdressing salon and went on to make the final 12 of a competition run by TV2.

She knew she was grasping but a sequel sounded like excellent, if temporary, relief. Her family even had another star up its sleeve, Uncle Hugh, a rough-as-guts rogue from Tolaga Bay with a thing for philosophising over a steaming pot of rural roadkill.

It was to be a cooking show: "Jamie Oliver meets Barry Crump meets the Crocodile Hunter. I was having a shit time at university so I thought I may as well put all my energy into making this other thing happen ... " says Devenie.


But she couldn't do it alone so the then-19-year-old assembled a crew of strangers and learned the ins and outs of pre- and post-production as they went along. A roadkill possum even ended up as the centrepiece of the winning short film, while the rest of us got some homespun wisdom about eating roadkill we never thought we'd need: "If you can approach it, that's a good sign. If it hasn't got sort of festering, bubbling, foul, stinking bits coming out of it, that's even better ... if it's got no eyeballs left, just walk away."

But it wasn't the win so much as the process that had reeled Devenie in. "Collaborations, that's where I work best I think ... "

Especially when she's the boss? "Yeah, I think so ... I love working with actors and creating my own systems. I've noticed I work best when I have to make things up, where I'm not competing against a way of doing things that's so entrenched that I'm just another cog in the machine."

The 32-year-old's rather unorthodox path to top-level acting and directing shows has worked well for her: she's considered one of our brightest rising directorial talents and is helming her first production at Auckland's Silo Theatre, the Australian play Eight Gigabytes Of Hardcore Pornography, which dovetailed nicely with her lauded acting collaboration with Emily Perkins in Henrik Ibsen's A Dolls House last month.

All of the acclaim should have been a given, seeing as her father is Stuart Devenie, one of our most recognisable and celebrated actors. His career meant she grew up in the freewheeling world of Christchurch's Court Theatre until the family moved north, while part of her prize for the short film Roadkill was a job in television, an opportunity she'd leapt at after a stint with London's Youth Shakespeare Company.

But things didn't pan out as expected. "I guess I'm a very impatient person, [television] might have put me in the right place eventually, but if I can see the existence of a ladder I have no interest at all in climbing it. I've never been one for long-term plans, who knows, I might die tomorrow."

So she signed on at Wellington drama school Toi Whakaari instead. Would this be her happy place? Kind of. Yes, she loved the personal challenge and the earnest buzz of creativity, but in the back of her mind sat Daddy dearest. If teenage shyness wasn't enough, his career now felt like the mark she'd always fail to match.

"I was oppressed by it," she says. "I already felt nervous and unsure of myself, but as Dad's daughter I wondered how I could ever be as brilliant as him. So when it came to the self-promotion stuff and networking, I was like, 'Hey, I'm Stuart's daughter and I'm not as good as him.' I had to let that go."

Laurel Devenie as Mary Ann Martin in On the Upside Down of the World. Photo / Michael Martin
Laurel Devenie as Mary Ann Martin in On the Upside Down of the World. Photo / Michael Martin

Her mother, Gillian Skyrme, was an actor as well until she had a moment of, let's say, clarity. As described to her daughter, she was on stage "dressed as a lizard and surrounded by arseholes" when she decided she simply couldn't do it anymore. "Well, when you think about it," says Devenie, "what we do is kind of weird, when it goes bad you're just standing in front of people saying funny words in a funny accent."

It was Rima Te Wiata, daughter of actor Beryl Te Wiata and the late opera legend Inia Te Wiata, who eventually took Devenie aside and told her to stop pretending famous parents aren't "a thing" and to try embracing it instead. Which she did, even if on her own terms.

Though from prime acting stock, Devenie was possibly the only person at Toi Whakaari who wasn't particularly fussed about acting. For her it was more of a means of learning about the human condition in a tangibly physical way, a fascination that continues to drive her choices.

