Jennifer Ward-Lealand has played many roles – but which ones does she consider to be 'heaven'?

A life shaped by theatre: Jennifer Ward-Lealand on the roles that made her

She has scores of credits to her name, awards galore, she’s an CNZM, and she stars in the cabaret Delicious Oblivion, opening tonight in Auckland. Jennifer Ward-Lealand talks to Sam Brooks about her most memorable roles.

It’s not hyperbole to call Jennifer Ward-Lealand a living legend.

Across her 40-year career, the actress has graced both stage and screen multiple times, and has toured not just the country, but the world, with multiple shows. The sight of her face on a poster is enough to sell tickets, and she’s beloved as much by the industry as she is by audiences. She’s the president of Equity New Zealand and has served as both patron and board of trustee member for many organisations devoted to stage and screen. Outside of her craft, she’s a prominent advocate for te reo Māori.

It’s no wonder she was awarded the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit this year – with her spirit, her talent, and her output, it felt inevitable.

I sat down with Ward-Lealand at her gorgeous Grey Lynn home to discuss her long career, the importance of her craft not only to herself but to the next generation, and what roles she considers to be ‘heaven’.

Close to Home (1977)

What was it: New Zealand’s first soap opera, which ran for five years in the late 70s and early 80s. We watched the first episode and wrote about it.

What’s the role: A guest role as Jan, series regular Gale’s friend.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I think I was 14 and I played Gale’s mean school friend Jan. When I look back at it now, everything is so slow in it. It’s like watching paint dry, you know, even the tune –

[She sings the Close to Home theme. It is, yes, quite slow.]

So I’d get picked up in the TV1 car from Wellington Girls’ College. And I used to say, “Please don’t come up the driveway. I’ll meet you down at the gate.” Because when the bell would ring, a thousand girls would come spilling down the driveway. So if the car was up there, we’d have to crawl down in the TV1 car. And I’m huddled over in the backseat. Nobody wants that.

I did that a bit through the fourth form, I came back in the fifth form, and maybe a little bit in the sixth form. Kevin Smith reminded me that he saw this clip of me, and we’re in the classroom of the school and we had our school uniforms on. And I was growing by then, really starting to grow, so the uniform was already up to here on me. I think there’s one bit where I had to sing a line of a song, maybe it was something like…

[She sings a few lyrics from ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’]

And there’s this big voice coming out of this 14-year-old, and I didn’t think anything of it. Then he pointed out, ‘My God, there was a little taste of what you ended up doing a bit more of.”

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, top right, in Romeo and Juliet at Downstage Theatre in 1978.

Romeo and Juliet (1978)

What was it: A production of Romeo and Juliet at the Downstage Theatre. You know what Romeo and Juliet is.

What was the role: Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: So, back in the day, I’m 15, I’m doing drama class and all I wanted to do was act, of course. I got into Downstage Youth Theatre Company where we worked on a festival of Shakespeare called Fancy’s Child. And the main bill was Merchant of Venice starring John Callen as Shylock and Ginette McDonald as Portia. They had this extraordinary set that came right from the top and cascaded down, with a big thrust out. Then we students, we youth, got to work on that set and do a full production of Romeo and Juliet with John Bana directing.

Heaven! I was in total heaven, got my first review, like a proper review, from the paper.

I played a female Benvolio, which was a lovely twist, which I hadn’t seen since – probably has been done – because she was slightly in love with Romeo, even though she was his cousin. It had some nice things to play.

I’ll tell you who else was in that: Rawiri Paratene, Lloyd Scott, Janet Fisher! That really cemented my love for theatre.

The many roles Jennifer Ward-Lealand has played in four separate productions of The Threepenny Opera.

The Threepenny Opera (multiple times)

What is it: The Threepenny Opera is Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation of the 18th-century opera The Beggar’s Opera, and incorporates the music of Kurt Weill

What were the roles: Multiple roles across multiple productions.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: When I look at the first production I did, it was pretty tame really.

