She’s perhaps New Zealand’s most prominent actress of this moment, but when she gets a big part, she’s still reluctant to share the news for fears of being cut down. She’s a sudden film star, a theatre legend, and a chill-as-shit lady. Sam Brooks sits down in a park for a few beers with Rachel House. Photography by Joel Thomas.
There’s the Rachel House that the world seems to know, and there’s the Rachel House that I, as theatre person and mostly functioning human being, know.
The Rachel House that the world knows is the grandmother in Moana, Paula in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Kuini in Find Me A Maori Bride, recent Order of the New Zealand Merit recipient, and Topaz in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. She’s one of our most successful actors, and now one of our most recognisable (it was only this weekend that I saw a massive ASB billboard in Ponsonby, with her smiling face emblazoned across it).
The Rachel House that I, as a theatre person, know is a performer who’s regarded as one of the best in the country; she has enough awards to sink a ship. She’s also a mould-breaking theatre director, having directed The Maori Troilus and Cressida at the Globe in London, Silo Theatre’s fantastic Hui, and an absolutely shattering version of Medea for the same theatre. She’s a big deal to me, and an absolute inspiration.
The Rachel House that I, as a mostly functioning human being, know is a down-to-earth and chill human being who replied to my wary email asking for an interview almost immediately and enthusiastically. We’d met while on a theatre awards panel a few years ago, had a drunken conversation at the party for said awards, and have been in each other’s orbit vaguely ever since as most theatre people tend to be.
It’s this Rachel House that I met in a park in Cox Bay Reserve for a few beers (absolutely following the specific liquor ban rules, because we are both law-abiding citizens). It’s also this Rachel House that brings me some flowers because they reminded her of me on her walk down to the park.
Sam Brooks: So you’re like a big deal now.
Rachel House: Apparently, yeah.
How is that for you?
Look, I’m older now. I think if it all happened for me when I was younger it would be different and I probably wouldn’t handle it very well. But because I’m older and I’ve done my time being a theatre actor and theatre director and you know this, theatre’s hard. Theatre’s hard work, and surviving doing mostly theatre is also hard, it can be really hard at times. So I feel I’m not taking it for granted in any way. It hasn’t come easily.
Fuck no. So I watched the King Lear–
Oh my god.
–documentary and I was just like, “That’s Rachel House! How is that Rachel House?”
Back in the olden days, I was so passionate about theatre and words and plays and I sort of don’t have that passion anymore, which is sort of sad.
Well just because I feel like I’ve done so much of it and now I’m really interested in film.
And films have always been the love of my life, really, and recently of course, like everybody in the world I’m binge watching series and then the thought of making a series that’s binge-worthy, that communicates really great ideas and has some brilliant characters is also something that I’d be really keen on in the future.
I think what happened with me with theatre is I sort of felt that the community I was having the conversation with is a small community, and I feel like I’ve got some really good things that I’d like to say to a wider community.
Have you seen the Jill Solloway talk that she gave?
Oh my god so amazing, but also it just tears away the mystery and the kind of false modesty and fake humility and it kind of brings out in the open about why it is that we want to express these ideas.
We are always kind of trying to make the world more like how we want it to be, as she sort of says, and I’m not saying that’s what I want to do with my work necessarily, but I do want people to think about things or at least step inside somebody else’s shoes and realise what it is to be them. I suppose I could’ve continued to do that in the small community that is theatre or I could do it in a medium that I’m really really keen on. I love the visual element of film and television, and the possibilities, I like the specificity of what you put in a frame and what that can communicate.
But its interesting, like this big deal thing, because I know what you’re talking about is the acting kind of stuff whereas I’m sort of, I’m always talking about directing and stuff.
No, no! Not at all! I mean it means so much seeing someone who does have such a history in New Zealand theatre, as a performer, as a maker and as a champion of work get the recognition that they’re owed.
Oh that’s kind of you to say.
It’s incredibly rare, I think.
You know when I was 17 I came from Whangarei to Auckland – and I always remember this story, it’s always lurking in the back of my mind always, and it probably always will. It’s just one of those stories that lots of people have that motivates them in their chosen field. I’d just had a meeting, this guy had seen a play I was in, so I went in and saw this guy, this agent, and he looked me up and down and he said, “You’re not exactly a movie star.”
