Actor and director Miriama McDowell is one of the first 'intimacy co-ordinators' working in New Zealand's film and TV industry since the #MeToo movement.
1 You recently began working as an "intimacy co-ordinator". What's that?
It's a new role that's been created after #MeToo and [Harvey] Weinstein to keep actors safe on set when they're doing intimate scenes. I was first invited to work in this role for Ahikāroa, a bilingual TV drama with lots of sexual content and young inexperienced actors. Then I did a course with Ita O'Brien who works worldwide as an intimacy trainer. I know of three of us working in this area in Auckland and the demand has steadily increased in the past year. Going forward, all Film Commission and NZ on Air projects will need to have intimacy co-ordinators.
2 Are you involved in the planning or the filming of sex scenes?
A bit of both. You work closely with the director on how ideas will be communicated, being very specific about what will be seen on screen. Then you go on set to ensure they stick to what was agreed. In my experience as an actor, the director will always push it further. As actors, our whole ethos is to say yes to everything, so my biggest job is helping actors say no. We actually do practice exercises. You can feel in your body when you want to say no, but it can be very hard to get out of your mouth. On the other end of the spectrum, I've got a toddler who says no all day and night — even in her sleep. I wonder when we unlearn that.
3 How far have we got to go in achieving equality for women in film and TV?
My focus is more on multicultural rights than women's rights. We need more diversity, including gender diversity, and we're not there yet. For example, I'm watching The Gulf on TV3 at the moment. It's a beautiful New Zealand drama, but I cannot escape the feeling that there are only white people in that show and I can't understand why.
4 How can we improve diversity in film and TV?
True partnership starts from the outset. For too long we've gone, "We'll get a Māori adviser at the end" and it ain't good enough. You have to engage in partnership from the first day of writing the story and walk the path together. It's harder, it takes more time and money and understanding but I think that's all we can settle for now if we really want to move forward.
5 Your version of Much Ado About Nothing the Pop-Up Globe's most popular show — why?
Jennifer Dann's 12 questions with author Tessa Duder
12 questions with Tama Waipara: How head injury changed my life
I wanted to make a play where young brown people could recognise themselves instead of thinking Shakespeare's just for brainy white people, so I switched the setting to a Pacific Island, which really changed the whole flavour of it. I had one character only speak Samoan for the entire play.
6 In the new short film Rū, you play a pregnant woman kidnapped by a gang prospect. Did you find that distressing?
No, I found it empowering to key into that sense of strength you feel for the first time as a mother. Before I had children, friends told me about that feeling where you'd kill to protect your child — it's a big transition as a human.
7 As a solo mum to two daughters aged 7 and nearly 2, how do you juggle work and parenting?
I have to be creative. I literally do one day at a time. Thankfully I have heaps of support from family and friends, but even the best laid plans fall over when kids get sick. Luckily Mum's a great person to call at the last minute. Dad and my step mum are great when I have to go away for weeks at a time. My big sister will do the school pick-ups. Still, that evening shift when I come home from work and cook the dinner and get the kids to bed does not get easier. I just have to remember I'm not the only person in the world doing this and it's not forever, it's all stages.
8 What has been the hardest time as a working mum?
I've just acted in a feature film called Coming Home In The Dark, based on an Owen Marshall story, which involved being away from home for six weeks. I thought it would be a great time to give up breastfeeding because the girls' dad was taking them for two weeks, but it was actually really difficult. My breasts were so swollen and painful. I had lots of breakdowns on set. I'd get back to the motel room at 4am and my baby would scream for an hour because she could smell the milk on me.
9 What was your childhood like, growing up in Auckland?
I'm one of four kids. I have two sisters and a twin brother. My parents separated when I was 8, and we were raised by Dad, so I've got a very strong and close connection to him. That relationship has really made me who I am. Reconnecting with mum's side, my Māori side, in adulthood has been a difficult journey. It becomes clear how much you've missed. You put expectations on yourself about what you should know and how close you should be. It's ongoing.
10 You're a multi-linguist — which languages do you speak best?
After English, Spanish is my second-best language, then French. I learnt Latin at school too. I'm learning Māori at AUT one day a week. After picking up Spanish really quickly at 17, it's been frustrating to find te reo a step by step journey. If I could talk to my younger self, I'd say "Take a year and do it now". Those pathways in the brain are harder to build when you're older. My daughter's in a bilingual unit at school. It's so inspiring to hear all the kids' fluency and familiarity with tikanga Māori.
11 Have you been to Ihumātao?
I took my kids out to visit the other day. I have so much respect for people who can commit to a cause like that. I just watched the Merata Mita documentary on Netflix. It was amazing to see the protesters putting their safety on the line at Bastion Point and the Springboks tour. Both my parents were involved in that. Those early photos of Merata look so much like mum.
12 How do you feel about turning 40 this year?
I'm celebrating by climbing 40 mountains. It's been such a cool project. I started by climbing Te Piha or Lion Rock on New Year's Day and I'm nearly halfway. I'd never climbed our family maunga Motatau near Kawakawa, so my brother and sisters and our kids went up with Mum.
• Miriama McDowell stars in Rū at the Show Me Shorts Film Festival nationwide, October 5 to 24. www.showmeshorts.co.nz