There was a Brechtian thing about that, the audience was getting fleeced while we were talking about fleecing people, and getting what you want. Someone was out front selling roasted peanuts, I think Teresa Woodham, and I made fudge cake and sold it halfway up the stairs, so there was this whole idea of us getting the dollars while we could. That was fun. I wouldn’t say it had hugely memorable moments in there for me, but I think it’s really good for young actors to play a whole lot of small roles like that.

I say to young actors when they perhaps don’t get the part they want, just go listen, just be in the world, stay in the experience. Watch your elders do their thing.

The second time was at Downstage. I seem to remember we had carcasses hanging down. I had a corset over the top of this kind of grey suit, and you could see the steel bones on the outsides. I seem to remember metal and hard clangy things, things on hooks. It was industrial – that’s the word I’m looking for, an industrial production. A lot of fun.

Married couple Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst in The Threepenny Opera (1990) for Inside Out.

I think Michael [Hurst] and I got married at that time, during that rehearsal period. It was on a Sunday of course, because it wasn’t a rehearsal day. Colin said he’d give us the next day off, and he never did. Do you hear that Colin McColl?!

I’ve done it four times now. So once at Theatre Corporate, Downstage in 88, with Mike and Marie, Inside Out, 93 and then Silo and Large Group Co-Production. So, I’ve gone through all the roles – I’ve done two Pollys, a Jenny and a whore.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand (left) in Top Girls for Theatre Corporate in 1984.

Top Girls (1984)

What was the play: Top Girls is a wild Caryl Churchill play that examines the roles available to women in society, and what it takes for a woman to succeed. It discusses the cost of ambition and the influence of the first and second waves of feminism on the world.

What was the role: Angie, the teenage daughter of the ambitious Marlene, and Dull Gret, the subject of the famous Pieter Griegel painting.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: Heaven! I could probably put like maybe six productions there that I could have died happy having done. Sometimes you get a cast that is just mint, and that’s one of them. Sarah Peirse directed that.

And playing Angie, I loved it, I had these trousers that were just too short, everything was slightly wrong with my costume. I could use that length in a way that made everything not quite right, because everything was just a bit too short – things didn’t fit very well, like she didn’t fit very well. And, yeah, that was a charmed part of my year doing that. I’ll never forget that.

I learned so much, I learned about rhythm, I learned about the beautiful tennis play that there is between actors. I learned about stillness, and darkness. It was enormously satisfying for me.

Don McGlashan, Harry Sinclair and Jennifer Ward-Lealand in 1989.

The One That Got Away (1989)

What was the show: A three-person show by The Front Lawn, which included Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan. It toured around the world, and won the prestigious Pick of the Fringe award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

What was the role: Glenda, a woman who meets a man on a plane back from Sydney.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: So I’d known Harry and Don for years and years, I’d known Harry since I was 17. Of course, we all started the Watershed Theatre together and everything. And Don, when he was in Blam Blam Blam, he sometimes stayed at our flat back in 80-81.

So I joined them maybe at the end of 1988, and the first thing we did was the album. I played ukulele on the album (Songs From The Front Lawn) and sang on that and they wanted to do this show with three people in it.

We would all bring ideas to it, and then we did this national tour around the country that just went off! I think we ended up doing the show like 190 times or something. Every single time, I couldn’t wait to get on the stage. It was heaven. It was heaven.

It was everything I wanted in a play. It was funny. It was moving. It was serious. It had music in it. It was incredibly entertaining and talked about a lot of things like love, and looking after yourself, and actually mental health, back when mental health wasn’t really being talked about.

That show I’d put up there as one of my top.

Cabaret (1992)

What was the show: Cabaret is a Kander and Ebb musical that was made famous by the Bob Fosse-directed, Liza Minnelli-starring film in 1972. It’s set in Weimar-era Berlin, and focuses on the seedy Kit Kat Klub, while the Nazis are rising to power in the background. It was produced at the Watershed Theatre in 1992.

What was the role: The hopeful-but-doomed Sally Bowles.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: A group of us decided that there needed to be another venue for people to be putting on shows that weren’t in the subsidised company model. The Topp Twins needed something, Mike and Marie (Inside Out Productions) needed something. So we all worked together, don’t even ask me how it even happened, because I remember our meetings, when we’d all agree to something, we’d all go ‘Let’s stretch for that!’.

