After starring in New Zealand's favourite soap Shortland Street, actress Te Ao o Hinepehinga Rauna's career is going global – and she owes it all to a high-flying Hollywood agent who stumbled upon her stunning performance in the rugby drama Head High.
Smiling, the 29-year-old explains, "Mike Gillespie is married to Anna Hutchison from Go Girls and a few years ago, they were flying back to New Zealand to visit Anna's family with their new bubs, which is how Mike happened to watch Head High on the plane."
Keen to take a punt on Te Ao's talent, Mike reached out and suggested they meet.
She recalls, "Mike liked my vibe and that I answered his questions honestly. But I also told him I thought he was crazy, so Mike said that if he didn't get me a job in the first year, he'd owe me one!"
As it turned out, Mike's hunch was right and the East Coast beauty's talent saw her land a lead role in Breakwater, a futuristic climate-change drama filmed in Mexico. Making waves with her dynamic performance, Te Ao was soon offered another big gig, playing Jason Momoa's wife in Apple TV+'s Chief Of War.
But it's not all lucky breaks and red carpets for Te Ao, who is of Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu descent. She will always be grateful to her mum, Tania Rina Rauna, 50, for being her biggest supporter. "My mum is a firecracker – a revolutionary gamechanger who plays by her own rules to make positive change for others."
Upon hearing such high praise from her eldest daughter, mother-of-five Tania beams broadly. "And I'm the proudest mum in the whole universe!"
Speaking to Woman's Day at Tania's new house in Gisborne – "it's the first home I've ever actually owned, my forever whare" – it's clear the two women share a close bond.
Te Ao tells us, "Even though Mum's a whānau activist and youth worker, when she was younger, she dreamed of being a professional dancer and one of my earliest memories is of watching Mum breakdance in our shed, blasting music from a boombox."
Laughing, Tania confirms, "I was one of the first girls to breakdance back in the '80s in Gisborne – doing head spins, back spins and windmills. Then in the '90s, we got into hip-hop and all that MC Hammer stuff, but my dad insisted all his kids went to uni."
Which is how Tania found herself at the University of Waikato. She continues, "My original dream was to study dance at the performing arts school in Auckland, but Dad signed me up to study accounting. He and my grandmother were determined my sister and I would have opportunities beyond shearing and forestry."
But rather than attend her accounting lectures, Tania entered dance competitions.
"It was my way of rebelling, but when Dad realised I wasn't studying, he made me come home to work with our people, to remind me what was important. From there, I changed courses, signing up to major in political science and Māori development. We were the first lot of graduates to go through that programme."
In spite of Tania being steered away from dance, when Te Ao showed a flair for performance and kapa haka, the proud mum was determined her daughter should pursue her passion. "I told her to follow her dream and I've been her number-one supporter ever since."
Tania also hoped her daughter's interest in drama would keep her grounded while they dealt with some real-life drama at home. Tania explains, "When Te Ao was about 15 and I was pregnant with my fifth child, I discovered that my husband was having an affair. It got pretty ugly and emotional, and acting was something precious Te Ao could hold on to."
Which is why, straight after school, Te Ao went to Christchurch to study for a bachelor of musical theatre. However, uni wasn't all plain sailing and over the course of that three-year degree, Te Ao tried to quit several times.
Tania recalls, "She came home crying now and then as there were some difficulties, but I told her to stick it out."
Making it through those tough times certainly helped Te Ao weather the storms of a creative life and also gave her the courage to move to Sydney after graduation. "But rather than further my acting career over there, I took a detour and ended up working as a Latin showgirl, like a samba dancer – all feathers, sequins and big headdresses," she tells.
No matter how hard she tried, Te Ao couldn't break into acting over there and, after two years in Oz, she was ready to throw in the towel. At that same time, her beloved grandfather Tiopira Hape Rauna died and she returned to Aotearoa for the tāngi.
"I felt so lost when I came home. I didn't think I could do it any more, but thank goodness Mum insisted I not let Papa's passing be the reason I gave up."
Tania says, "If my kids have a dream, I sit on them to go after it and pretty soon Te Ao got an agent in Auckland."
"It was so freaky," continues Te Ao. "From life having been so tough, everything just torpedoed in the right direction and my biggest dreams started to come true. It made me wonder if my Papa was doing some sort of magic up there because after years of rejection, I finally got my lucky break!"
It's certainly hard to imagine a bigger opportunity than being cast as Jason Momoa's wife on Chief Of War, a blockbuster series recently filmed in Aotearoa and Hawai'i, also starring Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis. When asked about the experience, Te Ao can't give too much away, but her beaming face paints a picture.
"I've been given strict instructions not to spoil anything, but I can say it's an incredible drama inspired by historic events, about the unification of Hawai'i, told from an indigenous perspective."
As for working with the handsome Hollywood hunk, Te Ao is clearly smitten. "I would take a bullet for Jay. I have so much respect for the way he put his heart and soul into Chief Of War. He also has a huge heart and a crazy-big mind, like a five-year-old on a sugar rush!"
After a short Christmas break with whānau in Gisborne, Te Ao has spent the summer rehearsing Hyperspace, Auckland Theatre Company's first show for 2024. A musical drama that teleports audiences back to the heady days of competitive aerobics in the '80s, it's a world of high ponytails, leotards and legwarmers, where Te Ao plays small-town girl Natalie Te Rehua, who dreams of becoming a dancer.
"To fulfil her ambition, Natalie enters the New Zealand Aerobics Championships, but the characters aren't just dancing for themselves – they're performing for everyone who's ever been told they can't, which is a story I can totally relate to." It's also a tale that certainly resonates with her mum.
As for pursuing the Hollywood dream, Te Ao is keen to just go with the flow when it comes to her future in acting. "I'm putting my faith in the universe and I'll go wherever the wind blows me," she says. And with Tania cheering her on, it's sure to be an adventure!
Auckland Theatre Company's Hyperspace opens 7 February. For info and tickets, visit atc.co.nz.
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