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Miriama’s mini-me: ‘My girl’s a star too!’

The actress introduces her talented daughter Talanoa
Pictures: Emily Chalk

A few years ago, acting powerhouse Miriama McDowell was running a children’s drama workshop in the Hokianga and auditioning young stars for a short film. While sorting through audition tapes, a little finger tapped her on the shoulder, quickly followed by the question, “Can I do one too?”

It was her eldest daughter Talanoa, aka “Lala”, then nine, who had long been watching Mum mentor upcoming generations of Māori actors. Surprised but delighted, Miriama replied, “Sure!”

The mum-of-two – who played a lead role in Head High and starred as a young Dame Whina Cooper in the biopic Whina – recalls, “When I sent the audition tapes in to the director, I was describing each kid, like, ‘This one’s got real charm,’ and, ‘This one is great at learning lines,’ then lastly, ‘This one’s my kid!’

“He was like, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t talk up Lala – she was amazing!’ Of course, she then won an award for Best Supporting Actress at the Sydney Web Fest. It’s funny that I didn’t see that acting spark in her.”

In Head High with co-star Jordi Webber.

Now 12, talented Talanoa has signed up with Miriama’s agent and the pair are starring in the new season of comedy show Only In Aotearoa.

“I play a kid who speaks and acts like an adult in multiple skits – it was really fun,” says Talanoa, who admits to being known as “the funny one” in her friend group. “I didn’t really think about becoming an actor growing up. It was just normal to me because since I was a baby, I’ve always been on set with Mum. And they always have good snacks!”

It’s clear Talanoa has the gift of the gab. Her name even means “storyteller”.

She giggles, “It’s true because my teachers say I talk a lot in class! And when I audition for ads, I often don’t get the role, probably due to ads not having a lot of talking. It’s just your face they want, but I’m a talker!”

Nodding in agreement, Miriama, 44, adds, “When Lala was three, she was at work with me while I was directing a solo show starring Kura Forrester. One night, while putting Lala to bed, I said, ‘I know I’ve been busy with this show. How you are you feeling about it?’

“She said, ‘I feel annoyed, frustrated and bored.’ I was like, ‘Wow! You’re so amazing at expressing your feelings. So when is that happening?’ Without missing a beat, she replied, ‘I only feel like that whenever Kura is speaking.’ So I went back to work the next day and said, ‘Er, guys, the audience feedback is not good!’”

With two actresses in the family, plus Miriama’s six-year-old daughter Hero, whom she says is a “wannabe director”, their household is never short on drama – or laughter.

When Woman’s Day visits their West Auckland home for our photoshoot, Miriama laments that her tween has been giving her unwarranted fashion advice.

“I don’t appreciate it,” she sighs jokingly. “I feel judged!”

Curled up to her mum on a couch, Talanoa describes Miriama as “weird but funny”, going on to recall an outing they had for Mother’s Day. “We went on a bike ride to have a picnic, just me, Mum and Hero,” she smiles. “I was going to use my stepdad’s e-bike, but that was dead. So instead, we all squeezed onto three seats on mum’s electric bike.

“As we rode along, I noticed that when people saw us, they started laughing at us! People in cars were pointing. Mum was like, ‘It’s not that funny to have three on the bike, is it?’”

Laughing, Miriama adds, “I realised it was the epitome of my motherhood. I’ll do really spontaneous, fun things that are a little bit dangerous and we don’t know where it’s going to lead! It’s important to still have times when it’s just the three of us on our own. That’s what we’ve known for so long.”

Miriama married leading Māori architect Rau Hoskins in December 2022, three weeks after the death of her father, Murray McDowell, who raised her and her three siblings on his own.

The actress admits she doubts she could’ve juggled her career with the challenges of being a single parent if it wasn’t for her dad’s inspiration. She remembers bringing shopping bags up the stairs in the dark for the umpteenth time and hearing her dad’s voice in her head saying, “Keep going, Mim. You can do this!”

She also recalls a six-year-old Talanoa creeping into her bedroom at 5am one day. The wee girl told her, “I’ll take the baby for an hour so you can sleep, Mum.”

Miriama says, “Thinking about that still makes me cry. I desperately needed that. I’m so proud of Lala for the way she’s a second mother to Hero. Seeing the way she nurtures, protects and steps in when I really need her to. I think her compassion is what makes Lala a great actor. She has always had a high emotional intelligence.”

Despite her busy career, Miriama – who’s of Ngāti Hine and Ngāpuhi descent – decided last year to put acting on hold to attend full-immersion te reo Māori study at Te Wānanga Takiura. Hero also goes to a bilingual primary school, while Talanoa is Year 8 at a total-immersion intermediate school.

“So I felt like I was learning Māori alongside them,” Miriama smiles. “Of course, Lala is the first person to correct me when I say something wrong. She kind of grimaces when I speak in te reo.”

While the year of full-time study was wonderful “because I got to have a routine for the first time in my life since I was a teenager”, Miriama says she’s actually found it hard to come back into the industry since graduating.

“It’s a loss of momentum and I think I’ve lost a bit of my confidence.”

On her and Rau’s wedding day, with daughters Hero and Talanoa.

However, she’s developing a solo theatre show called Rangirua, which is about being a twin. Her twin brother Tiopira is a Māori studies lecturer. She says they understand each other on a “deeply spiritual” level.

“I always want to make my brother proud. Throughout my life, if something is affecting me very deeply, he knows – no matter how far away he is.”

Finding love in her forties has also been an exciting new chapter, beams Miriama.

“It’s pretty amazing. It’s really hard to live alongside an artist because of the way we live when we’re doing a project. We give it everything and it consumes you – when you come home, the character is still living inside you. So both Rau and I are still learning how to navigate those intense times. He’s taught me so much about what tautoko [support] means.

“But it’s not just the practical things of picking up the kids or helping me with groceries. My husband walks me to the car every day. Then he greets me at the car when I come home, opens my door and walks me in. It’s the most beautiful thing!”

Only In Aotearoa screens 8pm Thursdays on Whakaata Māori and streams on Māori+.

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