We ended up with a venue which was our first Watershed down on the waterfront, and then the second Watershed, we’d somehow made this warehouse space into a theatre. In 89 we were all getting together, so we’d only been open a short time before Cabaret was on, maybe a year or two.

It really came out of a desire to have another venue for independent theatre companies to work in. So we could perhaps produce a few things in house, and have other companies come in and use it. So ATC came and used it, and a few other things. We had the best bar in town.

For Cabaret, Michael Hurst directed it and played the MC, and we had tables all over the place, and telephones at each table so you could ring other tables. It was a lot of working us from within the audience. It was a very happy company. We did that in 93, and even brought it back in 94 because it just went off and I felt really lucky to have played that amazing role.

Even before the children, Michael and I had done 22 plays together. Often not working together, but working alongside each other. We have a shorthand, because of the way we were taught. I think we’re quite quick with each other: whatever the other person wants, we can articulate that quickly and have it understood quite quickly.

I’ve directed him, he’s directed me, but not actually as often as you might think. Really, we’ve led these two quite separate, individual careers and I still occasionally meet people who don’t know that we’re married.

I think it’s a good sign, it means we’re not inextricably linked to each other. There’s things that he can do that I can’t do, and there’s things I can do that he can’t do. Sometimes he might be directing a play and he’ll go, “There might be a part there for you.” And I’ll go, “Nah, there’s someone better for that.”

There’s no sense of if he’s doing a play that I’m going to be in it, and I wouldn’t want that.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith and Lisa Chappell in Desperate Remedies (1993).

Desperate Remedies (1993)

What was the film: Desperate Remedies, directed by Peter Wells and Stewart Main, is a camp classic and outlier in the New Zealand film canon. It follows Dorothea Brooke, a shopkeeper and dressmaker with a troubled past, and her love affairs with both men and women in a 19th-century New Zealand community. The film also starred Kevin Smith, Lisa Chappell and Cliff Curtis.

What was the role: Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I sometimes don’t know how Peter and Stewart got that made, and I think that must’ve obfuscated wildly to the New Zealand Film Commission, but fucking good on them! It was such a good, singular vision. There’s nothing like it.

To have a group of young lesbian actresses, terribly excited that it was remastered and going to be shown again, and my question was, “How do you know about this?”

Their reply? “Oh we’ve always known about Desperate Remedies!

I remember rehearsing in what was the old Custom House down on Quay Street on the top floor, standing on a box with some ropes and the music…

[She sings the thunderous overture.]

Peter’s calling out these instructions to me, and I’m in there boots and all. They both, Peter and Stewart, knew what they wanted and it was so artful – we never played it like a melodrama, we were playing it for the truth of it.

There were so many beautiful garnishings on that piece, but at the heart of it was real stuff, love and desire, and how these women were in a situation where it was dangerous to be who they were. It’s a beautiful thing to have been involved in. I still feel immensely proud of them for having made it in what was a diet of quite heavy New Zealand films.

Lucy Lawless as Xena (obviously) and Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Boadicea in Xena: Warrior Princess.

Xena: Warrior Princess (1997, 1999)

What is it: You know what Xena is, guys.

What was the role: Ward-Lealand played two different characters, Boadicea and Zehra, in two episodes of Xena.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I had a ball working on Xena (and an episode of Hercules). I did two episodes as two different characters. By the time I was appearing in Xena I knew so many of the people connected with the shoot that it didn’t feel scary at all. And I seem to remember walking over from the Xena set to the Hercules set to visit Michael at lunchtime one day [Michael Hurst co-starred as Hercules’ sidekick Iolaus]. Out west that was, in the huge outdoor set they had.

In the episode where I played Boadicea, I’d recently had my first child and was still breastfeeding so I’d be running back to my camper between scenes to feed the baby. I’ve only ever been a celebrity guest at the official Xena conventions in LA run by Creation – the “last ever” one being in 2015. But we’re booked to go up to the Creation Entertainment 25th Anniversary Salute to Xena in August 2020.

