Rachel House, story teller

Rachel House as Maraea, a servant, in White Lies.
Rachel House as Maraea, a servant, in White Lies.

You can't always name the good ones. The ones who toil away in the background, who do it all without you really noticing.

While her name might not be a household standard, scene-stealing roles in Whale Rider and Boy, and a regular seat on Maori Television's panel show Ask Your Aunties, have certainly made Rachel House memorable. The shouty woman riding the red ride-on mower in that Sky Television ad? That's her, too.

On the day we were meant to meet, House needs to be in Australia. A couple of "nice Aussie boys" have invited her over to Sydney to audition for a top-secret television pilot. It turns out those lads are the Bondi Hipsters - the duo behind the Beached Az cartoon that gently mocked us Kiwis in front of an online audience of seven million.

They can name her, and they want her, too. It's not an invitation she gets every day then? "No. No, god no," she promises in her trademark raspy voice. "'Oh hi, do you want to fly to Sydney in the next 24 hours please and be in our thing?' No, definitely not. I get really great jobs, just not involving travel. Shit no."

Scene-stealer: Rachel House is not a household name but her face is instantly recognisable.
Scene-stealer: Rachel House is not a household name but her face is instantly recognisable.

After more than 20 years in the industry, House still finds it hard to believe she is wanted in front of the camera. She reckons she is "an unusual-looking woman", and there's not a lot of room for those these days.

"It still surprises me when I get cast in something. I'm not your, you know, I'm... I remember thinking really early on that you have to look a particular way and I'm quite aware of my look, so I always thought I wouldn't get a lot of screen work.

"But, of course, when I'm directing I never take those things into consideration. It's just like, who's good, who's going to bring it, who's going to totally embody that character? We are hard on ourselves."

Like many of the characters she's played, House isn't the flashy type. A Ponsonby local, she picks a "really quiet, unpretentious" cafe for a coffee and a chat a day earlier than planned. It's tucked away from the Ladies That Lunch and their miniature dogs who couldn't be further from the way she goes about things. In the flesh, the 41-year-old is captivating and instantly familiar. Wrapped up in a black puffer jacket, with her mane of dark curls tucked away, she has a face you recognise quickly, despite the pair of sunglasses hugging it tightly. She also uses the word "totes" a lot; probably jokingly, possibly not.

In her latest film, set for release on the 27th of this month, House is front and centre - there is no background here. White Lies is a confronting production based on Witi Ihimaera's novella Medicine Woman, written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Dana Rotberg. It is set in 1930s Te Urewera and Ruatahuna.

House plays Maraea, the servant of Rebecca (Antonia Prebble), a wealthy woman who needs the help of medicine woman Paraiti (Whirimako Black) to hide a secret that will destroy her life in European settler society. Originally, House auditioned for the role of Paraiti, but director Rotberg was adamant that part would be played by a fluent te reo speaker from the Tuhoe tribe. House was neither and she turned down the chance to play Maraea when she was first offered it. Rotberg managed to talk her round.

"It's not like I read the script and went, 'Who's the lead? I want that role.' I never do that because it's not the kind of actor I am. And I'm happy with that, happy with little walk-on roles, staunch aunties with hearts of gold," she says.

Without spoiling the film's twist (in House's words, "it's like The Sixth Sense"), the role of Maraea is about as far from those charming characters as you can get. This was a step into the unknown.

"Actors wrestle with it all the time; they want to be liked," she says. "They do. They want to play something that people are going to like. And again, that's not something that's ever made my mind up, but in this case Maraea's pretty bad. She's extreme."

The themes of race and identity in White Lies are not completely foreign to House. Adopted by Scottish parents, John and Sheila, she was raised in Kamo, Whangarei. While she always felt Maori, she says it took her a while to really connect with the culture. "I've never not felt Maori, ever. And because of the era I grew up in, I was never not seen as that. I would walk down the street with Mum and Dad and people would say, "Look, there's a little Maori girl."

