Film, TV and theatre director Katie Wolfe left Shortland St after a near-fatal pregnancy. The Taranaki-born All Black's daughter tackles the difficult subject of child abuse in her new film Waru and play Anahera.
1. Being the daughter of an All Black, did rugby dominate your childhood in New Plymouth?
Absolutely. Dad was very much a public figure, so I was always "Neil Wolfe's daughter". Both my brothers played rugby to provincial level and my sister was a great sportsperson too. I found my thing in fourth form when a family friend suggested I audition for a local operatic society production of Annie. I loved seeing how imaginary worlds could be created. There were huge fly rigs and a double traverse; one minute we'd be under the Brooklyn Bridge and the next in a tenement orphanage.
2. Did your parents support your career choice?
Yes, but I was very independent. I left home after sixth form and went to university. I wanted to get out there and take on the world. In fact I was completely unprepared so I scraped through university but I got into drama school and walked straight into a lead role in a TV series called Marlin Bay, followed by Cover Story, Shortland St and Mercy Peak. So it was 10 years of back-to-back TV work interspersed with theatre and film. It was heady times.
3. These days you're more a director than actor. How did that happen?
My husband Tim [Balme] and I had a production company that produced a lot of work so we lived and breathed it. When my first child, Edie, came along I decided I wanted to step behind the camera. I could see a huge gap in roles for women in their 30s - you're an ingenue and then you're a mum - so I did an apprenticeship and directed Shortland St for two years.
4. Why did you leave Shortie Street?
I had to take a year out to recover from a very complicated pregnancy with my son Nikau. I had placenta previa, when the placenta grows over your cervix. You have to stay within 20 minutes of a hospital because that's how long it takes to bleed out, which I did, but they managed to stop the bleeding. So I took that year to do a full immersion te reo Maori course. It was one of the best years of my life. It gave me confidence to walk in the Maori world.
5. What is your Maori ancestry?
I'm Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama on mum's side. When mum married in the 60s the Maori world was seen as a world of poverty and something you had to leave behind in order to get by. Nan's generation still lived on the land at Pukearuhe, but when she tried to learn te reo as an elderly lady it was too late. I decided I would always walk towards te reo environments so pretty much all my work subsequently has been with Maori TV. I directed Pukuro, DIY Marae, Korero Mai and Witi Ihimaera's Nights in the Garden of Spain.
6. Your latest film, Waru, was made by eight Maori women directors. What was that like?
The process changed me as a person. In film we're so used to this idea of the "great auteur" but making this film together the idea of "self" became less important. As women we're never just ourselves; we are our children, our partners and our wider whanau. Between the eight directors, we have 17 children who were always around. It was very freeing to be able to work that way. All the stress and guilt goes away.
7. Waru is New Zealand's first female-directed narrative feature film in 28 years. Do you think the industry is sexist?
I do. I'd turned a blind eye to it until a few years ago when I looked around, probably because my daughter became a teenager, and thought, "We're not getting anywhere and it's not acceptable. I need to challenge this more." I've been trying to develop a feature for the past seven years but I keep getting knocked back by white guys saying, "I don't get that" and "Where's the market for that?" It's a huge topic worldwide at the moment which is why Waru is so important.
8. You've just been at the Toronto Film Festival where Waru opened the international section. How did it go?
The response was overwhelming. These big festivals are a market but they're also a place where the art of film is celebrated and Waru fits very clearly into that because we pushed the boundaries artistically. The producers gave us a set of rules to make it; a child has died; there are eight films, every film pertains to that child's death, is made in a single 10-minute long shot, takes place at the same time on the same day, every lead character is a Maori woman.
9. The topic of Waru is child abuse. How did the eight of you approach it?
We went on a retreat for five days. We sat round a table and talked honestly about some pretty hard-core stuff. We cried a lot the first day but we focused on why child abuse happens and it's in the why that we find the pathways to solutions. What stands out in Waru is that Maori women are front and centre of every story and their lives are complex and real - it's a long way from the cliches we're used to. My vignette focuses on the strong link between addiction and child abuse. I wanted to go beyond the idea of the child abuser as monster because if we dehumanise them it's too easy to say it's got nothing to do with us.
10. You're currently directing a play called Anahera which is also about child abuse. Is that a coincidence?
Yes. It's a psychological thriller the audience will find incredibly shocking because it changes the lens on child abuse. The tagline is: A perfect life, a perfect secret. It's about how damage is passed down through generations and how societal pressures to have a picture-perfect life can create isolation that allows abuse to take hold. Every character has moments of great courage when they look at themselves in the mirror and actually confront what they see. Jacqueline Nairn is extraordinary in the lead role. She just lets her heart break.
11. Your parents spoke publicly about your dad's Alzheimer's as part of the Herald's rugby and dementia investigation last year. How did you feel about that?
I thought it was really brave of them. Mum got a lot of phone calls from ex-All Blacks' wives who've experienced the same thing. There's no doubt there's a link. If you look at the photo of the Taranaki 1964 rugby team, the back row all have severe dementia. The story's raised awareness that if players are concussed you have to get them off that field and they have to not play for a while.
12. How is your dad these days?
His Alzheimer's is much more advanced. He's such a funny and beautiful man but his memory is pretty much gone. He spends a lot of time playing Patience. I feel so sorry for him and my mum. We've become really good at dealing with it. You don't talk about what happened this morning or what will happen this evening. You just stay in the moment, and he can be cheerful in the moment. It's a great lesson for all of us - to appreciate the moment.