The most interesting woman on NZ TV: Wellington Paranormal’s Karen O’Leary

Alex Casey yarns to Karen O’Leary, early childhood teacher by day and star of Wellington Paranormal and What We Do in The Shadows by night. 

Two of the funniest moments in New Zealand television last year were entirely fence-based. First up there was Agni on The Block NZ, who packed a massive sad during an interview and decided to sprint away from his problems, elegantly jumping the property fence as the camera wobbled to keep up with him. His blurry, tiny frame disappeared into the distant forest. Nobody has seen him since.

I thought it couldn’t be topped, until Officer O’Leary encountered a fence in Wellington Paranormal

In the first episode of TVNZ’s What We Do In the Shadows spinoff, O’Leary’s steadfast commitment to catching spooks forces her to pursue a possessed woman on foot, who promptly escapes over a construction fence. O’Leary tries to follow her with a small run-up, but completely fails to clear the jump. “It’s not something that normally happens to me,” she tells the mockumentary camera, stuck in mid-air on the fence like a sad coat on a sad coat rack. “But I’ve just given it my best shot and it didn’t quite work out on the day.”

It’s the perfect moment of New Zealand deadpan – as stoic as an All Black who has just lost a game and as surreal as Police 10-7‘s always blow on the pie. But, just like her character of the same name, O’Leary has proved to be so much more than a person, hanging off a fence, refusing to ask someone for help. She’s an actor, she’s an early childhood teacher, she’s a recording artist and she enjoys long walks on the beach with her dog. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what she was doing before I gave her a call to have a yarn. 

So I thought you were some genius stalwart who had been acting for years, but you’re just a regular person with a regular job? Where did you come from? 

Well, I came out of my mother’s uterus, but in an acting sense, I have definitely stumbled into all of this and I’m very grateful for it. I think that praise there is probably testament to the fact that the character Officer O’Leary very closely resembles myself, someone I’ve been playing for many years. I have tried to stop calling myself a fraud recently and stop being so self-deprecating and realise that I do have a certain amount of skill. 

I do think I have some skill. Maybe. There’s that self-deprecation again. Who do I think I am, Hannah Gadsby? I did actually get mistaken for her the other day here in Wellington. This lovely woman came up to me and was like “you’re so funny” and her friend was like “oh yes, you’re that Hannah Gadsby”. It’s that classic thing of all lesbians look like each other, but I’m still prepared to take the compliment. 

Not the same person

I see that you grew up in Miramar, that must be a pretty interesting place to return to now that you are working in the fancy film and TV industry.

I actually grew up about 12 minutes away from where I live now. It’s funny now that I go back to Miramar to Park Road Post and there’s this real sense of swankiness. I remember when it was just funny old Miramar with the Supreme Bakery and the Penny Bun Café which did the most amazing cheese toasties for about $1.20. It’s very different now. 

I remember interviewing the head of Park Road once in their super flash building, but then right across the road there’s this huge amazing opshop in an old shed. 

Oh yeah that’s the hospice one! That used to be cheap as chips, but now they’ve realised their clientele has got a bit of coin so they’ve up their prices big time. What you want to do is go to the one in St Aidan’s Church. It smells a little bit like Meals on Wheels food – which isn’t bad if you like the smell of cabbage – but it’s got proper opshop prices, like $2 for a pair of pants. Damn, that’s probably Miramar’s best kept secret and I’ve just let it out of the bag. All those flash Weta people are going to be in there now. Orlando Bloom. Viggo. 

Before you got into acting, how did you choose early childhood education as a career? 

I actually studied politics initially, but I think still living in Wellington meant that I didn’t really meet a lot of new people. I got a bit disillusioned that I hadn’t met all these amazing people, so I dropped out and had a year of watching quite a lot of sport on the telly. When I went back, I picked up early childhood. I did get into a little trouble at teachers’ college because I’ve always had a bit of trouble with authority. It’s ironic that I now play a police officer. 

The more time I spend in early childhood, the more I realise that it is the most crucial part of our education journey. If you look at the complexity of what is happening for a child between the ages of zero and five – you’re working out how to interact with a diverse range of people, you’re working out how to have a positive sense of self, you’re working out how to understand who you are. Research suggests that if you have a really stink home life and you’ve never been told anything positive in your life, a positive ECE experience can turn it around before you are five. 

People think of it as glorified babysitting, but it is so much more than that if you are a good teacher.  

O’Leary and Minogue in Wellington Paranormal

You work with a lot of kids and occasionally some very funny adults, but who do you think is definitively funnier? 