And he really gave me the impression that I would never work in film or television and I’d never sort of be a proper actor or somebody who could make it in the screen industry. And I accepted that.
Then I went to drama school and was more or less told the same there, “Theatre is your future, continue with that.” Maybe I’d get a bit of screen work but it’s highly unlikely, and it’s so interesting to me you know, that now I have this career that looks like a lot of it exists within the screen industry.
And I don’t think it did motivate me, but it also made me think – well, accept – really early on that because of the way I looked that screen [acting] probably wouldn’t happen. But I just carried on and did what I did anyway, you know?
I was also told that directing was probably a bit beyond me!
I hate that.
No, these are great moments. These are great moments in your life that you need to hold onto, because they can drive you. I was told I’d never make it as an actor – somebody somewhere, some kind of counsellor or teacher said, “you probably wouldn’t make it as an actor” then I started doing quite well in acting and had people tell me I couldn’t do screen.
Then I started doing screen and had people telling me I probably wouldn’t, you know, be able to direct theatre because it was like a puzzle, and they thought it was beyond me.
But these moments are great. It’s saying you’re not capable enough, and that’s where you really have to ask yourself, “Am I capable enough?” And generally speaking the answer is yes! For most people if they’re really pushing to do something, if they’re really burning to do something, they become capable of it.
Yes! That’s it. In a place like New Zealand, I think it speaks to the smallness of the community. A small community is a safe place, to the point where it can be almost a bit too safe, and when it gets that safe is gets easy, because it’s nice. And that’s risky as shit, because it hampers the art and it hampers the artist.
I think it can do. But you know, for example, there’s some films that I want to make in the future that are real conversations amongst New Zealanders about Māori things. [Instead of] just doing it for the theatre, I feel like if it’s a conversation we’re having then it can go a bit further.
Although having said that as you know working in theatre, going on tour, some of the best times I’ve ever had has been working with really great theatre pieces that have something to say.
Absolutely. And lots of alcohol.
Unbelievable amounts of alcohol. You just cannot sustain that.
God, I spent like five nights in Palmy–
Oh my god.
And we just went straight from the flat to the show to the bottle store and back to the flat.
Yeah! That’s what it gets like. Or you just talk and talk and talk.
And also about the content of the play over and over, which can be useful. You get to know the content so well, you get caught up in it and it becomes your life you know, it’s a very nice way to live. I think when you’re younger it’s a great way to see the country and become and form a family, and you get to know communities – it’s a wonderful thing to do.
Do you have the same people around you that you had at drama school?
What is that like? How is it maintaining those friendships over the past twenty or so years?
It’s really important, because you’re kind of turned inside out at drama school.
If you’ve got any kind of shit that you’re using to protect yourself from yourself from your world.
As happens with most of us.
… then you’re called on it. You’re called on it. I was called on the way I stood, the way I looked–you’re called on your relationship to power and race relations. And really, you’ve got to learn how to be other people, you’ve got to open yourself up in order to do that, and you need to go through a process of allowing things in. And for lots of people I know who went to drama school, that process didn’t really come to fruition until they left. Then they realise that some of the stuff they learned at drama school was valuable to processes they were going through outside of drama school.
But you get so close, and I have a handful of good friends who I stay in contact with and adore. It’s because we’ve known each other for so long – we’ve seen each other’s good and bad, and so we’ve taken a big interest in each other’s lives. And I think we often have those moments where we’ll be together and we’ll be like, “Wow, look what’s happened since those times.” Which is really nice, it’s nice to be able to do with people.
You realise like, “Fuck. I was a dick back then. I was the worst.”
Yeah, I was just hideous. I was just awful. And it’s because you are going through that process that it can be really painful – you’ve got all this shit that you’re carrying. It can be the be the beginning of that lifelong journey, because we’re all always striving to be better people, and it’s not always just confined to drama schools.
It happens in sport teams, it happens in dog training, it’s all of it. It’s very special to continue those friendships and relationships and check in on each other.
And it’s all about the community that you build around you – who are the people you’ve kept close to you –
That are still there?
Yeah, it’s like who gets the first call, “Oh my god I got this gig.” Who are those people?
For me? It’s Bronwyn Bradley and Sean Coyle – we were all at drama school together. It’s interesting though, because you don’t necessarily, or maybe it’s just me, but I don’t always tell people.
No, I don’t either.