We actually enjoy the [fan conventions] because we always hook up with a group of  friends we’ve met via Michael’s fan club and also because, beyond just doing our interviews, we’ve performed cabarets and sessions where I ‘interview’ The Widow Twanky (played by Michael). These have always gone down a treat and have been a lot of fun to put together.

You certainly earn your fee working at conventions but we’ve had memorable times up there and met some terrific people.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand in Assassins (1996) and Into the Woods (2000).

The Sondheims: Side by Side by Sondheim / Assassins / Into The Woods

What is it: Stephen Sondheim is regarded as one of, if not, the greatest composers of the 20th century. His musicals include Into the Woods, Assassins, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Follies.

What were the roles: Ward-Lealand played a soloist in revue show Side by Side by Sondheim at Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre in 1987, Phyllis in Follies at Baycourt Theatre in Tauranga, the dual role of Sarah Jane Moore and Emma Goldman in Assassins at the Watershed Theatre in 1996, and The Witch in Into The Woods for Auckland Theatre Company in 2000.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: Well, I first saw Sondheim in 1978, so I was 15. My mother was in one of the first productions of Side by Side by Sondheim at Circa, and I was probably ushering or selling programmes. And my mother was one of the pianists playing. And then I got to do that at Centrepoint in 87 and then again in Wellington in 91.

[Sondheim] has been very open that he loves actor-singers, his lyrics are made for actors. He loves it when things are less about the perfect and more about the performance of it. They can be hugely challenging, they tell extraordinary stories and take you everywhere emotionally. There will always be a number of Sondheim songs that I have in my kit that I will happily pull out at any stage.

[I ask her which one she holds in her heart closest. She sings ‘The Boy From…’, a parody of The Girl from Ipanema, originally performed in the Off-Broadway Revue show The Mad Show, and most famously performed in Side by Side by Sondheim.]

I mean, it’s genius. It’s got everything. It’s naughty. It’s silly. It’s mental. It’s wonderful.

And then other songs like ‘Losing My Mind’, which just kills me. Those are the two that I adore, also, ‘Could I Leave You?’

[She sings a few lines from ‘Could I Leave You?’]

His songs are genius. They are full of content for the actor.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Marlene Dietrich in Falling In Love Again (2005).

Falling in Love Again (multiple seasons)

What’s the show: A devised collaboration with Grant Winterburn, the show is a cabaret where Ward-Lealand sings highlights from Marlene Dietrich’s films, concerts and recordings. Ward-Lealand’s performed the show many times since its debut in 2005, including a performance with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

What’s the role: Marlene Dietrich, of course.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: Those songs are like a soundtrack to my life now – 15 years!

So in 2003 I did the play Marlene, there’s six songs in that play, and at the end of the play she does a little performance. That show had a very successful season, I’d spent six months of research on it, and at the end of that 10-day season, I was like, “What do you mean it’s over?”

It’s easy to think of her in broad brushstrokes, but once I started reading, watching the movies, reading the biographies, watching the documentaries, seeing what she did during the war, which she calls one of the best parts of her career.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Marlene Dietrich in Falling in Love Again.

She was not precious at all. So when she went to war, she just got in amongst those soldiers. She went to the front, she went to places nobody wanted to go and she only got there because she could sweet-talk generals, and who’s going to say no to Marlene Dietrich? She just got in there, to the shitty places where the rats are running over your face, and looked after those guys who wouldn’t have seen anything as wonderful as her for a long time. And I really admire that – she did the work.

Then in the early 50s, somebody said, “Why don’t you come and do something in Vegas?” She didn’t know what she was going to, so they asked her, “What did you do during the war?” And of course it was singing all those songs from 1927 onwards, and then began the second major part of her career. She teamed up with Burt Bacharach in the 50s, and worked with him right through to the early 60s, and he’s the one who really sorted her voice out. A lot of her early recordings are really like:

[She mimics early Dietrich’s high, shaky singing voice.]

