When I flew to cover the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for RogerEbert.com earlier this summer, it was only my second time outside of North America. I was thrilled yet daunted by the opportunity to spend eight days on my own in a foreign country I had little time to research prior to my visit. Luckily, I had already touched base with a filmmaker I was planning to meet there in person—Stuart McKenzie, father of New Zealand actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who has earned well-deserved raves around the world for her astonishing performance in Debra Granik’s latest film, “Leave No Trace.” Stuart personally arranged my interview with Thomasin at KVIFF, and the time I spent with them turned out to be one of the great joys of my career. Not only did our initial conversation last an hour, spanning over multiple locations, we got the chance to talk at various other events throughout the festival. I was struck not only by their boundless wisdom and generosity but the warmth of their humanity. Thomasin was shooting the upcoming Taika Waititi film, “Jojo Rabbit,” in Prague, and her stories about the New Zealand film industry made me eager to learn more.
Stuart and his wife, Miranda Harcourt, had recently co-directed “The Changeover,” an adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel of the same name. Erana James, a remarkable actress previously seen alongside Thomasin and Miranda on the wonderful web series, “Lucy Lewis Can’t Lose,” makes her film debut as Laura, a teenager whose young brother, Jacko (Benji Purchase), is preyed upon by a supernatural force taking the form of a nightmare-inducing Timothy Spall. Only after bonding with a handsome witch (Nicholas Galitzine) does Laura begin to discover the power residing within her to heal her family. Melanie Lynskey turns in a riveting performance as Laura’s mother, and the ensemble also features Lucy Lawless and Miranda’s mother, Dame Kate Harcourt, a celebrated veteran of the New Zealand stage. Miranda’s own breakout role arrived on the popular soap opera, “Gloss,” before she and Stuart created Verbatim, a stunning theatrical production designed for inmates at prisons. The script was based on testimonials of the prisoners’ families as well as the families of victims. As a sought-after acting coach, Miranda has worked with numerous major talents, including Nicole Kidman for her Oscar-nominated performance in “Lion” and her Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award-winning performance on HBO’s “Big Little Lies.”
“The Changeover” is a splendidly effective addition to the YA genre, and Miranda believes that one of its chief strengths is the fact that it has a “strong Māori, non-Caucasian woman” at the center of its narrative. I recently had the honor of chatting with Miranda at length via Skype about her invaluable acting tools, her admiration of Melanie Lynskey and the importance of “aroha” (love) and “whānau” (family) in New Zealand.
How does the tight-knit artistic community of New Zealand contrast with those in other countries?
I’ve spent a lot of time on sets—Australian sets, British sets, Americans sets—and since there are less than five million people living in New Zealand, we all tend to know each other in the industry. Everyone works on everyone else’s projects, so it’s like the indie scene in New York or LA, but spread out over a whole country. It doesn’t matter whether you are working in Queenstown or Auckland. Everyone is very willing to give each other a leg up, which is a phrase we use often here. It is a country more attuned to the British sensibility than the American sensibility, so there is a Presbyterian quality to our industry as well as to our national character. We are quite reserved people and we are not free with our praise so much. We are quite on the down low. The other day, I said to one of Thomasin’s really good friends from school, “Are you going to Thomasin’s movie?” and she went, “What movie?” [laughs] That’s classic New Zealand. We are very good at cutting people down to size.
There is a funny mixture in the industry between extreme generosity and the sentiment of, ‘Don’t get a big head.’ Prior to shooting “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi was asked by a local journalist what his favorite place was in New Zealand, expecting him to say the Maruia Hot Springs or Karekare Beach. Instead, he said, “The departure lounge.” People were furious about that. They were like, ‘How can he say that? He’s a New Zealander.’ But Taika’s attitude was, ‘Enough with the chopping me down to size. Why don’t you just celebrate my success?’ Because Taika’s success is success for everybody. You are a very informed person, but there are others who have seen his work and suddenly gone, “My god, New Zealand is somewhere beyond Australia?!” America and Britain have woken up to the fact that New Zealand exists and that there is a film industry here. People have wanted to come shoot films here in the past, such as “Avatar,” with our beautiful mountains and lakes being the main incentive. There is something in the water here that makes the filmmaking experience in New Zealand a wonderful experience, and people love coming here to benefit from the vibe of our great crews. But now people are realizing that there are actually actors and directors from New Zealand who are making great products and have a particular sense of humor that is really chiming with the world at the moment.