You know, I sort of tell my partner, and often that’s a conversation about how long I’ll be away or how much I’m going to make, it’s sort of practical. But sometimes it can feel a bit classic Kiwi: “I better not show off about it.”
So usually, I don’t. You sort of get used to not telling people. Many years ago if exciting things happened then you would kind of get crushed to the ground when you did do that. I got into this, and people would be like, “Who’s that?”
Yes! People would be like, “What’s that? Who’s Silo Theatre?”
I lived with a guy – a really old mate – and I’d say, “Oh I got into such and such.” And he’d say, really sarcastically, “Oh wow you really made it!” So with stuff like that, along the way you stop telling people and also I think even now that’s the way I take news now anyway.
I don’t jump up and down for joy. I get a little bit excited, but I’ll sort of go, “Okay good, that’s a good gig, that’s some good work, how do I prepare for that, what should I do about that?”
And when it comes to something like the Order of the New Zealand Merit?
I told Sean [Coyle], I told my partner, and I think I didn’t tell anyone else and then it was announced.
That’s really interesting!
It is. I think it’s from years of people kind of slam dunking things and realising that people in this country in particular don’t like showoffs.
No, no they don’t.
So I don’t do it.
It’s a very small industry. People end up hearing things like that through the grapevine.
Yeah people just find it. It spreads like wildfire.
Somehow it does spread like wildfire, it’s bizarre to me.
And I’m not big on social media, so I sort of feel like I need to potentially head back into something – just to keep in contact!
No, it’s all evil.
But I think out of them Instagram is the least evil. Because it’s more visual, right?
We talk to our lovely photographer, Joel about Instagram for a bit and determine it is the least evil of all social media.
Are you on Facebook?
I am on Facebook.
Are you on Twitter?
I am on Twitter.
That almost makes me want to go on Twitter just so I can read what you’re saying on it.
Oh god no. It’s unfiltered, I’m angry about art and I’m–
Yeah but that’s good I like that! I like that.
Can I ask what role does family play in your life?
Well, I have an enormous family that I don’t know that well – because I was adopted, and I have this enormous Māori family out there, and quite a big Pākehā one, but because my mum and dad were from Scotland we had a very insular little family, I’m very protective of them. I lost my dad a few years back which was devastating, and now it’s just Mum.
I remember us hanging out, and we’d had similar things happen around the same time a few years ago and we recognised that in each other.
Grief is so interesting, because it can almost be sweet. It makes you love and your heart opens.
It sits right there forever.
It can make you feel connected to the world and not take things for granted.
And then, I suppose there’s my partner and my step-daughter – and I think being a step-parent is really interesting. Well, because they already have two parents and you don’t really want to interfere too much, I still struggle with even saying step parent and also that conjures a lot of fairytales and characters–
So I don’t even like saying that word, and I suppose where you have to find your way with that little person and kind of try and work out where you sit with each other. Because you should never expect – and I think people often place expectations on you as a step child and step parent to take on these roles – which is very odd to me, maybe it works with some people, but it doesn’t work for me. So we find our way with each other.
I think conventions and expectations of how we’re supposed to live as human beings is endlessly fascinating. How we tell ourselves what we’re supposed to be doing and what we’re supposed to be living.
Yeah, it’s so old school and English, and colonial – and so wrong.
Totally. You have to be and look like this unit, so it’s interesting.
Which is not how anything really works!
So I’ve got a few really good mates and I see them as my family – like Briar Grace Smith is a really old friend of mine and we really lock into ensuring that crushing, that slam dunking thing stops, even if it’s amongst us, her and I. And you know because we’ve both got that scholarship (The Ramai Hayward Wahine Māori Directors Scholarship) together.
Which is fucking amazing.
Which is really cool, I’ve known her since I was seventeen. So we’ve always ended up in each other’s lives. I see her as family and I see a couple of my good mates as family, and so they are significant in the importance of people in my life.
So, as an artist–
I’m getting used to that word! It took a long time to say it. I don’t necessarily speak it, but I write it – that word ’as an artist’ and I still always feel like the wanker fist is going to come and knock me down. The wanker slaphand!
So as an artist, I’m so sorry, but as an artist, I don’t get, how you can act in a play at BATs in 2000, and direct a play at the Globe, and end up in a big big film like Thor, and carry that same artistry throughout? How do you do it?