He got her singing with more swing, and using much better arrangements, all of that kind of stuff.

The other thing is she didn’t need five thousand semi-naked dancers around her. She just stood there in her iconic self. She wasn’t the world’s greatest dancer or anything, but she had so much content going on and she was wicked as.

As a performer, I really loved being able to find the backbone and… I’m not frightened of looking out at an audience, you know. She was very candid, and I also like being candid in front of an audience: “I’m looking at you without fear, here are my feelings.”

Having the opportunity to play that in a character was great. So that’s why I’ve kept going with it. I often think the show has done its dash and then we go away again and do it somewhere else.

Michael Hurst and Jennifer Ward-Lealand in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia (2005) for Silo Theatre (Photo: Andrew Malmo)

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (2005)

What’s the show: The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is legendary playwright Edward Albee’s late-career Pulitzer Prize-nominated classic about a man whose family is torn apart when they find out he’s in love with Sylvia. Sylvia happens to be a goat. Silo Theatre produced the show in 2005.

What’s the role: Stevie Gray, a wife whose life is shattered when she finds out her husband has been cheating on her.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I could’ve died happy. I’d happily do that again in a heartbeat.

We’d drive home after the show at night – Michael and I – and we would think we’re the luckiest actors in the world. It felt like each night we’d be scoured out with a Brillo-Pad. So you’d come out into the audience all around, but I felt really clean. I felt like I’d left it all on the stage, and it was such a play where you could totally release everything.

And I just found [Albee’s] stage directions, if you even want to call them that, so freeing. He’d write things like, “What must she be feeling?” I mean, how’s that for an actor?

Or, “If there are tears, they stop.” So he’s not saying, “Hey actor, do this.” But in there, there is the possibility for that. The other thing that I loved it was a very small venue, the Silo Theatre [which is now Basement Theatre]. It was a very small venue, and the audience, they’re really kind of implicated, they’re in our lounge. So, I’m sitting this close to somebody going like this:

[She turns the recorder, my phone, away and gives an anguished howl of pain. It is incredible.]

It was the first play that Michael and I had done together after having children where we both worked at night. Because we’d made a decision, only one would work at night, and one could rehearse in the day or whatever. And with that show, you can imagine the organisation it takes to do it six nights a week.

But you couldn’t not do it.

So I wrote to Albee after the show and I said that I thought he was a master, and that his stage directions were like pieces of gold for me, and a whole lot of other things, like I’m the luckiest actor alive.

And he wrote back to me. He wrote thank you for my letter, it was worthy of framing, so it’s probably going to be in some archive somewhere. And he just writes down what he sees and hears, which is where those things like, ‘What must she be feeling?’ comes from. You’re feeling, and hearing it as you’re writing it.

That’s certainly up there in my top three.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Martha in That Face (2010) for Silo Theatre (Photo: Andrew Malmo)

That Face (2010)

What’s the show: That Face was the 2007 hit of the London theatre scene. Written by then 20-year-old Polly Stenham and acclaimed for its ferocity, it quickly transferred to the West End and garnered many awards. Silo Theatre produced the show in 2010.

What’s the role: Martha, a woman whose fading glamour leads to a truly dysfunctional relationship with her children. Their relationships deteriorate even more as Martha’s world crumbles around her.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: That was bruising. Literally and figuratively.

I’m not an actor who comes off all sweaty from a show, but I would stand under the shower at the Aotea Centre for 10 minutes. I would never shower after a show generally.

But after that one, I would just stand under there because it was like hitting yourself, there was so much self-punishment in her. I needed to kind of close the wounds a bit after that show. You might think there’s some redemption when she pulls her shit together and walks out, but look at the carnage. Is she ever going to have a relationship with her children?

It was a wonderfully challenging but bruising experience. I love it when things get dirty, messy, snotty and horrible. And funny! And my favourite thing, of course, is anything with black comedy in it.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Barbara in August Osage County for Auckland Theatre Company (2010).

