It’s 1.30am, and Miranda Harcourt, roused from sleep, gets out of bed to see who’s responsible for the clattering and shrieking outside her home, perched above Wellington Harbour.
She’s not surprised to find that the perpetrators are her “oldest teenager” and a gaggle of friends. The naughty teen, as Miranda calls her, should know better. She just turned 90 years old, and is a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
But Dame Kate Harcourt, one of our most revered and treasured actors, scoffs at her daughter’s version of events.
“You do tell the most terrible stories, Miranda,” she growls softly.
“Now, Kate, you know it’s true!” her daughter replies.
Yes, there appears to be plenty of truth in Miranda’s story. Her mother had just finished performing in the hilarious women’s comedy collective Hens’ Teeth at the capital’s Circa Theatre. For 10 nights straight, the zingy 90-year-old played “grumpy old biddy” Maud Hornby – a role she first made hers 20 years ago. She even sang a Mozart duet.
“After the show, she was drinking red wine with her friends in the theatre foyer,” Miranda says. “Then in the early hours of the morning, they dropped her off home; all of them shrieking with laughter. She is one very old teenager.”
“Well, I had a very good time,” Dame Kate retorts, with a half-smile that slides into a grin.
She knows she can’t get away with much when she’s living downstairs from her daughter, her son-in-law (writer and director Stuart McKenzie) and three grandchildren. But it’s also the way she loves it.
“We are a whanau,” Kate says. “It works a treat.”
The family bought the two-storeyed 1960s house – on a clifftop above Houghton Bay with stupendous views of the harbour and Cook Strait – around 17 years ago. The downstairs area was converted into a two-bedroom flat for Kate, but she keeps her independence.
“We have a connecting door, but we never barge in. We always knock – or bang,” says Kate, whose hearing is no longer the sharpest.
Every now and then she cooks for the rest of the family in her own kitchen, but remains quite self-sufficient.
Kate still drives, and has long been the “taxi driver” for her grandchildren: Peter, now 18, Thomasin, 16, and Davida, 10.
And in keeping with her streak of fierce independence, Kate – who celebrated her 90th birthday on June 16 – is working hard. As she has for the past six decades, she is still treading the boards and making movies.
“Kate literally goes from project to project. When you’re acting, you get a big rush of adrenalin, and it’s very youthening and energising,” says Miranda, herself a respected actor and now world-renowned acting coach, who works with Hollywood talents such as Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel (Lion and Slumdog Millionaire).
“She’s really fortunate to have so much work. Most 90-year-olds keep busy by going to the library, but Kate always has a project to look forward to.”
Says Kate: “It’s important to have something to look forward to at my age… or any age for that matter. Even if it’s just a new book to read. Otherwise you might as well turn up your toes.”
In the past few years, she has made regular appearances in New Zealand short films, and most recently played a witch in The Changeover, a feature-length supernatural thriller, based on Margaret Mahy’s book. It will be released later this year.
“I have one or two things on the boil,” Kate says. “I’m only too pleased to do whatever I can. I really don’t mind what I do.”
But she still draws the line at some things. Like nudity. It was a matter she was confronted with recently, while playing the lead role in the short film The Pact, centred around euthanasia.
“There was a nude scene in the script where I was in a bath. I was staggered!” Kate says. “Nude, at my age? How ridiculous. I refused, and they had to rewrite the script.”
Miranda tries to placate her mother: “Kate, you would wear a special bathing suit. And they would only have seen your bare shoulder!”
“I still think it’s ridiculous.”
Miranda laughs. “This is not the usual conversation you’d have with your 90-year-old mother, is it? ‘Now, Mum, you must take your clothes off for a film!’”
That kind of banter seems quite natural, however, in the Harcourt-McKenzie household. Stuart, who wrote the script and co-directed The Changeover with Miranda, even suggested his mother-in-law join a witches’ coven – purely as research, of course, for her role as Winter Carlisle.
