From an otter at drama school to an alcoholic in a Eugene O’Neill play, Jarod Rawiri has amassed a peerless list of credits. Here’s how he did it.
Jarod Rawiri doesn’t fit neatly inside anybody’s box.
A staple of training at Toi Whakaari, New Zealand’s national drama school, is the “solo”. When Jarod Rawiri was in third year, these solos tended to be earnest affairs, actors turning to family stories or impersonations of famous historical figures to show off what they’d learned over three years.
Rawiri’s solo, however, was ripped from the headlines. He played an otter who had recently escaped from the Wellington zoo, on the run for several days before being found. It was 20 minutes of raucous action-filled entertainment. It was, by all accounts, one for the books.
Rawiri’s first taste of the drama bug came as a favour. His drama teacher at Glendowie College needed someone with taiaha skills to perform in a school show. At the time, he was too shy to even consider taking drama but he agreed and was stoked to be only fourth-former amongst a bunch of sixth-formers. Later, he was convinced by that same teacher to take the subject, and a few years later, was accepted into Toi Whakaari.
When he graduated in 2002, the industry was a very different place to what it is now. If you were graduating as a Māori actor, you were playing Māori roles. An actor of colour playing a Shakespeare or a Chekhov role would raise an eyebrow, unless a production was trying to make a point. Colour conscious, or colourblind, casting rarely happened on our main stages.
One of the first to see Rawiri’s potential, alongside Māori theatre legends Nancy Brunning and Hone Kouka, was Shane Bosher, who was artistic director of Silo Theatre at the time, and directs the current Auckland Theatre Company production of Long Day’s Journey into Night that Rawiri is starring in.
Bosher describes Rawiri’s approach to acting as being backed by “visible soul”. “Jarod’s a natural storyteller,” he says. “He’s wonderfully playful and deeply courageous, and his work is underpinned by rigour, respect and a desire to hold the narrative collectively.”
Since 2006, when Bosher cast Rawiri in Take Me Out, a show about a baseball player coming out of the closet, the actor has amassed an impressive amount of credits. Not only has he had roles in the best of the international modern theatre canon – Angels in America, Lobby Hero and The Brothers Size among them – he originated the role of legendary rugby player George Nepia in the play based on his life.
He’s also been a fixture on the small screen, his most recognisable roles being Mo Hannah on Shortland Street, a recurring role as “Hine’s Hubby” on Mean Mums, and most recently, detective Daniel Chalmers on The Brokenwood Mysteries.
It’s a list of credits that speaks to not just Rawiri’s ability as an actor, but an ability to do what a project needs of him. Playing Belize, the drag queen nurse in Angels in America, requires a completely different approach than the relatively straight-laced detective Chalmers.
Mostly, it requires an actor who can shift, and who can play. Somewhat paradoxically, given that the play focuses on a family’s descent into addiction and self-loathing, Long Day’s Journey into Night really lets Rawiri play.
“It’s been so long since I’ve felt like I had to do a big play!” Rawiri says with a typical actor’s glee.
Despite the completely different formats and level of work required, he draws a link between the classic Eugene O’Neill play and the country’s favourite (and only) primetime soap. “The character, Jamie, and my [Shortland Street] character, Mo, and really all the characters in Shortland Street, live such desperate lives,” he says. “They have such massive traumas and things going on for them. The difference here is that I get to live the full life of the character over one day, which has been amazing.”
In the play, Jamie Tyronee is the glue in a family of four. He’s the only one willing to acknowledge that all the men in his family are alcoholics, his father’s tight pursestrings have made things demonstrably worse for everyone, and his mother is once more in the throes of her morphine addiction.
When Bosher came to cast Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Rawiri was his only choice for the role. “Jamie requires an actor with a fierce grip around his heart, someone who is not afraid to go to very uncomfortable places and isn’t afraid to meet the other actors in take-no-prisoners gladiatorial style showdowns.”
Now that Rawiri is over 40, two decades into his career and with relatively comfortable work in television, he figured he needed to come back to the kind of acting he first loved. “It’s been a while since I’ve really delved this deep into a work because it demands it of you. With lots of work I’ve done recently I haven’t had to invest as much of myself.”
Something he has invested in is Ahikāroa, the bilingual series about young urban rangitahi “getting cash, cutting corners and charging their phones” which he has worked on as both an actor and a director. When he talks about the show, he lights up as enthusiastically as he does when talking about his new ATC play. “It’s a show that is really pushing boundaries, and trying to open up and be a voice for this generation, but also for them to lead processes.”
Ahikāroa doesn’t just tell Māori stories, it puts Māori people at the story table, on the crew, and in key creative roles to upskill and prepare them for other industry jobs. It’s a hothouse of developing and emerging talent, which Rawiri is stoked to be a part of.
In the most recent season, the show had a major storyline centred around New Zealand’s culture around vogue, the stylised dance form born in New York’s LGBTQI+ community and later made famous by the Madonna single of the same name. While a writer from that community was at the story table, the producers realised they hadn’t properly involved the wider community, which is something that Rawiri, as director of that episode, took seriously.
“Being Māori, I always want to make sure we’re at the table and that’s really important,” he says. “But I also recognised that it’s important to have not just an individual at the table – that one writer needs to be supported by the community.” The show got vogue community leaders involved before they got onto set, apologised for the process as it had gone to that point, and built a collaboration with them. The result is one of the first fictional depictions of vogue culture on New Zealand screens.
“Then the work was really beautiful. I had to do literally nothing as a director. I went ‘well, I’ve got all the right people in the room, now I let them do their thing.’”
Rawiri’s other current TV project is probably his highest profile, even bigger than Shortland Street. The Brokenwood Mysteries, which starts filming its ninth season after Long Day’s Journey into Night closes, has been one of the most successful TV shows in New Zealand history, especially overseas, thanks to its unique decision to set a Midsomer Murders-esque comedy against the moody vistas of the Rodney District, north of Auckland.
Rawiri joined the show as detective Daniel Chalmers after the departure of detective Sam Breen (Nic Sampson) in season six. He says while being asked to audition came as a surprise – he didn’t really know the show and joked “are there brown people in Brokenwood?” – he decided to trust his own unique talents. “I can’t do any of what Nic does, so I’m not going to,” he recalls thinking.
“Fortunately, they were happy that I chose not to dye my hair red and try do his thing!”
The Brokenwood Mysteries is as much of a machine as Shortland Street is, each episode shooting for only three weeks for 90 minutes of screentime. Thankfully, his four years on the Street helped prep him for the speed at which filming moves.
Rawiri’s casting on The Brokenwood Mysteries, and even in Long Day’s Journey into Night, is a sign of a changing industry. New Zealand is still behind the rest of the world when it comes to colour conscious casting. When Rawiri graduated from drama school, he might’ve been cast as Belize in Angels in America, but there’s no way in hell that he’d have been chosen to star in an Eugene O’Neill play. But when you see his work as Jamie Tyrone now, you can’t deny that it’s his role.
Everybody in Long Day’s Journey Into Night gets their moment. A father bleakly relives his past triumphs, a brother faces illness with luminous optimism, and a mother drugs herself out of the present and into the past.
The most human, the most alive of these moments, though, is when Jamie bursts back into the house after a bender. He tells Edmund that he loves him more than anybody, more than the world, and yet he can’t wait to watch him fail. It’s uncomfortable, it’s raw, and it is darkly, deeply human.
Rawiri might be lucky to have Long Day’s Journey Into Night on his credit list. We’re even luckier to get to see him in it.