At 53, Miranda Harcourt is more in demand than ever, appearing in two television series and working as a sought-after international acting coach. She talks to Suzanne McFadden.
Dawn breaks bright and bitter over Lake Pupuke; a sharp wind careers off the inky waters making eyes sting and noses stream. But Miranda Harcourt, resplendent in hunting cape and riding boots, stands strong in the face of the breeze, growling at her dogs: "Stay!"
When the cameras stop rolling, between takes of this park scene in an episode of home-grown murder series The Brokenwood Mysteries, Harcourt hugs a red hot-water bottle to her chest. The show's lead cop, Neill Rea, wraps himself in a blanket. "It's so f***ing cold," Harcourt curses, maybe channelling her character, a small-town theatre luvvie, just a little bit.
She wants to pick up and cuddle her on-screen pet, Molly, a Cairn terrier belonging to producer Chris Bailey and his wife, Judy, the former Mother of the Nation. But while all lenses were focused on Harcourt and Rea, Molly was out of frame, rolling blissfully in swan poo.
Harcourt's cameo appearance in Brokenwood, which airs later this year on Prime, has been like a school reunion. Surprisingly, it's the first time she's worked on-screen with Robyn Malcolm, although they once shared a house in Devonport - 15 years ago, when Harcourt made her first appearance on Shortland Street, as nurse Beanie's mum.
"The wardrobe people at Shorty had to keep letting out my costumes, and it was Robyn who suggested to me that I might be pregnant. Doh!"
Harcourt was indeed pregnant with her second child, daughter Thomasin.
Here's the funny part: both mother and daughter have returned to Shortland Street and this month are acting alongside each other. Thomasin McKenzie, now 14 and playing Pixie Hannah, is the third generation in probably our most esteemed thespian dynasty.
"Acting is a terrible virus in our family," says Harcourt.
As she speaks of viruses, Harcourt is trying to shrug off the vestiges of a stubborn head cold she came down with after that crisp Pupuke morning on the Brokenwood set. Winter in suburban Takapuna and Henderson is one hell of a climate shift from the steamy, chaotic alleyways of Kolkata, where she was working weeks earlier with one of Hollywood's hottest properties, Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel.
Fast-forward another couple of weeks and Harcourt's medical complaints suddenly get far more serious: she's rushed by ambulance to Wellington Hospital after a shard of bone from a family dinner of lamb shanks pierced her oesophagus and left her coughing up blood and struggling for breath. "Very scary."
She's okay now, even if there's still a fragment of it buried in there. It's just a relief she hasn't lost that wonderful, melodious voice.
Harcourt hasn't the time to be poorly. At 53, work is streaming in - and from all different directions.
Since she's let her hair grow progressively white (it's really more of an elegant platinum), she has been in demand for the roles of "mature women".
While we're eating ham sandwiches in the South Pacific Pictures cafeteria, a message on her phone invites her to audition for a television role in Australia.
"There aren't many women out there my age, particularly in Australia, who haven't had facial surgery or don't colour their hair. I look my age," she says. "Coming up to Auckland to film Shortland Street, lots of people said, 'Oh you must be going to play Thomasin's mother'; and I'm like 'No! If anything, I'd be playing her grandmother'. I'm more likely to be playing women in their 60s now."
This time around, she's returned to Shortland as Susan Rolleston, a well-heeled South Island farmer's wife and mother of Dr Boyd Rolleston - played by Sam Bunkall, one of Miranda's former drama school students.
Acceptance of the grey hasn't been universal - off camera, some bluntly point out her roots.
"I carry this hat with me everywhere," she says, grabbing her black military cap off the table, "so I don't offend anyone."
Harcourt isn't easily insulted. So if the calls to audition suddenly dry up, she vows there will be no curling up in a duvet with boxes of tissues and chocolates. Her motivation, her real reward, now comes from somewhere else - "the dark side" she calls it - as her reputation gathers speed as a sought-after acting coach.
More and more Hollywood directors want her on their sets preparing their stars for the screen. Peter Jackson calls her skills "unique"; Lauren Levine, producer of Bridge to Terabithia, where Harcourt's coaching career began in earnest, describes her as "the stitch in time".
Some of the world's best actors Skype her at home in Wellington at 4am, where, through a laptop propped on the family's ironing board, she helps them tackle the day ahead.
"I've just worked with my very first Best Actress Oscar-winner," Harcourt admits proudly. "I can't tell you who it is but, hopefully, there will be more to come."
And at the swiftness Harcourt is travelling, it shouldn't be too long.
Acting is a demanding, time-guzzling and sometimes lonely profession, but coaching actors has its own set of challenges. Earlier this year, Harcourt spent two months in India, working on the feature film Lion, whose stellar cast includes Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. Harcourt coached Patel, who plays the real-life character of Saroo Brierley - an Indian boy lost on a train, adopted by Australians, then reunited with his birth mother 25 years later after poring over Google Earth.
Although Patel has had star billing in a succession of Hollywood box office hits over the last eight years - including Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Harcourt discovered the 25-year-old is still a voracious learner.