“I actually found a coven in Wellington that I could have joined,” Kate says. “But I didn’t particularly want to. I didn’t have the inclination.”
Kate has never been one to hold back her point of view. Miranda describes her mother as being “very political”, despite her conservative upbringing on a hill-country sheep station in Okuku Pass, North Canterbury.
Kate’s father, Gordon Fulton, could not have been more traditional or conservative, while her Australian-born mother, Winifred, was a more feisty, free thinker.
She was 47 when she had Kate, the youngest of three children.
“It was a terrible embarrassment to my father. I never really existed in his eyes,” Kate says. “I only got one letter from him, which I have kept. He was a strange man.”
“It’s so sad,” Miranda adds. “Kate was a big girl, and her father told her, ‘Fat mares don’t breed.’”
Fortunately, Kate ignored such a cruel fallacy. With her much-loved husband, the late Peter Harcourt, Kate had two children. And like her mother, she had them “later in life” – Miranda at the age of 35, and former television journalist and Fair Go host, Gordon, when she was 39.
“We are historically late breeders; I was 44 when I had Davida. So our generations are far apart,” says Miranda, who is now 54.
Meeting Peter – at the Monde Marie coffee bar in Wellington – was for Kate the best thing that ever happened to her.
“He was such a great chap; a lot of people still remember him.”
Peter – a renowned broadcaster, writer and actor – died in 1995. Before she became an actor, Kate was a singer, who trained first at the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne, then at the Joan Cross Opera School in London. When she returned to New Zealand, she eventually moved to Wellington in 1958, taking a job at the Monde Marie, where Peter would sit and write scripts for music revues with the Wellington Repertory.
Plucking up the courage to audition for one of his revues, Kate sang for him. Needless to say, she got the part, and she and Peter then worked together over the next three decades – in theatre, radio and television. In the 1960s, they became part of New Zealand household life through the children’s radio show Listen with Mother, and then Junior Magazine, one of New Zealand’s first children’s television shows; Kate was the presenter and Peter the scriptwriter and the voice of Porky, the glove-puppet hippopotamus.
“My only regret is that Peter died before he met his grandchildren. He was a very special man,” Kate says. “Young Peter is very much like him.”
Miranda and Stuart marvel at the deep relationship Kate has with all three of their children.
“She’s so much a part of their lives; it’s a blessing and a boon,” Miranda explains. “She loves driving them around, and they do all their talking in the car. She offers them great grandmotherly advice.”
She has even been giving Thomasin driving lessons.
“She’s a jolly good driver, too,” Kate says.
As much as she is there for the children if work takes Miranda and Stuart away from home, the kids have proven they also look out for their cherished grandma. Like the time, four years ago, that Kate suffered a bad fall – tripping on a pile of timber outside the house and breaking her eye socket, nose and arm.
“The children came to my rescue: Davida brought me a bowl of warm water; Thomasin rang for an ambulance and ran to get the doctor [a brain surgeon] who lives next door; and Peter came with me to hospital. They were wonderful,” Kate recalls.
After that accident, she became a kind of “poster woman” for the prevention of falls for the Health Quality & Safety Commission.
For the past few years, Peter lived downstairs with Kate, while he was at Scots College (he was head boy last year). He vacated his room earlier this year to move into halls of residence at Victoria University, where he is studying politics, law and Mandarin.
Thomasin is Kate’s new flatmate, but her room has been empty for the past couple of months, while the teenager has been in Portland, Oregon, acting in the lead role of American indie film My Abandonment.
Thomasin, in Year 12 at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, is no stranger to leaving home for the bright lights and cameras – she spent six months in Auckland playing Pixie Hannah on Shortland Street, and played a young Louise in Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story.
All three of the McKenzie children act: Peter has been the lead in a number of short films, including the award-winning Birdsong, and starred opposite Sir Ian McKellen in the play Waiting for Godot. Davida starred with her grandmother in the short film Turtle-Bank Hustler; she acts to earn money to buy American Girl dolls.