The first New Zealand film I saw was Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider,” which has a rich humanity that I was reminded of when reading about the play you created and performed for prisoners. The generosity of that work seems indicative of the country’s overarching spirit.
The work that I’ve done in the prison system has been absolutely seminal to the work that I do now as an acting coach. It’s very interesting that you mention “Whale Rider” and my prison work in one sentence, since my primary work as an acting coach is in creating connections between people. You see that in “Whale Rider” because the relationship between Niki Caro and Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was Oscar-nominated for her role as Pai, was really tight. The director would sleep on mattresses in the “marae”—the Māori meeting house—with the actors, and they connected in a very human way. That creation of relationships is something I’m very committed to in my work, whether it’s coaching Nicole Kidman on “Big Little Lies” or assisting Thomasin on this film she is doing now, “The True History of the Kelly Gang.” That sense of connection through the therapeutic application of theatre and performance skills is very tied into the culture of Australia and the Pacific Islands, particularly New Zealand, because it is a very connected country.
The word for “love” in Māori is “aroha.” This morning on the news, there was a New Zealand novice cheese maker who just won an award in Britain. When the reporter asked him about the key to his success, he replied, “I make my cheese with ‘aroha.’” And everyone in New Zealand goes, “Ah, that makes sense.” You’ve got to bring love to each other in order to form really good work, whether it’s cheese or films or theatre. In my case, I trained at the Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, and then I played one of the lead roles in a successful soap opera, “Gloss,” for three years. Having done all that, I wanted to go to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and study the use of drama as a therapeutic tool for a year. It was an amazing experience. I worked at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in the Maximum Security D Wing, I worked in a therapeutic center for profoundly disabled adults, I worked in a school for deaf children because I had learned sign language for a play, and I worked at a psychiatric institution. All of those wonderful experiences allowed me to understand what I now call “reverse the flow,” where it is not about you. Your work will only flow through the camera and into the audience if you really reverse the flow and make it about the other person. It’s a simple principle aligned with that concept of “aroha,” doing it with love, and that feeds into the work that I do now.
Along with Stuart and another writer, William Brandt, we wrote two plays—one called Verbatim, which was based on the verbatim texts that were popularized by the amazing American practitioner Anna Deavere Smith, whom I still follow with great passion. We made our play around the time that Anna was doing her early work on Broadway, around 1991-92. Verbatim was performed primarily for the prison system, and it was funded by the justice department. In New Zealand, the justice system is very much about restorative justice and reparation as opposed to retributive justice, which characterizes the American system. The life sentence here is 15 years, which is not very long compared with the sentences handed down in the states. Because the maximum sentence here is not life, but rather, a good chunk of time, it’s important to use educational programs and psychotherapeutic programs within the prison system to allow people to emerge from prison and not be a danger to society. Verbatim was commissioned by the justice system as part of its restorative justice program.
I toured every single prison in New Zealand, which at that time was 22—men’s prisons, women’s prisons—and sometimes I would do the show three times a day. We would perform the show wherever there happened to be a space—sometimes it was the kitchen, sometimes it would be outside in the yard, sometimes it would be in the recreation room. We couldn’t require the prisons to provide an environment where the show could respect its original design components. Sometimes it would be a traverse stage, sometimes it would be in the round. It all depended on how the room was set up. Stuart and I spent about ten years working end to end in the prison system making these shows. The second one we did was Portraits, and since it was about such an intense and horrendous crime, we didn’t perform that in the prison system. That show was made essentially for art galleries. We collaborated with the visual artist Ronnie van Hout, who traveled to the original place where this crime—an abduction, rape and murder—occurred, at the bottom of South Island. He photographed the environments where Kylie Smith, the victim of this crime, had lived her life, and I performed it in a number of art galleries around New Zealand where the verbatim words of the original people in the story and the artworks all sat alongside each other.