August: Osage County (2010)

What’s the show: August: Osage County is one of the most famous plays of the 21st century. It premiered on Broadway in 2007, quickly became famous for its sprawling narrative, three-and-a-half-hour length and huge cast, and was adapted into a feature film in 2013 starring Meryl Streep. Auckland Theatre Company produced the show in 2010.

What’s the role: Barbara Weston, the oldest daughter of cruel matriarch Violet Weston. Barbara is the unwilling glue that keeps the Weston family together, and the play follows her slow transformation into her mother.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: That was one of those roles that I read and, in the same way that a playwright downloads stuff, I was like, “Yup. I’ve got it.”

I fundamentally understand that character, and the rhythm of that work. I love the surgical nature of comedy, you have to, those lines have to be said in a certain way to get the beautiful comedic pay-off. And when you see a play that is so finely, finely written like that, it’s just heaven.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Barbara in August Osage County (2010) for Auckland Theatre Company.

I do remember it’d be a quarter past 10 and most of the rest of the cast have all finished their part of this show, and then me and Jennifer Ludlam would be out the back going, “Here we go baby! Act three!”. 

There were moments in that play where everything aligned in me and made it a perfect moment for me – the ‘eat your fucking fish!’ scene – I would be so deeply excited to go on the stage to do that scene.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Rita Angus in Rita and Douglas (2011).

Rita and Douglas (2011)

What’s the show: Rita and Douglas is an adaptation of New Zealand painter Rita Angus’s letters to composer Douglas Lilburn.

What’s the role: Rita Angus herself.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: We toured that over a two-year period to quite a few arts festivals. The show’s a beautiful synergy of concert, play and art exhibition. It was a completely different proposition research-wise, because there’s no audio or official archive of Rita. Can you believe it? It’s not like she died that long ago, and nothing, not even on Radio New Zealand! Thank god for Jill Trevelyan’s extraordinary biography.

When we toured it, we were often in places that Rita had painted, so it would be driving through these incredible landscapes, just out of Queenstown and Wanaka, and I’d go, “Oh look, there are Rita trees!”

It brings me back to something I tell groups when I speak to them, and that’s that theatre is a great education. I know more about these worlds and these people than I ever would if I hadn’t been an actor. Although I think she was a prickly pear, I think it’s probably a deep regret that the family burnt a lot of the letters to her, because within a generation, you don’t have the same judgments as you did back then.

So I think that’s a real shame, but how lovely to have brought one section of her life out to audiences.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand in rehearsal for The Book of Everything (Photo: Jinki Cambronero)

The Book of Everything (2015)

What was the show: The Book of Everything is an adaptation of the popular Danish children’s novel of the same name. It follows Thomas, an imaginative nine-year-old boy with a difficult family life, and the show addresses faith in a remarkably mature and non-judgmental way. The adaptation premiered in 2010 in Sydney, and was produced by Silo Theatre in 2015.

What’s the role: Aunty Pie, the eccentric bicycle-riding neighbour of Thomas.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: Not a majorly big role for me, but I was perfectly happy on that show because of the ensemble nature – it was a very tight cast, we did a lot of warming up together and things together.

That’s the way I was brought up in Theatre Corporate – the ensemble is the thing and your job is to make the play sing. It’s not about what part you play, big role, small role, it’s about what you’re all doing as a company to lift the play up to be the best thing that it possibly could be. And I worked in situations where that hasn’t been the case, where I don’t think the greater good of the play has been at the forefront or at least more than who can be the best in the show or grab the attention.

But The Book of Everything was a perfect illustration of great ensemble work.

I love it when you have a group where you’ve got younger and older actors, and I believe very much in service. I believe that it’s our job as older actors to support our younger actors coming through. That’s where my focus hugely is, obviously with the union, but in talking about the craft.

It kills me me that actors aren’t getting enough experience and just not getting enough practice. I say to people, you might judge these young actors but consider how much practice have they had on the green? And then if they don’t succeed then they don’t get another job. Whereas when you’re in a company, of course, you get a chance to fail and you’re not getting tossed it. You can do a small part, and then a lead, and then a medium part, and then a tiny part.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Donna Rafferty on Dirty Laundry (2016)

Dirty Laundry (2016)

What was the show: A TVNZ drama that followed the beleaguered Rafferty family after their money-laundering mother Donna has been put behind bars.

