Nurse. Gang leader. Mother. Dancer. TV presenter. In a diverse, three-decade career that has encompassed everything from Shortland Street and Dancing with the Stars to dating show Finding Aroha, 2017 might well go down as Miriama Smith’s Year of the Feisty Wahine.
The 41-year-old mum-of-one had less than 24 hours between throwing off the shackles of playing ambitious, powersuit-wearing lead Brady Truebridge in TVNZ 2’s Filthy Rich before becoming the fierce force of nature that is lawyer Ngahuia Richards in the hit Kiwi-Aussie collaboration 800 Words.
“The day after the wrap party for Filthy Rich, I fell straight onto the West Coast beaches of Auckland to play Ngahuia at 6.30am!” she grins. “I didn’t even have time to exhale.”
Viewers have already seen the fear created by Ngahuia among the folk of fictional town Weld, where she recently returned to after a long spell in Auckland, following the near-death of her son Ike. Visibly flustered as they spied her in the supermarket, it’s clear the locals knew Ngahuia was not to be messed with.
But, muses Miriama, there are definite differences between her two most recent roles.
“While they’re both strong, driven females who stand on their own two feet, Brady denied her small-town roots, whereas Ngahuia doesn’t,” explains Miriama.
“You can take the girl out of Weld, but her roots are firmly planted there. The pull of home really does affect her, not just because of her son, but because it instils in her a sense of belonging, which she hasn't found in Auckland – despite having a successful career, driving a Tesla and having a taste for the finer things in life.”
Like her character, Miriama upped sticks a few years ago and moved from Auckland to a small town in the Bay of Plenty, where she lives on a lifestyle block. But unlike singleton Ngahuia, she’s happily married, to Dylan Marychurch, 38, and she always gets a warm reaction when she’s spotted in her grocery store.
“I’ve actually been followed round the supermarket in my village,” smiles Miriama, who juggles being a mum to four-year-old son Rauaroha, with her acting career, teaching yoga and being a marriage celebrant.
“But I don’t mind – it’s nice. It’s usually older people who just want to know if I’m ‘that actress from 800 Words’. I’m in my yoga clothes without make-up when I go out, so I look a bit different off screen.”
Playing Ngahuia involved long stints in the make-up chair and a secret weapon – hair extensions!
“They give me this look of Pania of the Reef,” she tells. “This ethereal wahine who makes an impact.”
Filming 800 Words has been a reunion for the seasoned actress, not only with “a heap of us from Shortland Street”– including Anna Jullienne, Michelle Langstone, Olivia Tennet and Peter Elliott – but also with the show’s lead, Erik Thomson, who she first met 10 years ago when they played a couple in the 2007 movie We’re Here to Help.
“We’ve both become parents since then, so that’s cool. And the friendly, family-oriented, light-hearted community vibe of the show really filters through to us off screen. It’s been great reconnecting with Erik. We’d have these moments on set like, ‘Here we go again!’”
While the film industry is notoriously lacking in starring roles for older women, Miriama says her recent parts in Filthy Rich and 800 Words are proof that things are changing.
“There’s been a shift,” she says. “Watching actresses like Reese Witherspoon starting her own production company, making sure there are strong female roles, the success of Waru, where all the film-makers are women. And the popularity of shows like Wentworth...”
But Miriama adds recent events in Hollywood, with the ever-growing avalanche of abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and, closer to home, with New Zealand actor Rene Naufahu recently pleading guilty to sexually assaulting several aspiring actresses, are a sobering reminder of the dangers for many young women in and out of the industry.
“We’ve been taught to please and say sorry all the time,” says Miriama.
“I remember when I first started out in TV commercials as a 14-year-old, it was not unusual for me to be in a bar drinking with all the execs if filming got stopped for bad weather or whatever. I thought I could handle myself, but I was essentially still a child in an adult environment.
“Recently, the discussion about abuse in the industry has opened up and that is so important. Men I know have responded and taken responsibility for their past actions, saying, ‘You know what, I could have done more to stop this culture.’
“It’s a healthy time for female acting roles and behind the scenes too. I know that South Pacific Pictures, which produces 800 Words, is committed to hiring female directors to address the gender imbalance, so things are moving forward. Especially in New Zealand, things are changing.
“It’s huge. We now have a female prime minister again and the old boys’ networks are disappearing.
“There are some really cool things on the horizon and I’m really grateful. It’s an exciting time to be an actress and a mother raising a son in a society that celebrates people regardless of gender.”
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