Dramedy draws Harrow back home

19:32, Mar 10 2014
Lisa Harrow

One of our most venerable actresses, Lisa Harrow has been a part of both RADA and the Royal Shakespeare Company. James Croot asked her about her career and what drew her back to New Zealand to star on the small screen in new local dramedy Step-Dave.

What attracted you to be a part of Step-Dave and to the character of Marion?
I have been wanting to work in New Zealand for some years and Step-Dave sounded like the sort of project that it would be fun to be part of.  I didn't know much about Marion's character when I agreed to play her, as at that stage there were no scripts to read. She was certainly in my age range and I thought the family dynamic, that of being an ex-mother-in-law as well as a grandmother, would be interesting to explore.

But what made you decide you wanted to do a TV drama in New Zealand now?
Since I made Other Halves and Shaker Run in New Zealand in 1984, I have told anyone who cared to listen that I wanted to work in my homeland. Why?  Well, simply because I like coming home and why not combine work with pleasure? 

How would you describe Marion and have you had much say in shaping/developing her character?
I have had no say at all.  Each new set of scripts (we get two every fortnight) have been as much of interest to me as anyone, as it's the first chance I get to find out what happens next.  At this point, I have no idea what lies in store for her in the last two episodes. So my understanding of her character has been a journey of discovery as we have progressed through the episodes. She is defined by her love of her only child, Stewie, the father of the three children, and who abandoned those children and their mother, Cara, 8 years ago. Marion stepped into the breach to help Cara weather that hurricane and has become a central part the family, to atone for her son's bad behaviour by being a help and support Cara as she became a working mother.  Hence her absolute distrust and distaste for the growing involvement Dave has with Cara and the children. And there is also the fact that she is able to live comfortably in the granny flat. If Dave really does move in, it could mean that she has to leave her home and find a new path without the familial warmth of the day-to-day life with her grandchildren.

What aspects or traits, if any, of Marion are similar to you?
We share the standards that are typical with all older folks ... ''that's not how it was in my day''. 

What have been the most noticeable changes in TV production since you starred in Nancy Astor for the BBC in 1982? Was there anything particularly surprising to you about how production takes place on Step-Dave?
Nancy Astor was made using both film and video-film for the exterior scenes, video for the studio interiors. There was much more rehearsal and all 13 hours of scripts landed with a thud on my doorstep before I agreed to play the role. Step-Dave is my first exposure to working with the Red Camera - no film, just all digital.  Everything moves faster, there's almost no time to explore situations through rehearsal, so the actors rely much more on their instinct. These no difference in crews.  I love working as part of the team that is a film crew. Everyone is punching above their weight to make Step-Dave as good as it can be.

You've performed extensively on stage in the US and UK. What differences have you noticed between the way theatre is perceived in those two countries and how audiences behave?
Audiences love great theatre wherever they are. The only difference I've noticed is that the Americans are more prone to standing ovations.  That can get a bit tedious after a while. After all, if everything gets a standing ovation, then how do you know whether or not what has been presented is extra-specially excellent?


What has been your favourite theatre to perform in and why?
The Aldwych Theatre in London, which was the London home of the RSC until the early 80s.  It was a classic Edwardian theatre with a dress circle and gods and a proscenium arch and when you took centre stage to speak to the audience, you could hold them all in the palm of your hand and feel them breathe with you.

Are there any great stage roles that you still hanker to play? C
leopatra, Claire Zachanassian in Durenmatt's The Visit and perhaps a film role that has yet to be written. 

What advice would you give a young actor?
Unless you are burning to be an actor and there is no inkling of an alternative path, don't do it. My husband, who is a scientist, thinks it is the cruellest of professions. You need the thickest of skins to cope with continual rejections and yet the thinnest of skins to be as open and vulnerable to emotions as is possible while you're working. Each new job is a new beginning. A new life. A new journey. And you need to be incredibly well-grounded to keep your real life separate from your ''dramatic'' life.  Success in this business really does depend on being in the right place at the right time. And it's still much harder for a woman for all the obvious reasons of age, current opinions of what is ''beauty'', and lack of roles. But I am impressed at the way the young actors I meet in New Zealand are forging ahead, creating work for themselves.

You directed Auckland's Summer Shakespeare last year, are you keen to do anymore directing?
I'm not sure.  That was such a pure experience. I'd never thought of directing and was persuaded by Michael Neill that it was a good idea. I had an amazing time. I'm not hankering for more, but if I was asked, I'd certainly give it serious thought.

Are you still spending six months of the year on Banks Peninsula? What are the attractions there that keep bringing up back? Have you been tempted to offer your services to the Z for Zachariah team filming in the area?
Yes, Roger and I still love spending the summer months in Port Levy.  Our neighbours there are the best in the world.  But thanks to work, recently I have spent most of my time in New Zealand in Auckland. Z for Zachariah are renting my house in Port Levy for the production office, but that's as far as any involvement goes. 

Finally, what's up next for you?

I spend June/July playing Propspero on The Tempest in the US.  There are other things simmering along - a film, a project with The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC and perhaps another season as Marion in Step-Dave. As ever, in this profession, you never know what's just around the corner.

Step Dave 8.30pm, Tuesdays, TV2