Jennifer Ward-Lealand, matriarch of Kiwi stage and screen
"It's a little bit like jumping off a cliff," says Jennifer Ward-Lealand of taking to the stage. "You'll have a parachute, hopefully, but anything could go wrong. I quite like that danger: you can't do a re-take, if things cock up, then you have to deal with it, right there and then."
This time, Ward-Lealand, one of our most experience stage and screen actors, is experiencing that so-familiar pressure backstage - directing Jess Sayer and Darlene Mohekey's reality television satire The Choice at Rotorua's Blue Baths this summer. She wouldn't consider directing on television - doesn't think she has the right skillset - but is loving the experience of delivering it live. "If you've got a great piece of work, which The Choice is, it's incredibly entertaining, I got a really decent laugh, every single day. I like the sense of pulling the rhythm of the piece together: I think a play, in order to engage the audience from the moment the lights go down right through until the end, it has to have a certain energy. It's the difference between the audience staying with the play and thinking about their shopping list."
Directing is not a move away from the limelight: At 53, Ward-Lealand is remarkably prolific and varied in her work - her recent credits run from comedies like Maori TV's Find Me a Maori Bride, where she was the deadpan narrator, or the overbearing mother in Millen Baird's cult offering Auckland Daze, to theatric roles including Rupert Murdoch's mother and wife in the Auckland Theatre Company production of David Williamson's Rupert. "I think I got up at 4.30am the other day - in TV you start at all hours," she says. In between directing The Choice, she's in rehearsal for a Silo Theatre adaptation of Guus Kuijer's children's tale The Book of Everything and shooting a television project she won't name but is excited about. "So I'm juggling, I'm juggling like crazy".
Now, though, she says, she's selective about her television work: "I'm really not that excited by going and doing just a day on something, unless you know it's a totally kick-ass part, I guess, in that day, unless of course it's some kind of process or journey. That's what I love about theatre. When you get that on screen, that's just so exciting."
While work dries up for some older female actors, Ward-Lealand has been happy with the hand she's been dealt, for which she credits her theatre work. "They've got older, as I've got older. I've just been really, really privileged with really, really amazing parts," she said."There are some absolute highlights in my life and most of them, really, apart from say two or three, the ones that are so close to my heart have all been in the last 10 years, through my forties and into my fifties. Unlike in television sometimes, I don't think that actresses get put out to pasture in the theatre.
"I've been lucky enough to play some people that actually existed, whether it be Rita Angus and Marlene Dietrich ... there are some incredible parts, there are parts where you go 'ah, that's everything that an actor could ever want, aren't I lucky. There are a couple that I could easily go back and do again and then there are some, and I'm thinking of Marlene Dietrich, where I thought 'oh, that show's finished,' and then somebody else wants me to take it somewhere.
"So ten years later and I'm still doing that show, that I produced myself, and touring the country. I guess I am attached to those. I guess when you put all that work and all of those years in, you do sort of have a sense of ownership about it I guess, you can hop back into their skin quite quickly."
Ward-Lealand says there is no element of planning to her career, and even now, the most she can venture is that with her children - with actor-director husband Michael Hurst - grown up, she may work more in Australia in the future. "There's a very small group of people who can make a living, full-time, being an actor. That's why you must try and have as many strings to your bow as possible, develop those things," she says. "It's too small a country to limit yourself and say 'oh, no, I'm only going to do screen' when often the best screen actors have also spent a lot of time in the theatre, if you can go backwards and forwards between those two things you're just going to have a lot more, your career will have longevity."
- Sunday Star Times