Career

Kiwi actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand talks about sexism, #Metoo and what things are like in the acting industry in New Zealand

Too many great women have been held back – lost jobs, left jobs…

By Emma Clifton

If women over the age of 45 aren't supposed to work in show business, someone clearly forgot to tell Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Rather than looking at a dwindling calendar, on the day of her Australian Women's Weekly interview she is busy working out how she is going to be in four places at once the following Friday.

There's a performance at the Cabaret festival, presenting at an awards show, attending a lunch for drama course The Actors' Program, which she sits on the board of, and a rehearsal for a fundraiser. Then there's the general maintenance that accompanies such events: "Put some slap on, put on a nice frock, that kind of stuff," Jennifer jokes.

"It's keeping one step ahead of the game – that's the trick."

For the past couple of years, Jennifer has made an unofficial decision that maybe it is time to take on a little less work. Trouble is, the opportunities are so good, and her reputation so stellar, that there hasn't really been a chance to make good on that promise. And even though Jennifer has been doing this for 35 years, and is one of the most beloved actors we have, she still considers herself to be a freelancer. And not only a freelancer, but one working in a precarious industry.

Jennifer and her husband Michael Hurst – they've been married for 30 years.
Jennifer and her husband Michael Hurst – they've been married for 30 years.

"Given that 85-90 per cent of actors are unemployed – that's worldwide statistics, not just New Zealand – you have to be able to do more than one thing. Work on your voiceovers, your narrations, your story readings on the radio, your animated series, your web series, commercials, plays… the number of different parts you have to try and get so you can cobble together a career and make a living."

So she's a freelancer, who cobbles. Albeit a very, very glamorous one; statuesque, with a chic grey/blonde crop, who's been a mainstay of our screens and stages for decades. And her most recent move was one heck of a cobble: she directed the Festival Opera production of Madame Butterfly, as part of Napier's Art Deco festival in February.

The famous opera tells the sad love story between a lonely Japanese girl and her older US Naval officer husband, and it's a score that Jennifer grew up listening to. Her mother Philippa, a talented pianist, worked on three different productions of Madame Butterfly, two of which were for the New Zealand Opera Company, so Jennifer didn't have to look far to find some help on the music front. She says it was so good "being able to spend that time with my mum, going over the score; she just knows it intimately," she says.

The 55-year-old actress is often asked whether she prefers singing or acting, but says there is no real difference to her.

"It's all storytelling. A song needs just as much storytelling, craft and commitment as a monologue," she says. "The only thing with an opera is that when things can't be spoken, because they're too big, they must be sung. And I love guiding that move from speech to song."

The opera cast features some of the best alto and soprano voices in the world, including Sol3 Mio singer Pene Pati. It starts on February 13 and runs for four nights, and naturally, right in the middle of that run time, Jennifer is also starring in her own show, Falling in Love Again.

The cabaret-style performance is Jennifer's longest-running role; where she slips into the slinky seductive gowns and sultry, indolent tones of famed German actress Marlene Dietrich. Jennifer and her two musicians have been taking this act on the road for nearly 15 years, after an offhand idea turned into a critically acclaimed show that Jennifer devised. Marlene is also a very positive example for the industry – she performed until she was 74…

"So I figure I've got another 20 years," Jennifer jokes.

But even though her career progression hit the accelerator after 40, she's aware that it's not always the norm with acting.

"I certainly think we don't see many older women on the screen, and that's a shame. The performances I love the most are all women over 40… Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Viola Davis. They just feel like they've lived a life, and that's what they bring to their performances. You could watch 30 women under 25 and get them mixed up, but those older women you'd never get mixed up."

Jennifer as Marlene Dietrich in Falling in Love Again. Since its first performance in 2003, the show has toured in New Zealand and Australia.
Jennifer as Marlene Dietrich in Falling in Love Again. Since its first performance in 2003, the show has toured in New Zealand and Australia.

The double standard towards ageing was the most headline-grabbing narrative against women in Hollywood for a long time. That is, of course, until last October, when the multiple allegations made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein kick-started the #MeToo uprising, which has seen several high-profile Hollywood figures removed from the limelight after numerous accusations of sexual harassment and assault.

Among them are actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K. and director Brett Ratner. So – and there's really no way to dance around this question – does New Zealand have this problem too?

"Yes, we have that problem," Jennifer says. She is speaking with her Equity New Zealand hat on, she says – she's president of the organisation, which represents Kiwi performers. They have always been big on promoting the guidelines for sex and nudity in both auditions and stage and screen performances – holding regular workshops, and panel discussions with actors, where both established actors and relative newcomers get together to talk about their experiences.

She mentions that her husband, Michael Hurst, has directed many of those scenes, and creating a safe space for everyone involved is the key. And yet, her immediate response to the question would suggest there's still work to be done.