What was the role: The matriarch of the Rafferty family, Donna Rafferty.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I was actually not there a lot. When you look at it, I’m not the lead role, I think I’m number three or four on the call sheet. And those poor buggers, I will be forever thankful for the first AD and schedulers because they had to work around me – I’d be shooting for three days and shooting 13 scenes in the prison, and then going off and touring with The Book of Everything. So it was fairly intense at times.

I enjoyed working on the show. It was a nice part. Very nice people to work with, lovely producers. I learned about money laundering!

I think it had a loyal audience, but I think it wasn’t big enough. So that sort of left on a cliffhanger but the numbers weren’t good enough. I still get people coming up to me and saying, “Oh is there going to be a series two?” And I can now categorically go, “No. She escaped!”

Vermillion (2018)

What’s the film: An independent New Zealand film about a woman who starts to experience synesthesia after her cancer diagnosis.

What’s the role: Darcy, the lead character.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I think it’s a film that will find its audience – it’s just going to take a while.

I get a little bit mad, that’s taxpayer money going into this film so that you can see women of my age, my generation, who are underrepresented on the screens, and they don’t do anything to get it properly seen. I do believe it’ll find its way, it’s been in a few festivals, so we’ll see.

It was a really beautiful experience. The way we shot it was different. We didn’t just shoot it for six days a week for six weeks and then fall out the other end going, “What the fuck just happened?”

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Darcy in Vermillion (2018).

We’d shoot for a week, rehearse next week, prepare for the next thing. As Dorthe [Scheffmann, the director] said, “Well, if you haven’t got money, you’ve got to get something else, and that’s time.” And we were happy to work that way. It’s actually quite a female way to work because people have families to go home to, and you could have a life and look at your work through a different lens.

So that sustained me creatively for weeks and weeks after that. You know when you’ve had a singular experience, when you haven’t finished processing it, when you’ve used all your talent – it was one of those experiences.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand in Delicious Oblivion (2019) for the Auckland Cabaret Festival.

Delicious Oblivion (2019)

What’s the show: Along with director Shane Bosher and musical director Robin Kelly, Ward-Lealand explores the world of Kurt Weill and his contemporaries, rejigging and messing around with the Weimar songbook. Think ‘Surabaya Johnny’ and ‘Mack The Knife’.

What’s the role: It’s a cabaret, so some version of herself.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand: I’m loving it! What has struck has struck me more – some of the material I’ve sung before, some is new to me, some I’ve been familiar but I haven’t sung before. The material I sing, that I have sung before, it was a long time ago and it wasn’t nearly as relevant then as it is now.

Look at the rise of nationalism and fascism around the world. Look at the anger in the world. Look at the #MeToo movement, and women’s rights, women’s reproductive rights under fire.

And they’re talking about it in literally every song. You could’ve have written them now. So that’s just fabulous. I think, I hope, the songs will absolutely speak to now. I sang a verse to my friends the other day

“Men are the problem with humanity

They’re blinded by their vanity

Women passively embrace them

When we could’ve easily outpaced

We should have long ago replaced them

Or better yet erase them

If we haven’t made our feelings clear

We women have had it up to here”

That’s from 1930! And that whole scene ties in with a lot of I’ve been interested – the whole German cabaret scene around the 20s, that European sensibility, the Dietrich – I really love that stuff.

When I think about the pop songs I remember most are from my early teenage years – so the 70s – all of those 80s and 90s pop songs are from when I was working in the theatre a lot, so my soundtrack is songs from the 20s, 40s, 50s. People sing all the words to these 90s songs, but I’ve been performing six nights a week singing Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and all of that.

My soundtrack, my life, is shaped by the plays I do.

Delicious Oblivion plays at the Wintergarden at the Civic Theatre from 11-15 June as part of the Auckland Cabaret Season. You can buy tickets right here.


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