It's unsurprising that stunning actress Morgana O'Reilly has always felt comfortable in the limelight. Thanks to her mum, celebrated choreographer Mary-Jane, she spent vast amounts of her childhood in dance studios and theatres.
By the tender age of eight, she had already made her television debut – on local soap Shortland Street.
"I was a tap-dancing Christmas elf. It was the best day ever!" she laughs.
"I was just thrilled that she wanted to be an actress rather than a dancer," Mary-Jane admits. "I often thought I might have ended up going in that direction. But a full-time ballet school started in Wellington just as I left school and I got a scholarship to go there, so a dance career fell into place."
Mary-Jane found fame as a dancer and choreographer for Limbs, a contemporary dance company that wowed Kiwi audiences from 1977 to 1989. But her choreography took a backseat for a while after Morgana was born.
"People said I could run a company and have a baby at the same time," says Mary-Jane. "Well, of course I couldn't! I was not at all interested in the dancers. Sorry, dancers, but I had a baby who was much more interesting!"
Morgana (33), who is probably most well-known for her stint as Naomi Canning on Neighbours, says both Mary-Jane and her dad, graphic designer Phil (70), were adoring, creative and adventurous.
"It was not a stupid idea to want a career in a creative industry in our home. For me, trying to be an actor was accepted and normal, and I knew that I'd have a career where some years would be flush and some wouldn't be so flush."
She is currently back home in Auckland from Melbourne, where she lives with her husband, film and television director Peter Salmon (43), to promote new local comedy series Mean Mums. This gives her a chance to spend some time with Mary-Jane and Phil. It also means they get extra cuddles with their grandkids – Luna Le Fay Nellie Reilly Salmon (4) and Ziggy James Byllee Salmon O'Reilly, who has just turned one.
"I love coming home," says Morgana. "Any excuse and I'm here. And this was such a cool show to film. It always feels really good when you're shooting a comedy and you can't stop laughing when you're trying to film it."
In the series, Morgana plays a hapless but well-meaning member of an exacting fundraising committee. Her own children aren't old enough for school yet, but the actress says she can relate to the pressures her character is facing.
"As soon as I got pregnant,I understood the cliquey nature of parenting. I was doing a pre-natal yoga class and I felt judged. Because they're your children and you love them more than anything, I suppose it does evoke some sort of irrational competitiveness."
Like Mary-Jane did, Morgana is savouring the time she gets to spend with her children while they're small. But she's keeping her hand in career-wise, having filmed a couple of episodes for Australian TV series Wentworth and she plays a command officer in the film Below, which will debut in the Melbourne Film Festival in August.
"I've often put too much pressure on myself, but just before I had Ziggy, I went, 'Relax, this time while they're little babies is so temporary.'
"Often with Luna, I was like, 'I should be writing more!' But you look back and realise it's a manic time, and you have to be fluid in the things you can and can't do."
Morgana has a good career role model in Mary-Jane, who continued dancing until the age of 59.
"I've never been able to let that go," she laughs. "I did a solo called Witch Bitch in 2009. I sometimes wonder if I could do it now – a lot of it was done on a chair."
Mary-Jane is still choreographing after 40 years – she and Phil have staged a burlesque show for the last nine years.
"I realised that In Flagrante was very connected to the smart, sexy, quite feminist work that I made in my early Limbs days," says Mary-Jane. "This show takes that further and I love it."
She's also revisiting a contemporary version of the ballet Giselle, which will be set in the 1920s but retain the score, and squeezes in teaching adult ballet classes in Auckland.
"I can't teach children – I'm not very patient," she concedes.
Morgana, who staged her own show at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014, intends to create more of her own work too.
"It's a good way to keep some dignity in this industry. Acting is delicious and writing is so hard. But with acting, you are powerless unless it's your own project."
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