A Good Egg
Rachel House has been in the creative arts industry for over 25 years, and just like her character Aunty Gracey in the film Boy she’s had all the jobs.
With the help of a New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) scholarship honouring pioneering film-maker and fellow Ngāi Tahu Ramai Hayward, Rachel is gearing up to add “feature film director” to her long list of credits. Kaitahu Ila Couch travelled from Atlanta to Los Angeles to meet her.
There’s a party at the New Zealand Consul-General’s home in Los Angeles, and Rachel House is looking for people she knows. “Let’s hang out with those Māori over there,” she says. Since I can’t see who she’s talking about it’s not until I’m practically walking into Rena Owens, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Cliff Curtis that I appreciate the setup. “Kaua e whakamā,” she says with a smile, waving me forward for introductions.
Cliff gives me a quick kiss on the cheek and Rena reaches out to touch the pounamu Dad gave me. Keisha is friendly and funny, and talks with her hands. She tells me how Rachel has been integral to every career decision she’s made since they met on the set of Whale Rider. Later in the evening it looks like Keisha is saying this again, because I watch Rachel clasp her hands with the tenderness of someone who has just caught a bird.
I suspect Rachel has a hard time hearing her praises sung.
Since graduating from Toi Whakaari (New Zealand Drama School) in 1992, Rachel has worked non-stop in theatre, television, commercials and film. Just recently she voiced the animated character of Gramma Tala in the hugely popular Disney film Moana, and played staunch bodyguard Topaz in the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok. Her deadpan comedic skills in the movies Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Eagle vs Shark, and Boy support the kind of storytelling that allows us to laugh and cry at some of the challenges Māori face in the real world. In White Lies, a film dealing with the early effects of colonisation on three generations of Māori women, Rachel brings depth to the character Maraea, who grapples with the idea of keeping the true identity of her daughter a secret.
The skills she brings to the screen, which also include roles in the television drama series Hope and Wire and mockumentary Find Me a Māori Bride, have their foundations in theatre, where she is recognised as both a performer and a director. She has acted in more than two dozen plays and directed several more. As artistic director for the Ngākau Toa theatre company, Rachel oversaw the first te reo Māori version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. The play was chosen to open the historic 2012 Globe to Globe Festival in London, featuring the works of Shakespeare translated into languages from 36 countries.
This is in no way a comprehensive list of everything Rachel House has accomplished in the past 25 years of her career. It is entirely possible that by the time this article goes to print, she will have added another acting credit to her name; but as for future goals, she has her sights set firmly on directing a feature film.
The next time I see Rachel I am in LA for meetings and a series of New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) events. We catch up over a quick dinner. Rachel is warm, disarmingly honest, and very serious about supporting women in our industry. I tell her about my future plans to come home and develop my first short film script. “Go for it kare! I’m here to support my Ngāi Tahu sisters,” she says.
She tells me how acclaimed directors Jane Campion and Alison Maclean have inspired her recent health kick. Rachel played the character Rewia and was acting coach for Alison’s most recent film The Rehearsal, which starred Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert (and fellow Ngāi Tahu, Marlon Williams).
“I spent some time with Jane and Alison in the summer and we climbed a mountain,” she says, laughing before she gets to the next sentence. “They were miles ahead, and kind of looped back to talk with me. Ever since, I’ve been working on my fitness. You’ve got to be as fit as Jane Campion and Alison Maclean if you want to direct a film.” Both women shared their experiences as female directors with her. “They spoke about some of the struggles they’ve had. It’s a real thing. It can even be your crew, and the doubt that some male crew-members have because what’s projected to us, what’s all around us, is that men are better at that job.”
Recently Rachel and long-time friend and collaborator Briar Grace-Smith were each awarded a $50,000 scholarship by the NZFC with the aim of supporting wāhine Māori in the pursuit of directing their first feature-length film. The scholarship is named after
New Zealand’s first female and wahine Māori director and cinematographer Ramai Hayward (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu). When the NZFC announced the creation of the scholarship, they also acknowledged that there has not been a feature length film directed by a wahine Māori since Merata Mita wrote, directed, and produced Mauri back in 1988.
Merata herself predicted a drying-up of funds in an interview given shortly after the release of Mauri. “It’s being made abundantly clear to me that it’s going to be quite difficult in the future to get money to make films. Chances are that every argument will be used against me like … ‘You’re making films only accessible to Māori people.’ Māori film-makers will be pushing shit uphill for a long time yet, but we’ll get there. It will happen. Just you wait.”
“I was completely blown away by Waru … Māori characters are being created by people who really don’t know the diversity of our people. They seem to have a very narrow view of what Māori is. It was so wonderful to see all those women on the screen and different kinds of Māori women; not just one broad stroke. Waru gave me so much hope.”