"Like many actors nowadays, he left school to go [on screen] and his education was truncated early through no fault of his own. So, when he meets anyone who has things to tell him that he hasn't had the opportunity to learn at school, he's extremely curious and smart, and drinks it all in," she says. "He's gorgeous, like a really big alsatian puppy; there's this beautiful teenage energy about him."
While director Garth Davis (who met Harcourt when she coached child actors on Top of the Lake) transformed Patel's physical appearance - "from geeky, big-eared teenager to long-haired, muscly, sexy guy" - Harcourt helped mould his personality into Saroo.
"What viewers of the film don't usually see is what the person is really like, and the distance they've travelled to become the person on screen. I really admire Dev for achieving a radically different personality to his own in Lion."
Altering Patel was the straightforward part; the real test for Harcourt in Kolkata was being understood by everyone else.
"All the actors in those scenes, except for Dev, only spoke Hindi," laughs Harcourt, who obviously didn't comprehend the local language. Fortunately, she could call on another universal language she has some degree of fluency in - signing.
Harcourt learned sign language early in her acting career, for the play Children of a Lesser God, and she's made sure to keep it up.
"It came in very useful on Lion. You're able to communicate in quite a complex way through gesture."
That's the thing about Harcourt - once she gets absorbed in a project or a pursuit, she feels conscientiously bound to continue it: "I can't let anything go." Like learning sign language, working in the prison system and probing into quantum physics; more often than not, her commitment to carry on with her curious passions will pay her back handsomely.
Harcourt's bedtime reading is not exactly typical of an artist - she has a thirst for books on science, which she borrows from her husband, writer and director Stuart McKenzie.
"I love the world of quantum physics, and the idea of a parallel universe - many different outcomes to one scenario. Applying the theory to acting is really interesting. It's a great way for actors to think about not playing the end of the scene at the beginning."
She's also drawn from her experiences working in New Zealand prisons, where she ran drama workshops and performed her solo play, Verbatim, in the 1990s, and initiated a literacy programme at Wellington's Arohata, where women prisoners record bedtime stories for their children.
"The prison system has given me so much as a person. The idea of 'universality through specificity' is what I took from it most. Taking Verbatim to prisons here, in Australia and in the UK, I realised that in being incredibly particular about one story you invite everyone in, rather than trying to be universal and just ending up being generic," she says.
"One woman prisoner told me about the nine cyclamen buds she counted on the plant on the table next to the front door, as she left her home and kids to go to her sentencing. That image is so specific it's always stayed with me."
She's still discovering how she's made a difference on the inside. Matthias Luafutu was serving time for armed robbery when he saw Harcourt in Verbatim. He went on to study at Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand drama school, where Harcourt was head of acting for seven years, then deftly played an on-screen villain in TV3 drama Harry.
"I'm really proud [of] that all this time later," Harcourt says, "I'll pull into a petrol station somewhere in the country, and the guy at the pump will say, 'Gidday, I met you, back in the day'. And I say, 'Oh where?'. 'Up near Hamilton'. And I know it must have been when I performed at Waikeria.
"I know a lot of what I do is weird. But I'm just a greedy pig - I want to be interested in everything. Diversity is cool."
"So what were you doing when you were 12?" It was a question Harcourt was asked by the mother of a student at Samuel Marsden Collegiate, a private girls' school in Wellington. Harcourt had to think about the answer.
Thomasin, the middle of Harcourt's and McKenzie's three children, is in Year 10 at Marsden, but she's spent most weekdays of this year in Auckland filming Shortland Street as Pixie, a teenage cancer patient.
As a scholarship student, Thomasin was to have given an inspirational speech to Year 8 pupils, but her mother delivered it in her absence. Another mum asked if Harcourt ever experienced fear or apprehension about her daughter acting out emotionally-fraught situations, such as her first major role as a young Louise Nicholas in Consent.
"I answered that, honestly, I don't. I feel Tom can handle it ... she's so grounded. And she's driving this," Harcourt says. "If we'd had a problem with it, we wouldn't have let her come to Shortland Street. It's a big deal, you know? She's only little.
"Then when another mum asked what I was doing when I was 12, I suddenly remembered. Oh. My. God."
It evoked memories of her love of drawing as a kid, and how her mother, celebrated thespian Dame Kate Harcourt, had a friend who taught life drawing to design students at Wellington Polytechnic.
"So for four years, every Wednesday after school, my mother would send me to draw nudes," she says. "I wasn't a mature girl, and these 22-year-old punk students were very naughty."
When she arrived at class late, they would save her a seat - always in the front row, affording the best view of the male model's family jewels.
Rather than scar her for life, Harcourt reckons it bolstered her confidence. In fact, she's keen to return to life drawing classes as a more mature student.
The Harcourt-McKenzies haven't tried to dissuade their children from acting but they've always kept it real.
"Thomasin has been with me down at the supermarket, when I've waved around the eftpos card going 'Oh dear, there's not enough money this week, we'll have to leave the groceries here' - which is very embarrassing for a teenager. Good on her for going into this knowing the reality, that you can't expect to lead a millionaire's lifestyle as an actor," Harcourt says.
