Two months ago, a group of young actors talked to Canvas about the big issues in their lives. Now we ask female veterans of the stage and screen for their thoughts on working in a youth-obsessed business.
ON ROLES FOR WOMEN
LISA CHAPPELL: When I turned 40, the television work dried up; the film work dried up and I have been primarily making a living in theatre for a decade; it's hard to make a living out of theatre. I'm not sure the "more opportunities for women" has transferred to New Zealand yet; I was short-listed for a television role where I was the right age but it ended up going to someone 15 years younger than the character was written to be. When that happened, I felt a door closing and I thought, "Right, I need to start diversifying even more because we have not caught up with the rest of the world yet." I teach; I am trying to get into more voiceover MC/narration work, I want to do more directing, I need to do musicals as well – I need to use my singing – which is why I did Shortland Street – the Musical and That Bloody Woman last year. It basically kicked me up the arse. Yup, that's where we're at in this country at the moment.
JENNIFER WARD-LEALAND: Theatre is the last refuge of the complex female. Having said that, there's been an explosion of extraordinary female screen writing teams and you look at the Fleabags and the Killing Eves. I feel very lucky to have played one of the best roles of my career at 55 in Vermillion and all of the cast – it was a female lead film – were aged over 40. That was a total gift because it was a chance to use all my life experience. Are these roles expanding? I think definitely things are changing in the screen industry… To keep it changing, we need more female writers and to keep on developing those writers because it's always about the writers. I also think taxpayer funding for the arts should be for everybody. We should be able to see ourselves on screens and I think in the past, and generally, you don't see many women over 50 regularly on our screens. It's still extraordinarily youth-focused.
One young blonde female talked about how for every role she was sent for, it required nudity or scenes of a sexual nature. Then there's aspirational casting where a 33 year old woman will be cast to play a character who's meant to be 45. A 20 year old sees that and thinks, 'I hope I look that good when I am 45!' while the 45 year old thinks, 'why don't I look as good as she does?' In reality, 45 year olds seldom look like 33 year olds.
RIMA TE WIATA: I remember at drama school in the early 1980s, Grant Tilly, who was one of the drama tutors, asked us, "Who believes they'll be doing this in 40 years time?" And I put my hand up immediately and he said, "and why do you think that?" I said, "Well, I wouldn't be here if I didn't think that; I wouldn't have come to this school if I didn't want this." So I was prepared to do anything to stay in it. I never saw - and I know it sounds ridiculous - age as a problem right from when I was 17 or 18. Why? Because I am not beautiful, so it wasn't going to be taken into account. The decline isn't going to be as noticeable; I'll be more ordinary and I'll be more likely to be accepted as, you know, the average woman rather than someone like, say, Catherine Deneuve or anyone else considered extraordinarily beautiful. The difference is enormous in how they were valued. Some of them, it really was just because they looked great but for others it wasn't. It was because they had both but they were still valued just for their looks.
HERA DUNLEAVY: Things I'd still battle for? Definitely more roles for women and recognition but I think that's a female thing across the board with employment. We have so many amazing female role-models in this country now - so that's awesome but, especially in film and television and in theatre as well, it feels to me that there are always more solid male characters. Women are changing things but I think it will take a long time for writers to come up with roles to even that out. I am always optimistic. Ageing, for me, fills me with hope because there are so many fabulous roles to play for older women – it's just that they're not done.
ALISON QUIGAN: You don't see middle-aged women in lead roles unless they look 10 or 20 years younger. If you look at, for instance, The Brokenwood Mysteries; Neill Rea is wonderful for many reasons – he looks like someone we know but there has not been an occasion in this country where any woman has ever played a role like that, leading a company and she doesn't happen to be size 8. Therefore, all the strength we have had in older women has not been realised, yet they're the audience. People who sit around and watch television are not 18-year-olds.
ON MAKING AND TAKING OPPORTUNITIES:
ANAPELA POLATAIVAO: I've been in this business since I was 15 so that's more than 25 years of forming relationships. I can't imagine what it would be like if I started right now; it almost feels as if I needed that as a foundation because it's only now I can start to make my work – it's been like 25 years of building, philosophising and figuring it all out. I haven't even really started. Making my own work has been hugely important. There's a huge sense of responsibility because I understand we are a minority but also the importance of the Pasifika female voice. We don't have a Judi Dench or a Helen Mirren; this is a new world I entered and had to navigate myself through and find the connections with a very Western world view. That was the only way for me to anchor "me" inside this and to realise, "Oh, it's stories! It's people telling stories and that was like Sunday school," That's probably where it all started, at church and Sunday school.
RTW: I do tend to get cast in comedy but I try to do as much that isn't [comedy] as possible to keep it flexible for myself so I don't get too boxed. I like challenges from all different walks of life and I don't want to be a brand for one thing but it's really hard to knock that on the head once establishments have decided that that's how they are going to make money out of you. Convincing people that you are capable of doing other things is difficult when they can see it's easy to get you recognisable by sticking to one thing but that happens throughout the arts.
