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People to watch this month: Rima Te Wiata, actor

People to watch this month: Rima Te Wiata, actor

Photo by Alex Burton.

“I’m wondering what the hell’s wrong with me,” says Rima Te Wiata. “Do I look 120?”

Hardly. Te Wiata is 52, yet her most recent roles have all been characters aged in their seventies or beyond.

It’s the same story with her latest — she plays grandma to Billy, the coal miner’s son who dreams of being a ballet dancer, in Auckland Theatre Company’s Billy Elliot the Musical.

Of course, as Billy Elliot director Colin McColl points out, such casting is a tribute to Te Wiata’s ability as a character actor. Billy’s hard-scrabble childhood, where the arts are viewed with suspicion at best, is the antithesis of Te Wiata’s own upbringing.

But despite her father Inia Te Wiata’s success as an opera singer and her mother Beryl’s career as a singer and actor, the stage initially held little appeal. “As a kid, I could see expectation in the eyes of adults around me. I felt like a little plant that had been pulled up, and they were examining the roots before I’d had the chance to grow.”

That’s hard to imagine in 2016, when Ti Wiata has an acting career of 35 years under her belt, with recent roles in Housebound and Hunt for the Wilderpeople among dozens of TV, film and theatre appearances here and overseas.

Having been underwhelmed by the experience of fame early on in her career — “It was fun until it was pure pressure” — she knows what to look for in a role these days, and in life in general. “I just want to be artistically fulfilled. I don’t really mind what the avenue is.”

She likes making things with her hands, at home — by which she means anywhere in New Zealand, not a particular property or even city. “When you’re making something — say a little sculpture — you get to make it from go to whoa without any creative interference.”

That’s one of the reasons she won’t divulge her plans for the future, in case she gets offers of assistance. Whatever they are, she wants them to be hers and hers alone. “It’s that thing again of people pulling up the roots before I’m ready.”

Billy Elliot the Musical: ASB Waterfront Theatre, October 12-November 6. www.atc.co.nz

This article is published in the October 2016 issue of Metro, on sale now. 

Read more: Simon Wilson on ATC’s new waterfront theatre.

Theatre