Any pushback Rachel has experienced in the past around funding initiatives for Māori has come from a place of not understanding the history of New Zealand and the effects of colonisation, she says. “The Ramai Hayward Scholarship is an extremely inclusive statement and encourages the strength of our voice, the importance of our voice. I get nervous that we’re being put into a situation where to the rest of the world it doesn’t look earned, but I think it’s really important.”
In an effort to further support wāhine Māori voices in film, the NZFC recently awarded the directors and writers of the 2017 feature film Waru funding for their next projects.
“I was completely blown away by Waru,” says Rachel, who has worked with many of the women involved in the film. Waru, which dealt with the subject of child abuse, was filmed in eight 10-minute vignettes which, when combined, told the story as it unfolded over the course of one day. Of the characters portrayed on screen, Rachel said it was wonderful to see different kinds of Māori women.
“Māori characters are being created by people who really don’t know the diversity of our people. They seem to have a very narrow view of what Māori is. It was so wonderful to see all those women on the screen and different kinds of Māori women; not just one broad stroke. Waru gave me so much hope.”
Having spent a year at the Prague Film School in 2008, directing a feature film is something Rachel has been thinking about for a long time. “I used to dream about creating these fantastic stories, but I didn’t have enough belief in myself. I don’t feel that way now, but that’s about getting older. I really believe these younger generations coming through don’t feel the same way. I feel that they are emboldened by what is around them now; and that they won’t have
As for her first feature film, Rachel says she hasn’t settled on a script yet. “Briar and I have committed to supporting each other and I think her project will be up first, because her script is the most ready. I’ve got about three scripts that I’m looking at. They’re all really different, and they’re all exciting. Obviously I’m really passionate about sharing our stories, but also the diversity within our culture is really appealing. The loss of culture is really intriguing as well.”
Growing up in Whangārei as the adopted daughter of Glaswegian immigrants John and Sheila House, Rachel faced her own set of challenges around identity and culture. “I grew up in Kamo, but I knew I didn’t belong there. In fact I had an older Ngā Puhi woman when I did the Korimako speech competitions actually say, ‘She shouldn’t be competing, she’s not from here.’” At one point I thought I was Ngāti Porou, because somebody had said I looked like I was from there. I sort of held on to that as best I could. It was hard. It was really hard.”
Finding out she was Ngāi Tahu/Ngāti Mutunga was a huge shock for Rachel, who says she was so North Island-centric, she hadn’t considered that her roots might extend south. The sense of loyalty she felt towards her Scottish parents who passed on their love of the arts and provided the early tools for her career by way of dance, piano, speech and drama lessons has made the process of reconnecting more complicated. “Dad passed away four years ago, so now I feel like I can go on a journey. In many ways, that’s what’s kept me away from committing to the reo. I’m missing out on all this juicy, wonderful information and stories and history you know.”
Since we’re on the topic of te reo, I ask Rachel about Moana Reo Māori (the reo version of Moana). Rachel oversaw the production of the film into te reo, and was involved in casting and coaching the performances of all the characters including Jaedyn Randell, who played the Māori version of the title character, Moana. “For those people who are native speakers and the young kids who are going to watch that film over and over again, it was an honour and a joy.”
I ask her what it was like recording her dialogue and songs. “It was terrifying. I mean I was so scared I wanted to cry. I’m not a fluent speaker and I had to record it a couple of times because I just wasn’t happy.”
We talk about growing up in the 1970s, our attempts to learn the language over the years, and how easy it is to be hard on yourself. “It’s something I’ve often come up against, especially when you are Māori and you don’t have the language – you get a lot of judgement.” She brightens when talking about te reo teachers Scotty and Stacey Morrison, and her commitment to learning the language. “They just want people to feel good about learning. There’s no harsh criticism or judgement there. It feels like I’m about to climb a very, very steep mountain; but that’s OK. One step at a time.”
When it comes time to say our goodbyes, we walk across the road to her next meeting and I talk about my plans for the future. With each step she offers words of support and encouragement. Back in Atlanta, I look for Moana Reo Māori online. There are now versions in Tahitian and Hawaiian, 45 languages in total apparently. I can’t find a full version of the film, but I find Ko Au A Moana, the duet between Gramma Tala and Moana. When I hear Rachel speak and sing in te reo Māori, I do that thing every adult tries not to do while watching a Disney film – I cry. Then I look through the comments:
“I love that Gramma Tala is still the same actress!”
“I love that it’s still Rachel House!”
“THAT’S RACHEL HOUSE SINGING IN HER NATIVE LANGUAGE!!”
Having spent some time with Rachel I know she has a hard time hearing her praises sung, but if anyone deserves to hear them, it’s her.