Ginette McDonald lets go of Lyn of Tawa to take on older roles
"It's good real estate isn't it?" notes Ginette McDonald, as she looks out of the windows of Circa Theatre's green room to a glorious summer's day.
With its prime waterfront view, it has got to be one of the best green-rooms in the country.
Boasting one of the longest acting careers in Wellington, 63-year-old McDonald knows the scene well.
From her first role playing Jack Frost in a St Mary's College production, to her latest role as a forgetful 85-year-old grandmother in Circa's upcoming The ACB with Honora Lee, McDonald has always loved the stage, and the stage loves her.
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A particular, bittersweet relationship has had a big influence in McDonald's career. While helping to catapult her career, it has also been a bit of a curse.
It is a complicated relationship, as the person is actually an extension of McDonald herself – the character Lyn of Tawa.
Dreamed-up when McDonald was 16, Lyn of Tawa was inspired by the monotonously speaking night owls of talkback radio from suburbs the Hataitai teen had never been to.
She would become a television sensation and the character McDonald is most associated with, and often mistaken for as a real person.
But before the inception of Lyn of Tawa, there was young teenager Ginette, for whom theatres like Downstage became almost as much her home as her ginormous "wedding cake" childhood home in Hataitai.
At age 12, feeling a tad misunderstood, McDonald found a new peer group when she began attending drama classes.
"We did a play called My Vote Belongs to Daddy, which was about being hip and cool in the 1960s. Very cheekily, we approached Richard Campion, who was running Downstage theatre, and it became a late-night show."
After that, McDonald says she and friend and fellow actress Sarah Delahunty never left.
"We sort of hung about doing waitressing and building sets. We were unpaid apprentices to the theatre and then, just because you were around, you got offered parts in things."
It was then that late playwright Bruce Mason heard McDonald playing around with accents backstage, gave her a regular spot in his revue show Knickers, and the early stages of Lyn of Tawa began to emerge.
McDonald headed overseas and spent five years steadily picking up parts in the London film and theatre scene, before returning to New Zealand in 1976 a little wiser and wearier, where she scored a role on the soap opera Close to Home.
McDonald began revisiting Lyn of Tawa, which caught the interest of TVNZ's Malcolm Kemp, who offered her a regular spot in a televised variety show, which turned into a one-off special, followed by her own series.
Lyn of Tawa also appeared at a Royal Variety Concert, in which she told the Queen "God Bless You. We all love you, eh".
McDonald debuted as a producer and director on the last series of Gliding On, later directing shows like Close to Home, Open House, Country GP, The Fire-Raiser and Peppermint Twist.
Despite her many other projects and acting roles, McDonald was still being mistaken by members of the public as being a real-life Lyn of Tawa.
"It happened all the time, even to the extent that I'd go to some upmarket function and people would say 'what are you doing here?' almost barring the door from this 'bogan'."
"But I'd grit my teeth. Even now I just think, 'well, I suppose it's a compliment', that it was such an organic thing that people really think 'that's me'."
McDonald says she was not particularly grateful to Kemp at the time, but looking back, she realises he did her a huge favour.
"Because while it's been a sort of curse that people think I am the character, it's also been a blessing. It's given me opportunities that I wouldn't have dreamed of."
The downside, she says, is that many people still do not quite take her other stage work seriously.
"Perhaps it's just in my head, but I remember when I was in a Chekov play and it finished and a member of the business roundtable said 'well that was interesting, Lyn', like they thought Lyn of Tawa was playing a grand Russian lady."
Nowadays, McDonald, who has become a seasoned corporate events entertainer, will still bring out Lyn of Tawa if clients are particularly keen.
"She's no spring chicken now, so it's quite tricky to pull her off now.
"We've done a narrative for Lyn, about how she's been away spending time in the Middle East acting as a design consultant to the sheikh of Abu Dhabi."
Next to theatre lies another passion for McDonald, Wellington, which she proved by running for council in 2013.
"I know it seemed to come as a great surprise to people but this is my hood, my community.
"Wellington's been good to me and there are so many social issues now that need addressing, and I'm a South Coast chick and I still feel that I have something to contribute on council.
"It wasn't an ego thing like Donald Trump, but that I could actually help to make a positive difference."
Since moving from her home in Owhiro Bay to Rongotai last year, McDonald has been balancing work with a home renovation. It is something she enjoys so much, that in another life, she would have liked to do it for a living.
But the pull of theatre keeps Ginette coming back to the stage.
She would have loved to play Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, or Cleopatra, but that those roles have passed her by, McDonald says.
McDonald was initially a little shocked at being asked to play at 80-year-old in Unholy Ghosts last year.
"I started saying to people 'would you believe it? I've got to play an 80-year-old!' and instead of them being shocked, half of them were like, 'Yeah, so? Clearly?'. So I got passed that.
"In my mind, old age is like butterfly going back in the chrysalis, the chrysalis is there, but the young, fabulous butterfly is also still there somehow.
"So I'm cool with playing an old woman now. If somebody said to me, 'play a 90-year-old', I might get a bit depressed, particularly if they didn't think I needed any latex.
"Now, I'm always looking at parts in movies and television series where I'm playing something really grotesque. That would be my idea of heaven – a hideous crone covered in warts, so there's no responsibility to look nice and you look better leaving work than you do at work.
"So I'm putting it out there to the universe – hideous, preferably CGI, crone avatar."
McDonald is not envious of young actors, but admires their discipline.
"Now they go and do their warm-ups and things, whereas for the older generation, a warm up is a cup of coffee and a fag. It doesn't make any difference to what the audience sees, but it's however you get there."
McDonald says one of the worst things a seasoned actor can do is "bang on" to the young ones and say, "When you get to my age…", or "When I was your age…"
"Older actors seem to think it's a compliment, but it isn't. 'You're so like me as a young person', everyone thinks that's a great thing to say, you've 'bestowed' something on them. But you can see the young person thinking, 'Christ, I hope not'."
In her latest role, in The ACB with Honora Lee, McDonald plays an 85-year-old grandmother living with dementia, and the story centres on the special bond she has with her grand-daughter.
"This little girl chips away at the chrysalis and lets a bit of the butterfly out again," McDonald says.
"It's basically about a woman who once had a lot to contribute and now is a bit confused, which [she laughs], is like a lot of us."
The ACB with Honora Lee, part of the New Zealand Festival, takes place at Circa Theatre from February 27 to March 26. Performance times are Tuesday-Saturday 6.30pm, Sundays 4pm. Tickets at Ticketek.