But needs must, so after graduating in 2006 she chased up several parts in Downstage Theatre productions before getting her first globally significant role as Sigourney Weaver's body double in Avatar. It wasn't bringing her joy though. At a friend's suggestion she agreed to direct a show at the Northland Youth Theatre: "I reluctantly, terrifyingly, said 'Okay', thinking: 'Well, I ain't got anything else going on.'"

The experience was so good she kept returning for two-month stints whenever new projects came up and she's still involved with Whangarei's youth-based Company of Giants. For a seemingly backward step, it's proved to be an ideal learning ground, one that has freed Devenie to make things up on hoof and take whatever risks she pleases without any fear of judgment from the establishment.

Parental enthusiasm also meant a willing army of volunteers: "It was like we were covered in Sellotape. We'd start with a couple of people, then before you knew it we'd have 60 people working for us."

This community support stretched all the way to the top during their production of The Odyssey.

A fantastic ship had been constructed by some friendly wreckers on top of an old truck body, which was great, except that it was stuck, engineless, on the other side of town.

What to do? How about a parade? So Devenie approached the council, which allowed the entire costumed company, plus hangers-on, to push and dance around the beast along the length of Whangarei's main drag.

"I just adore that small-city feeling, it exercises something that I think is important in theatre-making, like making connections and leading dialogue. That play was rambling, messy, wild and unpredictable, but everyone felt like they were part of it and they hung around the bonfires for hours once it had finished."

Looking back, she thinks it was the absences, the "missing pieces", that she'd had to create herself, that made the work so enjoyable.

But when she wasn't in the north, Devenie was beginning to score some meaty roles, a progression that led to her solo show, On The Upside Down Of The World, created specially for her by the Auckland Theatre Company's artistic director Colin McColl and writer Arthur Meek. After 100 performances it was taken offshore in 2014 to the United Solo Festival in New York and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

From there, Devenie decided to test the British waters with, you might say, predictable consequences for someone so singular. "I was just so shocked by it. They have these unshakable systems and hierarchies that have been in place for hundreds of years and there's just no way to break in. Here, if you're interested in doing something, someone will ring you up because help is always needed. There, it's like you have to be an assistant to a director for seven years before you can even apply for a job - and even then you'd be up against four people who'd been there even longer."

After firing off a few half-hearted inquiries she flagged the whole thing and was home within four months.

But, as so often happens, her crisis was followed by an epiphany. Over the slog, the low pay and the need to schmooze to get either, Devenie withdrew the $3000 sitting in her savings account and got on to a training course for English language teachers. "It took me months to get into that, then one week out from it starting I woke up and knew I couldn't do it. I was going to commit completely to acting, even if it meant living on rice and being poor."

Which was fine except the fee was non-refundable and it took her another six months to get all but $500 returned. "What I had realised was that you can't give yourself a back-up, no one's succeeded by relying on plan B. I mean who's going to turn down $40 an hour doing something else? And that's time you should spend doing what you love. But what if no one ever gives me work? I still wanted to do it, which was a great relief ... I find epiphanies are closely linked to those moments where I have siphoned my bank account to do something that I then realise was the wrong decision which in turn leads me to the right one. It's a frustrating pattern but, 'oh well', and the phone started ringing the next day, so I believe that was a really important moment for me."

It would appear her phone is still ringing, as soon as she's finished at the Silo play she'll start gearing up to direct the Bullet Heart Club's next project, The Deliberate Disappearance Of My Friend, Jack Hartnett, at Q Theatre.

It's sure to be another step in her unplanned evolution: "I think I've come to believe really strongly in taking risks, especially in the early stages, and not allowing established process dictate how you work. I always have this conversation with myself: What things are taken for granted? What are things where people say 'but that's the way it's always worked'? Sure, maybe they do work, but that's not how you make anything that's creative, extraordinary and exciting, and isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?"

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography's season at the Silo Theatre runs until July 11.

- Canvas