It still amazes me how rare it is for the theatre arts to collaborate with the visual arts. In “The Changeover,” there are a lot of great New Zealand works of art on display. You may not pick up on them, but a New Zealander who is attuned to the world of the visual arts will go, “Oh, there’s a Don Driver! There’s a Ronnie van Hout!” Having this kind of work in the witches’ house helps set them in the particular milieu of the New Zealand middle class, where they have disguised their true identities.
Thomasin told me that people in New Zealand were impressed that you and Stuart “didn’t get into wars onset” while co-directing “The Changeover.” What made you decide to see a marriage counselor prior to production?
“Whānau” is the Māori word for family, and there are two predominant families that we are dealing with in making any film, but particularly in our case on this project. The first is our own family unit—Thomasin, our son Peter, our daughter Davida and my mother Kate who lives downstairs. We knew that we were embarking on a huge journey, and it was going to be very challenging. We were going to have to live in Christchurch for two months, and from that perspective, we knew we had to protect that primary sense of “whānau.” Our worst nightmare would’ve been if the film had broken the family and caused us to drift apart. Stuart and I saw a marriage counselor so that we could implement some tools, while setting up objectives and ground rules, in order to ensure that we drove the truck in a responsible way on the road. It turned out to be very successful because we are all still here together a couple years down the track. The other “whānau” that we were interested in protecting was the family of the film crew. I’ve been on sets where the crew is effected by the vibe between the director and the producer or the lead actor. You can’t do your best work as a coach or a production designer or a gaffer because there’s so much conflict at the top level of the leadership team. You want to create an environment where even though there is a slightly odd dynamic where the two directors are married to each other, you don’t feel as if that relationship is erupting like a volcano and spilling out any negative energy towards what you are all aiming to achieve.
I was inspired by the teamwork of Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik as well as Linda Reisman and Anne Harrison on “Leave No Trace,” and we wanted to achieve that same thing on this film. One way that we were able to do that is we all had to go live in Christchurch. Since much of the town had been impacted by earthquakes, accommodation was at a premium and there wasn’t much of a film infrastructure there either. It’s very expensive to shoot a movie down there, so in order for us to bring our whole crew in, we all ended up living in the YWCA on Hereford Street in central Christchurch. The city council made that available to us, so we all lived in this student hostel. It was like going back to everyone’s university days, where you’d be in your socks and you’d meet the focus puller while going up the stairs to find the shared kitchen. Aside from Timothy Spall, obviously, everyone—the camera team, directors, actors, producers, the costume department—was living in the same building, and that really promoted this sense of “whānau.”
It was a very leveling, democratic experience, and a distinctly New Zealand value is the democracy of the film crew. There is a hierarchy, but everybody is afforded respect for the individual things that they do. Perhaps because the unions aren’t quite as strong here—which is both a good and a bad thing—if someone needs to drive into town to pick up an umbrella, or somebody needs to borrow a cable, or somebody’s wearing a shirt that is going to look good on the character, people will volunteer. They’ll be like, ‘Oh sure, here’s my shirt, you can wear it, because that will make the film better.’ There isn’t the division of labor that you find on a union film set in the states, and Taika’s films, such as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” are good examples of that fluidity onset. While making “The Changeover,” we tried to create that feeling of fellowship and democracy and shared experience—“whānau” values—and we were able to achieve that because coincidentally, we were all living in the same place.
There is a low-key, organic beauty about “The Changeover” that sets it apart from other YA adaptations by grounding the supernatural in a credible real world. Stuart cited influences such as “Stalker,” “Let the Right One In,” “Lore” and the work of Studio Ghibli.
