D

oes talent run in families? It probably depends on several factors. After all, for every Michael Douglas there's a Jason Connery. For every Stella McCartney there's a Julian Lennon. But last year some local second-generation names scored conspicuous local and international successes. We asked them what it's like carrying the torch of fame down the generations.

The Harcourts

Actor Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie at the New Zealand Film Festival event at the Civic Theatre in Auckland. Photo / Chris Loufte
Actor Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie at the New Zealand Film Festival event at the Civic Theatre in Auckland. Photo / Chris Loufte
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ust about every Hollywood "Ones to Watch" list last year singled out Thomasin McKenzie as among the brightest new stars on the scene. She picked up several acting and breakthrough artist awards and was nominated for a clutch more. On the international film festival circuit, of course, the judges didn't know she was the daughter of writer-director Stuart McKenzie and multiskilled writer/actor/coach Miranda Harcourt, who, in turn, is the daughter of actors and broadcasters Peter and Dame Kate, and sister to television journalist and Fair Go alumnus Gordon Harcourt.

This is one family that can trace its talent across several generations. Even Thomasin's great grandfather Gordon, who started the high-profile Harcourts Real Estate chain, has a show business connection – he ran the Miramar Roxy cinema in the Depression when property sales slumped.

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Dame Kate Harcourt at her Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dame Kate Harcourt at her Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell

His son Peter, who died in 1995 and Peter's widow, Dame Kate, now 91, were among the first people to carve out freelance careers in broadcasting here alongside acting work.
Naturally, Kate has been a big influence on her granddaughter.
"I don't know if it's been anything she's said," says Thomasin, "but more what she does - watching her and learning things from her by osmosis and being really inspired by how much she loved her job and how alive she is when she does it. My mum's parents and my dad's parents have all had a beautiful effect on the world."
Kate has taken her granddaughter's success in her stride. Of her Leave No Trace performance she says, "I found it extremely moving and most satisfying. It wasn't a surprise."
That film was directed by Debra Granik whose early independent success Winter's Bone made a star of Jennifer Lawrence at a similar age to Thomasin's. Coincidentally, sometime ago, when Thomasin was showing interest in acting, her father showed her Winter's Bone as an example of the sort of performing it was possible to do in film.
"Thomasin," says her father, "has a huge and deep talent because she is the kind of person who realises performance isn't about putting on an act."
Perhaps talent attracts talent: Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt were the first people each other met on their first day at university – though they did not become a couple until many years after that.

Miranda Harcourt as Gemma in the 1980s television series Gloss.
Miranda Harcourt as Gemma in the 1980s television series Gloss.
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iranda says there was never pressure on her or her brother Gordon to do anything other than what they wanted. Pushy show-parenting didn't come into it.

"We just wanted to see them get a good education and start in life," says Dame Kate. "And we didn't have a lot of money to give them. I was pleased when Miranda won an apprenticeship at Fortune Theatre when she left drama school."

"They were very relieved," says Miranda. "I had a couple of years of being a bad-ass. My choice of becoming an actor was a conventional one to them because it meant they knew where I was and what I was doing."

At the age of 11, Miranda appeared at Downstage Theatre with Kate in a music hall production that ran for months. And she succeeded her mother as a provider of boys' voices in radio productions.

With so much talent available under one roof it's no wonder the Harcourt-McKenzies have worked together in various combinations. Stuart and Miranda have collaborated on numerous projects. In his telling, rather than a flamboyantly theatrical life, theirs has been one of sheer hard work.

"Miranda and I spent a lot of time touring plays around," says Stuart. "The kids were brought up in that environment: going to small towns and putting a show on; the pressure of worrying about the bookings."

In 1998 Stuart and Miranda created Flowers from My Mother's Garden, starring Kate.

"I think it is a great privilege I was allowed to work with my daughter on a script by my son-in-law," says Kate.

"But you did find us very bossy," says Miranda.

"I objected to many things but you wouldn't cut anything," Kate replies.

Miranda has carved out a niche for herself around the world as a coach to actors such as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Kidman thanked Miranda for her help in her acceptance speech when she won an Emmy for Big Little Lies.

"She's never officially been my acting coach," says Thomasin. "I've never been to any of her classes. But if there's a scene I don't feel confident with I go to her or my dad with it, because they're both really good at understanding the meaning behind scenes in different interesting ways."

As for working with her parents: "They did a film called The Changeover in 2016 and I had a small part in that. It was weird because no teenager wants their parents ordering them around.

It's easier to take orders from someone you don't know very well, because you can't exactly say, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' One day in the future I'd like to work with them again on something to see what happens."

Awards. That's what will happen.

The Leonards

 Susan and Carmen Leonard. Photo / Doug Sherring
Susan and Carmen Leonard. Photo / Doug Sherring
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here's never been a night quite like it at the NZTV Awards - three siblings collecting prizes for not one or two but a total of five shows. Multi-camera events specialist Wayne Leonard, producer-director Susan and producer Carmen are the offspring of a man who almost singlehandedly created Māori TV in New Zealand, presenter and programme-maker Ernie Leonard.

Together Susan and Carmen Leonard make the hit show The Casketeers, which not only won Best Original Reality Series but more recently scored a Netflix deal, which has attracted attention to the show from around the world. Their older half-brother, Wayne, is currently doing one-off events for Sky Sport but took the award for Best Live Event Coverage on the night for his work on Māori TV's Anzac Dawn Service coverage.

Ernie Leonard was a kaumātua of TV in general and Māori TV in particular, determined to get more of his people on both sides of the camera. That included his children, who were immersed in that milieu from the beginning. "One time he made me eat some kina on screen with a bunch of kids and I spat it out," says Susan. "And he said: 'That was good, darling, now we're going to do it again and pretend you like it.'"