She cites "the whisper network", where women in various US industries – movies and media being the two notable ones – had unofficial ways of warning each other about certain men.

"It will be interesting to see if that comes over here. I think for a lot of people, there's still the fear of losing work, particularly in our industry. But having said that, we cannot let these predators work with these people and – excuse my French – f* them up for life. Because it does."

Like so many of us, Jennifer admits she is reading anything and everything about this ever-unfolding movement, which is opening up a new dialogue around large parts of the world. "I'm happy to see these things topple," she says.

"Too many great women have been held back – lost jobs, left jobs… Why? Why should these great women have to leave? These great, capable women who should have crashed through that glass ceiling well and truly, but because of this stuff, have not."

The damage doesn't just lie with the overt, law-breaking forms of sexism; it comes in many sneaky, insidious ways as well. Both as someone within the community but also as an observer of the entertainment world, Jennifer says her antenna for sexist content is well and truly up.

"If I'm watching something and I'm physically repelled by seeing another girl get her top pulled off, I just feel a little sick about it. And it's nothing to do with prudishness, it's to do with these images we're constantly being flooded with… where the male gaze is just so obvious."

It was one of the reasons another of Jennifer's latest projects felt so different. Cast as the lead actress in Kiwi film Vermilion, which was filmed last year, it was the rare, shooting star combination of an almost all-female team: the majority of the cast were women over the age of 40, and the film was written and directed by Dorthe Scheffmann.

"It was such a female experience – so much the female gaze," Jennifer says.

So through her work, Jennifer and her colleagues are endeavouring to subvert the male gaze that dominates much of our society. And at home, raising her two sons, Cameron, 18, and Jack, 20, she's doing much the same thing. She jokes that with teenage boys, she can't really do an official 'Now let's have a talk about feminism' sit-down; it becomes more about leading by example.

"They've seen their mother working – and enjoying her work, in a trillion different gowns and costumes and all sorts of things… so to a certain extent, I think what they're modelled is quite great."

But she's not above creating the odd teaching moment when the inspiration strikes.

"I bring these things up casually; for instance, the whole sex education thing. Occasionally when we were all in the car, I'd bring up, 'Just a reminder guys, one sperm can make a baby. So unless you want to be a teenage father… you know what to do.' I think we can be reasonably candid. But they've got quite a strong female role model in their life."

In a freelance, cobbled career, where heading off to work is a different ballpark every month or so, Jennifer's constants are the big things: her sons, husband Michael, the house they've lived in for years, where she gave birth to her children in the lounge. Even with both parents working in the arts, the kids always had a solid routine – Jennifer and Michael decided early on that if one of them was working at night, the other one wouldn't. Things are a bit freer now, with only one son still at home, but the family has made it work as a unit for a long time.

Both Jennifer and Michael's careers are only going from strength to strength – he pops into the lounge at one stage to discuss the script for TV3's Westside, of which he's directing a few episodes – so between them the calendar is looking pretty full. And even our country's most glamorous couple is not immune to the oft-asked question between jet-setting partners: Who is going to be home to feed the cats?!

This year is already going great guns for Jennifer, with Madame Butterfly and Falling in Love Again, then promoting Vermilion, her first feature film in years. She's doing her first play in te reo Maori at some stage as well – she's spent over a decade studying our native language, and in December had a Maori name bestowed on her: Te Atamira, which means "the stage". Following that, there will be more work in Australia, and something in the pipeline for Auckland's Silo theatre. Plus a teaching commitment for the first part of 2019.

"It's a good problem to have," Jennifer says. "And, you know, we've got to keep working! Got to pay the bills."

As well as constantly being asked how they've managed to thrive in such a volatile industry, Jennifer and Michael are held up as another example of longevity: they've been together for 35 years, married for 30.

"It's a lifetime," Jennifer says.

Her two tips? "We can still make each other laugh, and we've never stopped the other person fulfilling what they wanted to do creatively.

"So even at times when we've gone, 'It's just not going to pay any money,' the question is, 'Does your heart really want to do this?' If the answer is yes, you just make it work. Sometimes it means taking a load more for a certain time, but I can't think of anything worse than stopping someone from doing something they were meant to do."

Her career, Jennifer says, has been full of "challenges and change and excitement and profound experiences. It's been an education. And all performers, no matter your age, are always looking for a creative challenge. You never stop learning, never. There's always something you can be better at."

It's too premature to ask her this question, but that's never stopped a journalist. What does she want her legacy to be?

"I'd like there to be a stronger industry, I'd like actors to have stronger protections. I'd like there to be more of a culture of respect for actors; there is in other countries, but it's not here yet. I'd like to always be seen as an advocate for actors."

There's a pause, and then a smile. "But you can ask me that again in 20 years."

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