Margaret Mahy’s original book made its supernatural story highly natural. Laura talks about having to jumpstart the car for the mother to get to work and mowing the lawn and going to the supermarket. The narrative is very much grounded in the real world before it makes the leap into a kind of psychedelic dreamscape. That’s the journey we wanted to chart while maintaining a strong aesthetic commitment to naturalism, especially at the beginning. Other references that I would cite in terms of social realist supernaturalism would be the works of Kelly Reichardt—“Wendy and Lucy” is a great example—the works of Andrea Arnold, particularly “Fish Tank,” and of course, “Winter’s Bone” by Debra Granik. Ken Loach’s “Kes” is a great film that I often teach, and also served as an influence. It has such freedom and space in the blocking, suggesting that Loach simply let everyone onscreen—actors and non-actors—do their magic while he found a way to follow them with a camera. From the perspective of our cinematographer, Andrew Stroud, and from the perspective of what we’ve wanted to achieve visually with the light while celebrating the natural environment, those films really fit strongly into what we were envisioning for “The Changeover.”
We also didn’t want to see acting, and this is where my skill as a director’s coach and an acting coach that I’ve utilized around the world comes into play. I just heard from a young Roman filmmaker [Luca Nappa] who I worked with last year on a film called “Warriors of Sanita” which won prizes at various festivals. I’m also working on “Vai,” a film comprised of eight-minute short films each directed by a woman from the Pacific Islands. On these projects, as well as “The Changeover,” I set out to achieve a strong sense of “aroha” and connectivity not only between the characters in the film but the actors in the film. I feel like the characters can’t be connected unless the actors are also connected. My job is to connect the actors in order to give the illusion that the characters have a long backstory that flows behind them.
I could tell this film was directed by people who understand actors, particularly when the camera holds on Laura’s face when she discovers that her boyfriend is a witch, enabling her—and the audience—to drink in this sudden revelation.
I’m really glad you mentioned that moment. That is Stuart’s favorite moment, and it’s one of mine too. That is the pivot point in the film when it crosses the bridge from social realism into supernaturalism and rides the wave of the genre. It was a very specific choice to linger on that moment so that the audience could go with her on the intricacies of her journey. At first, she’s like, ‘Yeah, right, you’re a witch,’ but then eventually has to come into a new way of understanding. Feeding into that is her realization that if she wants to save her brother, she has to take a leap of faith and abandon the conventional medical system by entering this guy’s world, where supernatural energy has the potential to heal her brother. The impact of that moment, therefore, is absolutely weighted on how strong her relationship is with her brother. That is about Laura loving Jacko, but because film is such an intimate medium, it’s really about how much Erana loves Benji. So in order for Laura to love Jacko, and for the audience to go on that journey from social realism to supernaturalism, Erana must connect with her little co-star, Benji.
We didn’t want to do what usually happens on film sets, where the actors are expected to get onset and—“Bam!”—they just start pretending to have a connection, whether it be sexual or familial. I like to find a way to connect my actors, even if they happen to be in separate places. We had Erana for our two weeks of rehearsals down in Christchurch, but we didn’t yet have Benji. He was still up in Auckland, which is two hours away by plane. So she bought him a little gift—a matching card game based on Dr. Seuss—and she wrote a card saying, “Hey Benji! It’s Erana here. I’m so looking forward to meeting you and playing your sister, Laura. We’re going to have such a great time together. Lots of love, Erana [your sister Laura—you can call me Laura if you want.]” Benji’s mother used her phone to film him opening the present, and he was thrilled. Then she sent the video to Erana, and we filmed her watching the video, and going, “Aw, he likes my gift.” So already, there’s a little love flowing between the two islands of New Zealand. When Benji arrived onset, he brought toys from his own bedroom that we could use to furnish the production design, so that he would feel a sense of ownership over his character’s space. At that point, he and Erana already knew and loved each other, and the first thing they did in their rehearsal process was sit down and play the Dr. Seuss game. Then when Timothy came onboard, they taught him how to play it.