LC: Unemployment is always the low. The longest I have been out of work? Fully out of work? I want to say 18 months to two years; usually I write so when that happened for me, I wrote three plays and put them on in 18 months. McLeod's Daughters was a high because it was such a challenge for me as an actor to pull off that character in that environment and be believed because I was very much a city girl from Auckland, New Zealand who was vegetarian and all kind of spiritually woo-wa. Yet I was playing this extremely grounded and earthy meat-eating woman living in a man's world doing a man's work. I loved the challenge of immersing myself in that environment and trying to become a believable part of it. It was my decision to leave McLeod's and I asked for the character to be killed off because she would never leave that property; she'd even said that in previous episodes so I wanted to honour the character and that was the only way to do it.
AQ: When I came out of drama school in the 1980s, I got a year's contract; nowadays, people will be lucky to get one [theatre] show per year but there is more television and film so there's a wider range. However, while there's more opportunity there is more competition so sometimes I think it's harder now than it was before. There is a lot of pressure to do it for less and, wages-wise, it's a race to the bottom. When you audition, you're often asked whether you can be available almost instantly. Juxtapose this with a Creative NZ report that says freelance actors in this country earn $35,000 a year, which is pathetic. So, you go to an audition and you are asked to be available from July through to November but that assumes you are not doing anything at all in your life.
There are so many things to be riled by today – climate change, mental health, the fact we can't seem to have everyone going in the same direction – but, for me, I do think it's equal pay and representation. It's about people – not just in performance industry but in life in general – being paid for the work they do and being paid fairly. Look at some of those CEO salaries! But money isn't the be all and end all of everything; there are other ways of living and measuring success and we need to teach that to our children. When did how much money you have become the only measure of success in life? Or how many houses you own? There are thousands and thousands of people who will never own a house but that is certainly not the only measure of a good and happy life.
RTW: I find I now want more security; I want more definition of what's happening during a year rather than just never knowing. That's all very appealing when you're young, always on a mystery, always on this endless mystery journey of not knowing what comes next. You know, you're tumbleweed and it is exciting because you don't know where you're going to roll next. It can be wonderful but once you get into the space where they want to brand you, you know where the tumbleweed is going so your job is to go against the wind and try to go in another direction.
JWL: I never know what's around the corner. I have played some extraordinary roles in my life and I could have quite happily died then and there. I don't think too far ahead. I don't think any actor can, because you really don't know what's around the corner and it's been like that for 37 years for me. I probably know what I am doing until March next year but I don't know after that what I'm doing. Once I left the safety of a theatre company, it's all I've ever known. You just have to hope that good work gets you good work.
ON KEEPING ON KEEPING ON:
AP: My oldest boy, Rocky, who is 17, is now on-stage with me in Club Paradiso. I wanted to pave a pathway for my kids to make a little bit easier. He's good at school – he's good at science and all the things that were never my strengths. I was never a mathematician but he gets numbers and I think, "Good on you," but he wants to do acting and that's hard. The whole thing about how the planet is changing, what am I leaving my kids and have I set them up enough to ensure that if anything happens to me in the next eight minutes that they were going to be okay - I am totally in that zone and thinking about how life is fragile. I know no one is going to get out of here alive but I think about what am I doing to contribute to my children's paths? Have I given them enough tools for life?
HD: We rely on each other; we rely on our families to step up for us. We [she and partner ATC artistic director Colin McColl and daughter Miro] now live in a pocket community because there's literally a village of people to help look after our child when we're not available. There are seven little townhouses and we share gardens and chickens; we share food. We have our own body corporate and it's a great way to live, it's sharing the load, really.
AQ: When Jacinda Ardern took the job [of Prime Minister] and Mark Richardson said, "Don't we think we have a right to know?"' in terms of her family plans, we went back to work and said, "I hope she is breastfeeding in Parliament" during her term and then she was and I thought, "That's gold!" I thought [it was] fantastic because women with children are incredibly well-organised - they have to be. I remember a male actor saying to me, "I am exhausted." I remember thinking, "I've just been up three times last night and you are a man, who slept alone and slept through the night and you really should not use that word in front of me."
RTW: Does rejection get any easier to deal with? Well, it depends how much you want something. Sometimes you audition for things that you don't really know if you want or something else comes along at the same time and you have to choose. But, no, it doesn't get easier and, to be perfectly honest, if I really, really want to something, I usually hope that their shows fails initially but then, after about 10 minutes, that clears up!
LC: I found my early 20s really challenging; a friend died of leukaemia; I'd done five years of back to back work, I wasn't good at communicating with people and I wasn't really connecting with anyone. It all resulted in a breakdown and that was a terrible time but also a wonderful one in that I learned how to better communicate and connect, to develop a "tool box" [of wellness skills] so I would never go down that black hole again. I went on a journey of learning to look after myself and I feel strongly about passing that knowledge on to others.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Lisa Chappell star in Six Degrees of Separation, ASB Waterfront Theatre, August 14-30; Rima Te Wiata appears in Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, ASB Waterfront Theatre, September 11-26; Anapela Polataivao is in Club Paradiso at Bats Theatre, August 13-17 and takes Wild Dogs Under My Skirt to New York's SoHo Playhouse for its 2020 Showcase in January; Hera Dunleavy appears as a forensic pathologist in The Gulf, which screens later this year on Three; Alison Quigan is performing arts manager at the Māngere Arts Centre.