Celebrity News

Lisa Harrow: I just want to go and hug a lot of people

She’s had a long and varied career as an international star of stage and screen. Currently appearing in TV’s Step Dave, the celebrated Kiwi actress talks to Sara Bunny about Shakespeare, whales, Sam Neill, her own impulsiveness, and the sadness of losing loved ones.
Lisa Harrow has had a long and varied career as a actress on stage and on screen.

She’s bold, forthright and vivacious, but in this moment, Lisa Harrow is close to tears. It’s not about the lukewarm coffee at a central Auckland café – the New Zealand actress is certainly no diva – but the emotions come to the surface when she reflects on losing loved ones.

“There are so many people I’ve worked with, and loved, who have been a part of my life, and they’re just dropping like flies,” she says. “You go through life and it’s always opening out; new doors, new paths, it’s this great adventure. Then you suddenly come to a moment where you go, ‘Shit, these people are all leaving, they’re on a one-way journey; I’ll never see them again’. I just want to go and hug a lot of people.”

Touchingly honest, Lisa isn’t the type to shy away from things, including the sort of topics that would make many uncomfortable. As a waitress weaves past with a tray, a plane roars overhead and life’s general hubbub crashes into focus, she sighs thoughtfully before returning to her cheery self.

The celebrated actress has been enjoying her most recent project, playing the part of matronly Marion on the new season of TV2’s Step Dave. “It’s been great,” says the 72-year-old. “In the first series I was thinking, ‘Why is Marion such an old grinch?’ The second series has been much more fun to play; there’s a feeling Marion is more at peace with what’s going on, and she’s more herself.”

After 50 years in the acting business, Lisa’s extensive stage and screen career has involved jetting around the globe for a myriad of theatre, film and TV roles. She’s recently added stage director to the list as well, taking the reins for an American production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Filming Step Dave provided a welcome stint on home soil; despite her travels, the mum-of-one is adamant New Zealand has always been where her heart is. She

was born and raised in the Auckland suburb of Epsom, and her son Tim, 32, and his wife, also named Lisa, happily call Auckland home.

Lisa wears: Decjuba jacket, necklace and earrings, Witchery top.

But after leaving for England in 1966 as a fresh-faced wannabe thespian with a drama bursary, Lisa hasn’t moved back permanently since. Currently she spends half the year in Vermont, USA, with her husband of 24 years, acclaimed marine biologist Roger Payne, and six months annually at the couple’s harbourside pad near the Auckland Viaduct.

“New Zealand has always been home,” Lisa says. “I find America very difficult, politically, but Vermont is the nearest thing to New Zealand. It’s agricultural, there’s a lot of farmers markets and organic things. The people are very artistic, and very unlike most Americans.”

Until recently, the couple had a home at Port Levy, Banks Peninsula, on a sprawling section complete with an olive grove and native bush. In hindsight, Lisa says buying such a large property was crazy, but they both took one look at the rolling hills and cabbage trees and fell in love with the place.

“We were both saying ‘no!’ But we absolutely loved it, and bought it,” she laughs. “The trouble is, you have to be there. You need ride-on mowers, you need to have people taking care of your land. Well, we don’t, so now it’s on the market. Some people buy a dress because they feel an emotional attachment to it, I bought a massive property. It’s been extraordinary, but it was mad – I don’t advise it!”

Impulsiveness is clearly in her nature. The actress once described herself as the sort of person who “leaps off cliffs without thinking”, and she’s never been afraid to take a chance. After meeting Roger at a Greenpeace rally for whale conservation, Lisa went home and announced to a friend that she’d met the man she would marry. “I am the kind of girl who will meet people and go and live with them the next day. I’m not reflective in that way. I just go, ‘Yup, that’s it.’ I consider myself a quick decider.”

That steely determination came into play as young as 10, when Lisa started reading Shakespeare and told everybody she was going to act in Stratford-upon-Avon. At 22, she won a place at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

“Acting was all I wanted to do. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had the incredible luck to get a bursary to go overseas.”

Lisa wears: Chocolat top, Decjuba Necklace, and Trenery Pants.

Luck is something Lisa mentions often, and she modestly says it’s a key factor in the fickle world of acting. “There are so many wonderful actors who don’t ever get the break,” she sighs. “It’s got nothing to do with talent; it’s just being in the right place at the right time. None of us are irreplaceable. I’m told that in America, if there’s a question over who is going to get the part, then the one with the most Twitter followers will get the role. Is that being an actor? No!”