These are connective tools for humans, and our objective is that the characters reap the benefits of the tools that you play out between the actors. My favorite example of the connectivity that we created through the rehearsal process was when Nicholas Galitzine, who is English, arrived in New Zealand. He was 22, Erana—who’s a New Zealander—was 17, and she was very nervous about meeting him. He’s a very experienced actor and she wasn’t, so we wanted to find a level playing field for them. We took them straight to Queenstown, where there is a famous bungee jumping place called AJ Hackett Bungy. Our best friends own and run the place, so we asked them to sort out a tandem bungee experience for Erana and Nicholas. You have to really hold onto the other person when jumping off together, and you are tethered by the feet. It’s absolutely terrifying. So they did it, and it turned out to be an amazing way to create a four-month relationship in five minutes. By the time they came back up out of the river after doing the jump, they were on the same planet as each other. They’d had an incredibly intense experience that connected them, and that bond lasted for the rest of the shoot and even now. They will be mates for life.
Was there an effort to craft a similar connection between AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson, when you coached them on “Bridge to Terabithia”? I was completely caught off guard when the final act of that film reduced me to tears.
That film was shot in New Zealand, so they brought onboard a lot of American actors who happened to be living in New Zealand—such as Latham Gaines, who played AnnaSophia’s dad. My first job as an acting coach was actually for Peter Jackson. I’ve worked on many of his films, and he’s been a great mentor to me. I really appreciate his input into my career. That initial job was for me to coach Melanie Lynskey on “Heavenly Creatures,” and then I took a long break. When I came back, my first job in my current iteration as an acting coach was on “Bridge to Terabithia.” Since then, I decided to throw out everything else and become a full-time acting coach because I love it so much.
My job was to find a way for Josh and AnnaSophia to connect with each other, which is really difficult because they were playing 11-year-olds, but they were both 13. There is a big difference between those ages in terms of how boys and girls relate to one another. That made it difficult to get them to connect because they were very alert to each other, and I think you kind of read the electricity between them in the film. It was such an unusual Disney/Walden Media film because you go into it thinking it’s a family movie like “The Incredible Journey,” and for those who haven’t read the book, it’s a big shock when one of the lead characters dies. It provides a real coming-of-age journey for young filmgoers, but that’s what Katherine Paterson’s book is about, and coincidentally, Katherine Paterson and Margaret Mahy were very good mates. Those books and their subsequent adaptations have a lot in common because Katherine and Margaret were both committed to painting pictures of real people experiencing real things. Josh’s experience of poverty at the beginning of “Bridge to Terabithia” is a great way to start the film. It’s adds a bit of social realism to the YA genre.
“Heavenly Creatures” is my favorite Peter Jackson film, and in both that picture and “The Changeover,” Lynskey brings an arresting authenticity to her performance.
It was a huge pleasure for us that she was interested in coming on board to play the mother because, like you, we really admire her body of work, particularly as an older actress in Hollywood. She did “Heavenly Creatures,” and then she was kind of stranded as a New Zealand girl from the provinces. She’s from New Plymouth, and she had been discovered at her high school. Suddenly, there she was in LA trying to cut it—putting on lipstick, wearing a push-up bra and trying to be a Hollywood girl. I don’t think she felt that was working for her, and she wasn’t really happy. As time went on, she realized, ‘You know what? This is me, this is my body, this is what I look like. Take me for my talent and the specificity of what I have to offer, the complexity of what I have to offer, and my acting talent as opposed to the way I look.’ She’s a really beautiful woman, but she’s not afraid to show her wrinkles or wear a scungy old jersey. She’s not afraid to be an unconventional beauty. I so admire her.
Her early experience in Hollywood is evocative of her marvelous role as the not-so-wicked stepsister in “Ever After,” the first film I ever saw her in. Her character initially tried to look like her more conventionally pretty sibling, but she proved to be infinitely more appealing on her own terms.
Exactly. It’s so great for women that Melanie Lynskey has had this successful indie Hollywood career. A couple of years ago, she won Best Actress at Sundance for “The Intervention.” Next year, her film “I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. She’s become a darling of the independent filmmakers, as she should, so it was a great privilege for us to have her in our movie because her work is so awesome. Melanie has said in a number of interviews that she’s really grateful to me for introducing her to that particular vibe of performance sensibility at that early point of her career. I told her the same thing that I tell actors now, which is that the camera does not want to see you acting. The camera wants to see you reveal yourself, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that in every single role. Once you do that—in collaboration with the story, the character, the production design, the cinematography—you reveal a different aspect of yourself because every human is a rich and complex combination of many different qualities. So really, it’s about respecting yourself and trusting yourself to bring, as Marcel Duchamp would say, “the infrathin difference” to each character, which can translate as a huge difference through the lens of the camera.
Melanie and Erana were not afraid to show the conflict between a daughter and a mother. Teenagers who’ve watched our film have related to this teenager who is trying to establish her own identity, and is being held back by her mother, who wants her to remain 15, even though she’s a year older. I thought that was very courageous of the actresses to not want to be the “likable daughter” or the “cool Hollywood mom,” but to play that element of conflict. We weren’t able to have Melanie for our rehearsal period because she was doing a TV show in the states. She arrived a day or so before she started shooting, so she and Erana were not going to have a lot of time together to sort out their relationship. So we asked them to Skype with each other according to a particular structure that comes from Dr. Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York. He has devoted the last 25 years to developing a series of 36 questions that promote intimacy. This has been picked up and used a lot in dating magazines, but it’s designed to conjure intimacy not just in a romantic sense, but from all sorts of perspectives. The questions start light, but then get pretty heavy and over a period of time, they allow two people to encounter each other in a surprising way. Erana and Melanie asked each other these questions over Skype, and my god, they fell in love! They still connect with one another now. When they met onset, they immediately gave each other a really big hug, and related to each other like mother and daughter. Interestingly, Garth Davis and I gave those same 36 questions to Rooney Mara and Dev Patel to create the character history behind Saroo and Lucy in “Lion.”
Another great acting tool utilized by Thomasin and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace” was the “hug to connect” technique.
That is actually a tool from family therapy. It’s not an acting tool at all, but it’s really useful as one. The actors are in a relaxed hug together for two minutes, and go through a body meditation listening to each other’s breath and heartbeat. Then when they pull away, they are able to lose their self-consciousness about their own performance. Suddenly the other person is more important than you are to yourself, and that’s really valuable. I’ve got many acting tools, but these are the key ones that we used onset with “The Changeover,” along with the traditional Māori greeting known as “Hongi.” Two actors press their foreheads and noses together forming an eskimo kiss, and in this space between them, they breathe in the other person. It enlivens that space between people. Ben and Thomasin also used that to amazing effect on “Leave No Trace.”
I was so moved by how Thomasin became motivated to act from seeing the good that could come from telling an important story, as in “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story” or your and Stuart’s film, “For Good.” Nicole Kidman’s acclaimed performance in “Big Little Lies” is another example of how great art can illuminate truths about harrowing subjects.
“Big Little Lies” is about domestic abuse, but it’s not. The telling of that story is so tangential and the idea of the central theme being a tangent is very central to my practice as a storyteller. I find films and stories and plays most interesting when all the characterizations, relationships and story elements are incredibly rich, while the central theme is hidden like a jewel under the earth. Another good example of that is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The lead character has been sexually abused by his aunt, played by Melanie Lynskey, but that element is buried so deeply that it allows the film to be a very rich experience. The story is also about a kid making friends and finding his tribe, while the central wound of the film is hidden in the fabric of the storytelling. When the reveal comes of what’s really going on for Celeste, Nicole’s character in “Big Little Lies,” it registers as a massive blow to the audience. It’s like a deep explosion that gives rise to a big emotional response. Nicole is telling that story, but at the same time, there are so many other rich things going on for her.