When you talk about the Leonards you really talk about the history of Māori television. Their father's central role in that was brought home in moving fashion when Ernie died.
"We had him at home, then on way to Rotorua for the tangi we stopped into TVNZ," says Susan. "In the foyer there's the atrium where you can see all the levels in the building. We walked in with him and there was haka on every level and the whole place was shaking."
All the siblings acknowledge their father as a trailblazer. Carmen sums up his legacy: "There was not a lot of money to make programmes. It was all about ideas. His quest was to set the Māori Department up. He did that by himself - put together all those people and they made all those shows. It's very different now to how it was then and that makes what he did even more special. He suffered a lot of racism but he had a real sense of determination to create programming for our people."
Wayne is the eldest and Carmen and Susan are his half-sisters. He got his start when his dad, who was freelancing at the time, asked the head of sound at TV2 to employ Wayne. He became one of "only two brown people in the operations area of TVNZ in 1978. The interesting thing was Ross McDonald the sound supervisor took a lot of flak for employing two Māori."
It was a rough start and Wayne ended up leaving. "It was to get away from the shadow of my father, because people told me that I only had a job because of him. I'd even topped the courses I did that they ran at TV, but I got accused of cheating. So, I had to go and find my own space and I got a senior sound position at Channel 9 in Sydney. Ninety people applied and I was the youngest, at 21."

Susan, Wayne and Carmen Leonard. Photo / Doug Sherring
Susan, Wayne and Carmen Leonard. Photo / Doug Sherring
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armen started work driving cast members from place to place, "which is probably the lowest position there is apart from runner. She went from project to project, ending up as a producer. A couple of years ago, I needed someone to come in to fix and finish a show. Annie Murray from Prime said, 'Talk to your sister,' so I did, and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me career-wise. Not only did her coming to work for us help with the project, it established a relationship between us that I never imagined we'd have."

Susan, who is six years younger, concurs: "I'm the hippie and she's totally different. We spent years not really gelling when we were little because I was a pain in the arse. We've got so much closer since we started working together. Our mum is stoked and Dad would have been so happy."

Says Carmen, "His dream was to have the Māori language and Māori programmes in mainstream prime time and he never achieved that. But we have, with The Casketeers."

Not that anyone's counting, but her achievement in collecting awards across four shows last year was impressive by anyone's standards. They included The Dance Exponents - Why Does Love?, Coast New Zealand and New Zealand Wars. But that wasn't the best bit.

"What was so exciting," says Carmen, "was that we all won in one night and there was a huge amount of talk about our father from us and from other people. Talk about legacy families - the Leonard one is pretty big, and it was never more evident than on that night."

The Halls

The Hall family: Pip Hall with her dad Roger Hall and brother Simon Hall. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Hall family: Pip Hall with her dad Roger Hall and brother Simon Hall. Photo / Dean Purcell
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A famous progenitor can be a blessing or a curse or both," says Pip Hall, whose writing credits include that award-winning The Dance Exponents – Why Does Love? co-produced by Carmen Leonard. She took home the award for Best Script: Drama. With hits to his name both here and overseas, Pip's father, Roger, is one the country's most commercially successful playwrights. In fact, he was probably our first commercially successful playwright. He has received a slew of honours, including not one but two Lifetime Achievement Awards.

His daughter says she stumbled into writing after an ill-advised attempt to start a law degree and an inspirational spell taking in a lot of theatre in London.

"I first felt the mantle of being Roger Hall's daughter when I was getting into the industry," says Pip. "It would have opened some doors whether I was aware of them or not but I think people also might have had a higher expectation of what I could do. And the industry is so cutthroat that if you're not any good you soon get weeded out."

She has made a name for herself on the early likes of Shortland Street and Skitz. Upcoming big-ticket titles include a telefeature, Runaway Millionaires, and a two-part mini-series about Jonah Lomu.

Her brother, Simon, is in an awards-pending situation, having come late to writing, via work as an art director. He is currently working on a commission for two European producers based on an early student script he did.

Simon says he "did a little bit of writing but not a lot at high school. It wasn't 'til much later that I started. Subconsciously maybe I worried. There is a disinclination because you're scared of the comparison and of not measuring up to your dad's success. But then I just grew up and admitted I did want to do it for its own sake, whether making a career out of it or not. That's secondary to enjoying it."

Like the Harcourt- McKenzies and the Leonards, family collaboration is among the Halls' credits. Pip and her father co-wrote a play for Plunket. They split it in two and did half each. "In the first draft we were tentative with each other about what we thought - we were like father and daughter. But by the end we were like colleagues and could say, 'That doesn't work,' or 'That's in the wrong place,' which was a joy."
Roger was never grudging in his support for Pip's writing, but nor was he disingenuous with his praise. She recalls one early effort: "I wrote a play for lunchtime theatre which was very student-ey poetic-dance-drama-physical theatre. He came along to see that and said, 'It's very good. It's not my cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.' When I got more into playwriting I would send him a draft and get feedback. But he would wait for me to approach him. He never said, 'Do you want any help?' "
In Simon's case, there are two comparisons waiting to be made when his work gets a wide audience. "Because they are both so successful there is a thing in the back of your mind about that," he says. "I can talk to Pip about it because she understands the pressure of being 'The Daughter Of'. I go to her for advice quite often because she does more screenwriting."
Simon says writing himself has given him a new view of his father and his career: "Only now that I'm doing some creative work do I really appreciate his achievement. I didn't understand when I was young how difficult it is to make a living as a playwright."

The Casketeers, season 2, TVNZ 1, Mondays, 8pm
Pip Hall is currently working on a TV 1 called Runaway Millionaires, plus the Jonah Lomu miniseries later this year for TV3.