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Māori actress Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne’s career triumph

Walking the red carpet with Guy Pearce was a dream come true for the Kiwi actress
Image: Robert Trathen

Dream it, believe it, achieve it.” Those are the words Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne penned a speech about in high school. And while it’s a mantra the Māori actress was living by when Woman’s Day last caught up with her hot on the heels of her success with Hunt For The Wilderpeople, it was rocking the red carpet as a “Rising Star” at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival that felt like the ultimate tick for achieving her dreams.

“I felt like I’d finally made it,” says Tioreore, who headed to Canada with director Lee Tamahori and actor Guy Pearce to premiere their new film The Convert.

“I’d been waiting forever for a moment like that. I always knew I would crack it and get to places like Toronto, so it’s been about patience and holding on to to who I am. I was also grateful to be representing Māoridom and indigenous people.”

As Rangimai in The Convert.

Having grown up in a Māori-language immersion school in East Cape’s closeknit Te Araroa, helping tell the stories of her people has always been important to Tioreore. She also couldn’t turn down working with Lee – although he made her nervous at the Convert audition.

“Lee started filming right up in my face, which threw me off,” she admits. “I told my sister after, ‘That was the worst audition of my life!’”

Tioreore, who’s of Ngāti Porou and Ngāi Tūhoe descent, was surprised to land the film, which follows a preacher (Guy) who arrives in 1830s New Zealand and becomes caught up in a tribal war. Tioreore plays grieving “warrior princess” Rangimai, who’s seeking revenge against a chief who killed her husband.

Tioreore credits set acting coach Jennifer Ward-Lealand for helping her prepare for the film, which is in cinemas on Thursday. Together, they meticulously combed through the script word by word. When the cameras rolled, Tioreore’s audition nerves had been replaced with confidence and she comfortably spoke up if she disagreed with Lee.

The director and star with her proud parents Taiarahia (left) and Kararaina.

“I’d say, ‘Nah, I reckon I should do it like this because that’s how a woman acts.’ And he’d go, ‘Oh, yeah’. He was really open.”

Meanwhile, Tioreore was starstruck meeting Guy, who she’d seen in Iron Man 3 – as was her father Taiarahia.

“Dad was like, ‘Bro, Guy Pearce!’ It made me more nervous because my family hyped him up. But we helped each other behind the scenes. I was teaching him Māori and he was helping me. He was down to earth and keen to learn about our culture, which was beautiful.”

Being in Toronto with Guy and Lee was surreal, and Tioreore felt like royalty as one of the rising stars who got to network with industry hot shots.

Having her parents there was also memorable, especially since Tioreore’s mum Kararaina inspired her portrayal of Rangimai. Her late big brother Pero was also on her mind as she channelled Rangimai’s grief. Tioreore previously shared with Woman’s Day how she was crushed by Pero’s death in 2016.

On the red carpet in Toronto with (from left) Guy, Lee and Jacqueline McKenzie.

“He’s been with me through everything since and I feel him strongly in my work. There’s a lot of grief in this film and tapping into those emotions was the hardest thing.

“Understanding grief means I know how to play grief… I don’t know if that’s a blessing. Rangimai’s a representation of our Māori ancestors and to play her successfully, I had to fully go to those places.”

There were days the star came home exhausted from crying all day on camera. However, she had her boyfriend of two years, Taane Paki, to comfort her.

Tioreore wasn’t looking for love when she met Taane at a rugby league game in 2021, but the pair connected. “The rest is history!” Working at Huntly Power Station, the 25-year-old knew little about showbiz and had an eye-opening experience visiting Tioreore on location during filming of The Convert.

“I made it clear before we got serious that sometimes I’ll have work, sometimes I won’t and sometimes you’ll find me crying myself to sleep because I didn’t get the role. He’s been supportive, whether it’s being my scene partner when I’m learning lines or supporting me financially when I don’t have work.”

Boyfriend Taane has been her rock.

Getting work remains the biggest challenge as Tioreore’s star rises. She’s learned the importance of taking time after failed auditions to “cry, grieve the role, then bounce back” and uses the downtime for personal passion projects, like the play she’s writing. Loneliness can also be a struggle, both during time off and on set with strangers.

Educating the next generation to navigate those hurdles is something Tioreore’s now passionate about. She’s tutoring acting students and hopes to start a business to further help small communities.

“We never had the opportunity to learn acting growing up, so I want to give back to my people,” she explains. “I hope young Māori women who see me in The Convert or on a red carpet aren’t just inspired to do these things, but also know I’m there for them. They can literally hit me up on Instagram and I’ll support them!”

After all, they too can “see it, dream it, achieve it”.

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