Hands down kids are funnier than adults. Absolutely. I do know some very hilarious adults, but children are naturally funnier because they have less inhibition. It’s like how drunk people are funny because they don’t care about what they are doing. Children are a bit the same – they are honest and fresh and they trust their intuition without being guarded like so many adults are. I feel very lucky to say that I could not have a single day at work where I don’t crack up laughing. 

There was one child who had a movement in the sandpit and rolled it nicely in some sand and said “Karen I’ve made you a muffin” and gave me this muffin. Of course it wasn’t a muffin, it was a poo rolled in sand. You just can’t write that shit, you know? 

So how did you get from crap muffins to What We Do in the Shadows

The casting director for the film had kids at my school and she asked me to audition. I said no, but then she asked me really nicely again, so I felt obligated. Next minute I am on the set in Miramar and Jemaine [Clement] is asking me what my name is going to be in the movie. At first I was first like “shit” but then I was like “wait, shouldn’t you know what my name is? Because it’s your bloody movie?” But he didn’t. That’s why it’s my real name – it’s all I could come up with. 

That’s extremely Kiwi, just like how you were allegedly deeply hungover in your audition. 

Yeah that’s a common story, because it’s true. I was. I was crook. I don’t advocate for heavy drinking, I advocate for responsible drinking both as a human and a police officer, but I was really, really quite ill. You know sometimes you feel like you are going to vomit everywhere? I was that rough. It gave me less of a chance to be nervous, so maybe it’s lucky I drank all those beers that Friday night. 

I auditioned with Cohen Holloway, who was like a proper actor famous person, so I was already starstruck. Then they told me I had the role and I had to show up to set at Miramar quite late at night. There wasn’t a lot of information given to me, there was no script, I only knew the place and the time. I took some Lion Browns in my bag, just in case I needed them. 

Did you need them? 

I actually didn’t. I turned up and got my police uniform on and was expecting that they would do my hair and makeup, but they were just like ‘you’re good’ so I didn’t get any of that. Then I met Mike, who told me that he was an accidental actor as well. and I really liked him straight away. And I think the feeling was mutual. It was a bit of a shambles, and I think most of them would agree on that. A hilarious, positive, shambles that I think leant it to its success. 

We were called to set and I met Jemaine briefly, which is where he gave me this quite vague direction, like “just um, you might have heard some shrieking or smelt a weird smell or something, so you are investigating the house like you are cop.” That was basically all the direction that we got, and then the first time I met Taika [Waititi] was the first time I knocked on the door onscreen and said, “hello, I’m officer O’Leary.” 

Has that level improvisation carried over onto the TV show? Is there a script? 

For the film there was a script but only Taika and Jemaine had it, so it was their job to keep us on track because we didn’t really know what was coming. With Wellington Paranormal there is a bit more structure. We do have a script for every episode, but we always deviate. They always let us do a take that’s just me and Mike talking rubbish for as long as we can, so what you see on screen is a blend of all of that. 

We’re both really good at talking shit on the spot. This is where I feel like working with small children for a long time has been very advantageous to my acting career. Because every day they need you constantly be improvising and making up stuff, and the kids aren’t interested in hearing the facts. They want a story, they want to hear something completely untrue, they want something entertaining and engaging. 

Who were your television heroes when you were growing up? 

I really wanted to be MacGyver, but he wasn’t a woman and he wasn’t gay. Actually, he might have been gay. I loved MASH. I remember the first time I watched the Topp Twins on TV and going over to see my neighbours who were very staunch Christians. I remember asking them if they had ever seen it, and them telling me ‘we don’t watch that – they’re lesbians.” 

I had never even heard that word before, but after that conversation I kind of figured out what it meant. And it was all down to the Topp Twins so full credit to them. I think it’s kind of interesting that they have become New Zealand icons and there’s been a real sense of love and acceptance there. It really rejects that narrow view that I think a lot of conservative New Zealand has about gay people and any kind of diversity. 

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How do you feel about being a part of that representation in the roles that you take on? 

I definitely see how movies like The Breaker Upperers are so important, because they provide that visibility and put people like me onscreen in a positive way that’s not just the token gay character. Because sometimes I wonder if that is actually helping us in any way, or if it just creating more challenges. It was also entirely women-led offscreen, which provided a really different environment again and felt really comfortable. 

It’s interesting to me because diversity and difference in my early childhood centre is something that is always valued and appreciated, rather than being seen as a challenge or as even something that is notable. In Paranormal its pretty obvious that I’m a lesbian, but its not the one thing that I am defined by or the only thing that makes me interesting. It just is, it just exists, and that’s where I think we all want to move to. 

The second series of Wellington Paranormal begins tonight at 8.30pm on TVNZ2


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