Nicole is a really smart actress. She understands that she can’t portray Celeste’s marriage to Perry [Alexander Skarsgård] merely as a violent relationship. She allows the love and sexual connection between Perry and Celeste to be just as valid, because for people to break up, something has to break. Even if there’s a lot of conflict there, or in her case, a lot of abuse, she also has to break something, and in this case, it’s her addiction to Perry. Nicole is such an intuitive and deeply intelligent actress that she knew how to portray the reality of breaking up with your abuser, for whom you also feel a lot of respect and gratitude. He’s the father of her children. She had to find her way through all these amazing feelings that she has for Perry in order to be able to truly leave him, and that reflects what millions of women around the world feel about their own personal relationships. I can’t talk too much about my work with Nicole, but it is such a privilege to have these conversations with her and be able to feed into that iconic characterization.
For me, everything is about acting—science is about acting, psychology is about acting, parenting is about acting—and that can be a little tiring and relentless for my family. For Stuart, everything is about storytelling, so early on, Thomasin was like, ‘Oh my god, acting—get away from me!’ That created a very strong wellspring for her to discover her talent because she didn’t want to do it. She didn’t want to be famous and she wasn’t aiming towards acting to achieve anything. She was running away from it, and finding other things that interested her, like psychology, visual arts, writing—she’s a very good writer—and she was searching out other elements in her identity that she could explore and be rewarded by. I left the world of soap opera in order to work in the world of drama therapy, and people around me were like, ‘What are you thinking? You’re leaving the money, the climate, the frocks and the fans to go work in some grubby place with disabled people in Britain?’ But I was following my heart and what genuinely interested me, which is to use the craft skills of being an actor and storyteller in order to make a difference, and I really see that in Thomasin too.
I was coaching a few actors via Skype for the role that Thomasin ended up playing in “Consent,” and she was reading a book while listening to our session. After I hung up, Thomasin said in her little voice, “I’d like to audition for that role,” and I went, “What? But you hate acting.” She replied, “No, it sounds like a really great story to tell,” so we did a little read-through of the script right here, exactly where I am sitting right now. I was like, ‘Oh my god, you are amazing.’ It was a great performance, and when she went in for the audition, she got the role. The film was directed by Robert Sarkies, who also made another great New Zealand movie, “Out of the Blue.” Even now, I don’t think Thomasin has seen all of “Consent,” because she wasn’t even allowed to see the bits that she was in. She’s only in the first 17 minutes, but it’s a very intense journey. It took a lot of courage for her to portray a girl who is raped. Francis Biggs, one of my students I taught at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, portrayed the rapist with whom Thomasin had to play that scene in “Consent.” We’re both really grateful to Francis because he and Thomasin did “hug to connect” before they played that scene. It enabled Francis and Thomasin to play quite an intense rape scene together so that they are in the flow of telling that story together. They weren’t in opposition, which would’ve been very psychologically damaging, not only to Thomasin, who was 13 at the time, but also to poor old Francis, because it was not a happy job for him.
I’ve got a collection of great photographs chronicling the interactions that Thomasin and Francis had in order to build that relationship over a couple of weeks while preparing for the scene. Over the couple of weeks after they did that scene, Thomasin would consistently check in with him and say, “Hey Francis! I’m really proud of the work we did together, and I hope you feel good about it too. Just remember—it’s only acting!” It’s not just about getting together on the day, portraying a really horrible event, and then trying to forget about it. It has to be a safe and rewarding experience, both psychologically and emotionally, in order for the “aroha” to reach out beyond the camera and have a positive impact on the world.
For more information on “The Changeover,” visit the film’s official Facebook page. Margaret Mahy’s book is currently available on Amazon. Also make sure to check out Miranda’s official site to learn more about her extraordinary career.