My parents were quite keen to educate me as much as they could. Mum took Maori at university before she adopted me, and Dad's just a good old socialist, you know. A leftie.

"I've been trying to make my way towards the culture since high school, but my perceptions of what being Maori meant were quite different to, I think, what they are."

It was her parents who steered her towards ballet, piano and speech and drama lessons from the age of five to help her gain confidence. As she says, she didn't catch the acting bug - she was shoved into its path. With other kids there were performances on local verandas in front of proud parents, before House moved on to the Northland Youth Theatre. From there Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School seemed like an "obvious route".

"But I didn't really take the craft of it seriously fora while. It took me a while to really get it," she says. When she got involved in casting Maori theatre, with its strong political outlook, everything finally clicked.

"I was always interested in the stories we were telling, it just needed to be bigger; it needed to be a bigger concept for me to take it seriously, I think. When the outcome actually meant something and it wasn't just 'me-me-me'."Then you understand what you are doing - you are a storyteller, you can bring people together and you can educate. It allows us to put ourselves in other people's shoes and have a different outlook on the world. It's powerful."

In her own story, there are only a few things she would change. She wishes she had gone to university as well as drama school. Gone and studied "things that are interesting" - political science, religious studies, maybe women's studies. Things to broaden her horizons. "I think it's important; just studying acting is really stupid. You've got to get a sense of the world, like anything. Be a better human; read more."

And while she describes acting as a "treat", House is more comfortable steering the ship from the director's chair. In the past year alone, she has worked on Hui, an urban Maori play that premiered at the Auckland Arts Festival, and was artistic director of the te reo Maori version of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, which appeared at London's Globe Theatre in 2012.

Last year was topped off when House received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award, an honour that recognised her whole career - from the groundbreaking directorial work to those roles audiences didn't immediately associate with her.

"I could not believe it. You reach a certain age and everybody wants you to be on a panel, and I thought that's why they were calling. When they told me I was very accusatory. I told them to shut up, and I swore a lot. And cried a lot, too. I blubbered like a baby."

After appearing in films like Boy and Eagle Vs Shark, House is used to laughing while she works (and she has one hell of a laugh), but this year is set to be a bit different - along with White Lies, House will also appear in Hope and Wire, the mini-series based around the Christchurch earthquakes.

These days she lives and breathes her work a lot more than she used to. "I don't want to do things by halves. I really love the work that I do, and I feel like you have to go that extra mile to do it because it is a responsibility. Telling stories is a responsibility. There are certainly times I have had to do things half-assed, but in the past few years it hasn't been an option. If you are going to do it, do it well."

The ultimate aim is directing a feature-length film. In 2008 she attended the Prague Film School, where the constant need to churn out stories and scripts meant she could work without second-guessing herself. Back home, those doubting thoughts are harder to ignore.

"When I was at film school I just had to keep handing in work, so there was no room for voices of doubt. Just do it by the end of the week, and you do. That was really liberating, having that pressure. Maybe it was shit, but you just did the best you could with it. Now, when there isn't that pressure, I'll just sit. Writing I find hard, because it's so personal and there are so many voices of doubt.

"It's probably because I've read so many scripts over the years and now I'm in a position where I'm asked to critique, so you're already critiquing your work before you've even started. The number of times I've thought. 'Oh, I'm going to write this story...' 'Why? No one's going to want to hear that; it's dumb. What a silly story.' So I just have to harden up."

She's equally as self-deprecating when it comes to her chances at the helm of a Hollywood blockbuster, although you get the strong sense that, for House, flash and cash will always come second to a good yarn.

"I just don't think I'd be very good at it. You have to be very technically brainy, and I'm not technically brainy, unfortunately. Wow, wouldn't it be amazing to play with all that money, but I'd be wasting a lot of people's time. If it was a Hollywood blockbuster with a really good story, sure. But it has to have a good story." 

Sunday Magazine