Thomasin has remained diligent in her studies, doing homework in the Shortland Street dressing room at lunchtime. "It's so cute, because she'll be struggling with some maths problem, and [actors] Jacquie Nairn and Ange Bloomfield in the dressing room opposite will help her. Her academic results have gone up since she's been there," her mother says.
On weekends, mum and daughter will read lines together, and Thomasin sometimes goes along to Harcourt's Saturday morning classes for teens at the Creative Performing Arts School. But Harcourt has never coached her own child; she thinks there are enough acting dialogues already swirling around their huge 1970s home on a clifftop above Wellington's southern bays.
Dame Kate, now 88, lives downstairs and still does at least one acting job a week. "My mother is lifted up by acting - it invigorates her. She's just done her first modelling job, for a jewellers, too.
Also downstairs is Thomasin's 16-year-old brother, Peter, who's acted the lead in a number of short films, including the award-winning Birdsong; was an extra in The Hobbit; and starred opposite Sir Ian McKellen in a stage production of Waiting for Godot in Wellington.
But his true passion - which thrills his mother - is world politics. A two-time national schools debating champion, Peter is in Singapore this week, representing New Zealand at the world championships; his ambition, to become a diplomat or work for the United Nations Secretariat.
At 8, Harcourt's youngest child, Davida, has the virus too; she played the lead in short film TurtleBank Hustler - with her grandmother - earlier this year. But her motivation for acting is simple.
"It means earning money to buy 'Littlest Petshop' toys," says her mum.
A sixth actor also lives under their Houghton Bay roof: McKenzie's 30-year-old daughter, Sara Allen, is an acting graduate of Toi Whakaari.
"She's been studying psychology, which is a great pathway; the best training for an actor," says Harcourt. "Thomasin wants to do it too."
With all this theatrical energy zinging around the house, Harcourt can quietly step into a different room. As well as coaching, she and McKenzie are working together to bring Margaret Mahy's supernatural thriller novel, The Changeover, to the big screen. It's a major project that's been 30 years in the making - ever since Harcourt read the book for radio in her very first job out of drama school.
They plan to start filming, based in Christchurch, within the next six months, and have already cast Cannes best actor winner Timothy Spall in the lead.
"Being on the dark side of the camera means you can live a separate life that's intensely interesting and rewarding. There's just no room in our house now for me to be an actor too."
The Harcourts are a family of sound sleepers, and tend to doze through the low buzz of Miranda's alarm clock - which means Stuart McKenzie often has to rattle his wife awake in the wee small hours to attend to the needs of a Hollywood starlet.
Being an acting coach via Skype means being available 24 hours a day for wherever in the world the client may be. "Sometimes it's midnight, sometimes 4am," Harcourt says. "But I love it."
The love is mutual. Harcourt has a gift for bringing out the best in young actors; on her regular list of shimmering young luminaries are The Hunger Games' Isabelle Fuhrman and Josh Hutcherson; Austin Butler of The Carrie Diaries and Lorraine Nicholson (daughter of Jack). But her longest relationship has been with American actress AnnaSophia Robb, who she first coached as a 13-year-old on the Auckland set of Bridge to Terabithia and, eight years on, now calls a friend.
On the sands of Hawaii, Harcourt was Robb's personal acting coach for Soul Surfer in 2011, when she ended up working with Nicholson and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood, in her first acting role. "Carrie said, 'Can I work with that New Zealand chick?' and I got summonsed to her hotel room," Harcourt recalls.
It all began two decades ago, when she helped a young, naive Melanie Lynskey before her second audition for Heavenly Creatures.
"In the course of just a few hours, she managed to help me give a performance that would convince Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] to trust me with such a difficult role," says Lynskey in a glowing endorsement on Harcourt's website. "She taught me about screen acting, and gave me techniques that not only could my 15-year-old self easily understand and put into practice, but that I am still using in my work today."
Harcourt's job isn't to teach actors their craft, but to help them better understand the story and characters they portray. She's famous for her "two-minute tools" for actors and directors that can quickly make a difference on screen.
"Because so much preparation for actors happens alone in a hotel room in their own head, it's great to have someone to bounce ideas around with," she says.
"AnnaSophia was doing an episode of The Carrie Diaries where an artist was accused of pornography. I read the script and said, 'It's clearly based on the pornographic artist Annie Sprinkle'. And she's like 'Who?'. Because she's so busy, I can go away and do the research for her - like her intellectual outboard motor."
Harcourt also works with actors here and in Australia, and is planning coaching workshops in London, where she once studied drama therapy. But the call to Hollywood is growing louder.
"At some point, I'd like to go and live in Los Angeles. It is the home of acting coaching.
"It's still easy to move around the world, and take the family with me for short periods of time. But, ultimately, I can't just work here in New Zealand with New Zealanders, because the population base isn't big enough."
But while she has three children in school, and an octogenarian mother still treading the boards, the hectic houseful of thespians remains Harcourt's home.
Harcourt joins Shortland Street on August 10. Series 2 of The Brokenwood Mysteries screens on Prime later this year.