You just sort of carry on the way you’ve always carried on. Nothing changes – you’re still striving to be a better person, you’re still striving to be a better cook, and be better at things, like speaking full sentences without saying ‘y’know’ all the time.
I think you should never treat a really great job like, ‘that’s it.’ Because it’s not. You’ve still got shit to do and goals to obtain and people to visit that you love and friendships to care for. When I went over to LA to do the final mix of the Te Reo Moana, we worked with this amazing team of sound people who really know their shit and specialize in Dolby sound. And we got to see Taika and got to have a nice catch up with Taika about how he’s feeling about everything – and nothing’s changed for him either, he wants to get the work done, wants to make things better, make the story better, nothing really changes at all.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the job, it’s what drives you to do it in the first place and that doesn’t alter. Maybe it does for some people.
What is the drive for you?
I think mine, and it’s taken a while to articulate it, and I don’t think it’s ever changed, but now I can actually say what it is: It’s this yearning to understand people better, and a yearning to form empathy and compassion.
There’s this quote that I carry around with me now, this Roger Ebert quote.
She gets out her phone.
He’s so awesome –he did this amazing doco about his life which was so beautiful and sad and…. here we are.
“We are all born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we’re born, who we were born as, how we were raised, we’re kind of stuck inside that person and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathise a little bit with other people and for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
And it’s that, it’s finding your place in the world and understanding that there are so many people going through the same journey and doing something that helps all of us understand each other a bit more.
I’ve always felt objective about my Pākehā side and Māori side, because not being raised in a traditional Māori way or understanding. I feel very objective about other cultures, including my own, and I feel like it’s good to be right inside it as much as it is good to be able to stand outside and really look in. I’m keeping hold of the ability to look in and communicate that. So I quite like that I’m in that position in many ways – because I’ve been in between worlds – and that I can still help communicate what its like.
When I was really little, books were the greatest best things in the entire world because you got to go into different worlds and experience new things and you got to learn about how people tick and how they operate, and my feeling is that is actually what brings us all together.
And so when you see injustice in the world you know how wonderful it is that you get to tell a story that allows people to see that injustice and have some empathy with it and want to do something about it, or at least just to understand it can be enough.
This is kind of the heart of it, for me – it’s always been there and I’ve never been able to articulate it until I was older, but its all about sharing stories and being able to empathise and also to help other people empathise.
So in your own art, what’s the most important thing you want to leave the world?
It keeps changing, it’s all those things that Roger Ebert says. But I think you can achieve both. I think you can make people enjoy themselves and have a really great time and laugh, which I think is hugely important, but it can still make them think and also empathise. So I’d like to be part of whatever that is, in terms of the industry, I’d like to make stuff like that and direct like that and write stuff like that and be in stuff like that.
And I’m really aware that we are not those skinny Hollywood movie stars. We don’t look like that and its sort of like, that’s a great thing we’re doing shit. Because there’s a whole lot of people that aren’t like that so how wonderful for us to be able to see ourselves. So that’s nice to be a part of that change of expectations of how women are represented on screen, it’s pretty nice to be a part of that.
And you know, Taika is a big fan of unconventional, which has been really great for me!
Now, the most shallow question: Have you met The Rock?
What’s he like?
He is super lovely. He’s a huge star, and people just love him.
He seems like the most lovely guy.
He is. I didn’t spend a really long time with him at all. It was a couple of minutes, like talking to him one on one was a couple of minutes, and then was in the same room with him for a while. But you can tell you look into a person’s face and whether they’re being genuine or not, and he was very genuine and very lovely. He made me feel nice and warm inside. And I didn’t expect any less just from what I’d known of him and what I’d heard he’s like to work with from the people I was working with.
It is amazing! And it’s so nice ‘cause we get so used to hearing these stories about Hollywood stars who are total dicks, you know, and he is definitely not one of them.
And all the ones I’ve met have been really nice.
The interview wraps up at this point, but after the Duncan Garner-Taika Waititi drama that went down, I send her an email asking her what she thinks of it all.
Her response is classic Rachel House.
“Hi babe, I reckon Taika couldn’t have answered it more astutely. Seriously – the planet doesn’t need any more deniers. x”
This content is sponsored by Garage Project. Garage Project firmly believes that BEER can change the world, and brilliant journalism, like The Spinoff, needs to be championed and cherished. Writing is thirsty work, so we’re doing our bit to help, one beer at a time.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.