While Kate is proud, she tries to deter their generation from making a career in acting.
“I’m very happy to say Tom doesn’t want to go to drama school. She wants to study psychology, criminology or philosophy,” she says. “And I’m glad to see Peter has escaped it too.”
“Kate has always said acting is not a job for a grown-up person,” Miranda chips in. “That’s why she behaves like a naughty teenager…”
“Oh, you do talk an awful lot of twaddle, Miranda! But it’s true about acting.”
Miranda can attest that avoiding acting is one of the most useful things her mother tried to teach her… even if she didn’t exactly adhere to it.
Miranda started her career at the age of four playing a young Katherine Mansfield, and is still recognised as Gemma from Gloss, 30 years after the TV series screened. While she continues to act today, she is in demand across the globe as an acting coach, and has now worked with Nicole Kidman on eight film and theatre projects.
Brother Gordon couldn’t evade it either – he played Miranda’s onscreen brother in both Close to Home and Gloss, before opting for journalism. Gordon is now the senior communications advisor for the Commerce Commission in Auckland.
“It was inevitable I would become an actor,” Miranda says. “Growing up, Gordon and I experienced the good and the bad of it – the excitement and the drama. Like being at the shop counter and Kate saying loudly: ‘Oh dear, we can’t afford to pay for these groceries this week.’ That really should have been a very good disincentive.
“Kate has actually taught me some amazing things, bearing in mind she’s a less practical, more entertaining person. The other thing I learned was to never create parameters; to never say no. Luckily Gordon and I were very good children, because Kate and my father were so distracted doing arty things and earning money, they didn’t have time for intense parenting.
“When I was born, my mother went straight back to work, which was unusual for those times. Today Gordon has great respect for his wife’s working life. And I’m obsessed with my career. Kate has been a wonderful role model, and I hope we can pass that on to our kids.”
As an active nonagenarian, Kate teasingly says that her fitness routine involves bending down to pick up the children’s laundry.
“Thomasin has an enormous amount of washing.”
She actually finds it difficult to stand straight these days, the ongoing repercussion of a riding accident suffered before she was married.
“My back has never been the same since. I had a big operation to decompress the spine when Miranda was six months old,” she says. She’s also had two knee replacements. “I do a lot of exercises under hot water in the shower.”
She has macular degeneration in both eyes, but admits she would be “sunk” without her driver’s licence.
“We’re miles from the shops and the library,” she says. “If I couldn’t read, I’d go mad.” She devours two or three books a week.
Her skin is still smooth and luminous.
“Aren’t I lucky? I’ve always used sunscreen.”
She rarely leaves Wellington these days, but earlier this year she travelled with Miranda and Davida to Hawke’s Bay and her old school of Woodford House, where she was both a boarder and a teacher. She was the special guest at the opening of the Dame Kate Harcourt Performing Arts Centre – a three-level building with studios, classrooms and rehearsal spaces. “It’s beautiful; like performing in a tree house. It is such a privilege to have a building named after you. But I told them they should really call it ‘Kate’s Place’,” she says.
That’s one thing Kate still finds hard to accept, being named a Dame; an honour bestowed upon her in 1996 for her contribution to theatre.
“I have tried to live up to the damn title ever since, and I’ve never managed it!”
She simply prefers Kate – the name Miranda has called her since she was a child. Davida is not impressed: “I get really annoyed at you not calling her Mum,” she tells her mother.
“But I’m called Mum around here,” Miranda laughs. “I called Kate ‘Mum’ until I was 10, and then I did my first acting job with her at the Downstage Theatre. For four months, we shared a dressing room. You can’t be in that situation and call her ‘Mum’.”
Kate smiles a knowing smile. She doesn’t seem to mind what her family call her – as long as she can still hear them calling.
Words: Suzanne McFadden