In the future Lisa wants to continue directing, with a view to helping younger actors learn the ropes, especially when it comes to the complicated works of Shakespeare. “I love working with those words, and helping people understand them,” the actress enthuses. “It’s about finding the electricity in the language.”

Lisa, who was recently made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the dramatic arts, has been through her share of learning curves and on-stage gaffes. A diabetes sufferer for more than two decades, she sews glucose tablets into her stage costumes in case of a blood sugar low during a performance.

The precaution paid off one night when, mid-scene in the medical-themed play Wit, she felt the formidable haze of a blood sugar drop. “I was on the stage, trying to remember a word, and was starting to perspire profoundly,” she recalls. “I almost fell over, but managed to stuff glucose tablets in my mouth. Suddenly everything came back into focus and I carried on. But from then on, every time someone came on as a nurse or doctor they shoved a glucose tablet in my mouth, and by the end of it I was so high it was ridiculous!”

When asked if it is difficult to find good roles as an older actress, Lisa’s answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. “The thing I hate is having to be conventionally sexy or funny or pretty,” she says. “I like being real.”

The lack of quality roles for mature women is especially rife in America, and Lisa ponders whether her decision to move to the US had a negative impact on her career. “If I had stayed in England I would have had a bigger crack at the good roles, what few of them there are. I’ve never made a film in America, except for an independent film that went to Sundance [Film Festival]. But Hollywood is a horrible place. I went there a lot when I was younger but I thought, ‘No, life is too short.’”

Lisa is astute, with a razor-sharp bullshit detector. But her warmness shines through in spades. She lights up when describing one of her favourite recent roles, as a lead in the New Zealand play, At the Wake. To learn her lines, she would skype Roger in America, who had a copy of the script, and he would help her rehearse for two hours every morning. “Learning all of those lines is difficult. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Since their first meeting in London, Roger has been one of Lisa’s biggest supporters. A father of four, grandfather of nine, and the biologist who made the ground-breaking discovery that whales communicate through songs, he and Lisa share a passion for environmental issues.

“Not only do male humpback whales sing, but they compose the songs, the songs rhyme and they change them all the time,” Lisa enthuses. “So these animals that are being slaughtered in their thousands turn out to be singers, poets and composers – and you’re going to feed your cat that?”

Lisa’s son Tim, whose father is acclaimed Kiwi actor Sam Neill, was still at primary school when Roger joined the family, and they have shared a strong connection ever since. “Roger phoned Tim to ask for my hand in marriage,” says Lisa with a fond smile. “And this little eight-year-old boy went, ‘Oh yes! This is the happiest day of my life!’”

The story of Sam leaving Lisa when she was pregnant with Tim was once popular media fodder, but that’s now water under the bridge and the family is a tight unit. “Sam’s always been very much in our lives. I don’t believe that if you have a child with someone you can hold rancour against them if your relationship breaks. I hate fighting, I’m just not interested in that.”

With grandchildren likely at some point, Lisa has been reflecting on the stories she can tell to the next generation in the family. When she manages a break in her schedule, the actress wants to dust off the archives and start scrapbooking.

“I have cuttings and photographs that go back to the 1950s; I just have to be in one place for long enough to get them all digitised,” she says. “One day I’m going to pop my clogs, and no one but I knows what the connections are. So I have to do that, so that at least my boy can show his children and grandchildren, and say, ‘That was my mum.’”

Clockwise from top left: All Creatures Great and Small (1). The Omen III (2). Nancy Astor (3). The Last Days of Chez Nous (4). Step Dave (5).

Lisa’s career highlights

1966 Accepted to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London.

1969 Became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Acted opposite Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, before going on to star in a range of Shakespearian plays including Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Henry VIII.

1975 Appeared in the first film adaptation of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. (1)

1981 Acted in The Omen III, where she met Sam Neill. (2)

1982 Acted alongside Peter O’Toole in a TV movie adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play Man and Superman. Also starred as Nancy in the TV mini-series, Nancy Astor. (3)

1992 Starred in The Last Days of Chez Nous, and won an Australian Film Institute Award for best lead actress. (4)

1995 Acted as Lizzie Kavanagh in British television series Kavanagh QC.

1997 Won the Grand Jury award at the Sundance Film Festival, for her role in the independent film, Sunday.

2000 Played the lead role of Dr Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit, and went on to star in a range of stage productions in the US, including classical drama Medea and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

2014 Acted alongside Robbie Magasiva in the Victor Roger play, At the Wake.

2014-2015 Appeared on New Zealand television screens as Marion in two seasons of comedy-drama series Step Dave. (5)

Photos by Alamy and Getty Images

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories