She may have grown up in the liberal world that comes with having a punk rock dad, but actress Liesha Ward Knox is a self-confessed goody-goody who, as a child, believed she was Pollyanna. By Kim Knight
"Liquorice or white pear?"
Liesha Ward Knox is brewing herbal tea in her favourite cup. It's pistachio green, with a hibiscus motif.
Why is it her favourite?
"Because it's still whole."
This is how up-and-coming actresses measure their worth in a world where they might scrape in $200 for a four-week rehearsal period.
She finishes washing the cup and opts for a fruit infusion. It's sweet and light. Just as Ward Knox will be for the next two hours. Not exactly what you'd expect from the child of punk rock father Chris Knox and artist mother Barbara Ward.
"There have always been assumptions I'll be a certain type of person. Especially at high school. People expected me to be cooler; a little bit more of a rebel. But I've always been a geek and loved it."
Ward Knox is the girl from that song. The one about John and Liesha's mother, "Love Not Given Lightly" - Knox's declaration to his wife, the one you hear at every second Kiwi wedding, and more recently, during the Vogel's bread television commercial.
John and Liesha are all grown up now. He's an artist, she's an actress. From February 14 to March 9, she'll be playing a New York socialite in the Auckland Theatre Company's production of Noel Coward's Design For Living.
"I think, growing up, I wanted to do everything, and being an actor was the only way I could possibly conceive that perhaps I might be able to fit in 50 percent of everything."
Strange choice for a child who once quit gymnastics "because when you walked across the beam, all the parents sat in a long line watching you and I could not stand to be watched. It was too much."
Last year, in her first ATC production, My Name is Gary Cooper, Ward Knox strutted the Maidment Theatre stage in a barely-there bikini. She had simulated sex with Robbie Magasiva. This magazine dubbed her among 2007's sexiest. General consensus: Ward Knox is smoking.
Actually, she thought long and hard about that nearly naked role. Playing sexy, she says, is different from performing topless - which she's also done, body-painted, in the so-close-you-can-touch-the-actors Silo Theatre space.
"I remember saying, ‘Hmmm, I'm okay with this because it's arty, but if I was asked to walk around in a bikini or my underwear, that would be completely different.'"
As an actress, she says, being physically fit is part of the job description. And yet: "I think we look to America too much in terms of what we expect. Looks-wise, there's a certain aesthetic you believe you should be."
Part of Ward Knox's attraction is a disarming comfortableness in her own skin.
"The one thing I didn't want to be was somebody walking around looking like they were holding everything in. My job as a responsible human being was to just be completely comfortable and not make any judgements on myself."
Ward Knox lives in a warehouse walk-up, just off Auckland's Karangahape Rd. She flats with a dancer, an actor, a musician and a sub-let of a sub-let she's yet to meet. Retro orange cut-glass ceiling lamps hang over the kitchen bench, "Merry Christmas" is spelled out in masking tape on the dining table, and the lounge furniture is definitely pre-loved. The set-up would scream "starving artist" if it wasn't for the well-stocked pantry. A confession: "I got food for Christmas."
Ward Knox's acting curriculum vitae began in 1999 with an Auckland Unitec production. By 2002, she was on Mercy Peak as Grace Stringer, and in 2005-06, she hit Shortland Street, playing Jemima Hampton.
It was the perfect English accent she adopted for the latter that prompted director Roy Ward (no relation) to approach her for that first ATC show.
"The young people who might not make it are the ones who might not necessarily have that ability with language," he says.
Ward Knox is professional, talented and brave, says Ward. "One of her other strengths is her willingness to go out and create work."
Which is why, in 2007, she and her flatmate and friend Nisha Madhan found themselves performing Shakespeare in the Dogs Bollix Tavern. Every night, the audience would toss a coin to decide which actor would play which character.
"That was terrifying because I've not got a very good memory. Sometimes it's non-existent. I don't know why. I don't smoke or drink or do drugs... See? I'm a real geek!"
Ward Knox was born in 1981. The same year her dad (Toy Love, Tall Dwarfs) made his music video directorial debut on The Clean's "Tally Ho".
Yes, she says, she was dragged around gigs when she was small. She wanted to wear frilly dresses, but was more likely to be in an oversized band T-shirt. In Invercargill, visiting grandparents, she believed she was Pollyanna. She adored Hayley Mills. And when she saw Christina Ricci play Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family, "I remember feeling like... finally, a family on screen that resembles my own. The infamously freaky house, the wardrobes of black, the environment that challenged every normal perception."
She loves Britney Spears. "As in I've got all her albums. I loved her before she appealed to the New Zealand psyche of loving the underdog. I loved her when she was pure pop princess trash."
Music, says Ward Knox, vibrates at a certain frequency that you either have an affinity with, or don't. Does she like her dad's stuff?
And for the first time, she pauses. "I don't know what's stopping me answering... "
Ward Knox says that for a long time, she stopped listening, likening watching him perform to the experience a non-actor has when they watch an actor they are close to take the stage.
"You get quite nervous for the person. He's like an improvisational artist as well, and he does such outrageous, non-dad type things. Someone who is close to him feels the vulnerability he's not feeling."
Later she emails a clarification: "His music has the ability to move me more than anything I have listened to. Music is so honest, experiencing that honesty, even indirectly, is full on, when it is someone you are so close to. I don't know how Barbara [her mother] does it."
Much has been made of the long-lasting Ward Knox partnership. Their daughter's take? "I have no doubt that love is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It's only as I've grown up I've realised how lucky I am to have them as an example of love that works."
Hers is a distinctly Grey Lynn pedigree: Westmere Primary School, Pasadena Intermediate and Western Springs College. A house where she was allowed to draw on her bedroom walls ("of course, faced with that kind of liberty, you don't know what to do"). But if she was an angel at school, an overachiever who was allowed to skip assignments because she put so much pressure on herself, then, she says, she was hellish at home. "A screamer, throwing things in my room, ‘I hate you'... "
Somewhere between age nine and 12, she stopped. Now, she says, she hates stress.
Last year, broke and tired from a year of creating her own work, she considered quitting acting.
"I was too poor, too stressed, and I thought I'm going to give it up and get a really cool job. I romanticised about the cool job I would have. I thought maybe I'd be a lawyer and then I looked at the training required. And then I got work, and it was like, ‘Who am I kidding?'"
Her Auckland Actors profile lists Ward Knox as 164cm tall, with brown hair and brown eyes. She has basic stage combat skills, can sing (except for that one excruciatingly, horrifically embarrassing moment when she attempted a Christina Aguilera number during a musical audition) and knows how to salsa. She is also a "proud member" of Actors Equity.
"There are so many actors and not so many jobs. You're already on the back foot. I think sometimes, that is wielded. It's important that young actors know that if they belong to an equity, they have a voice and they should not be afraid of using that voice.
"It's really important that we set basic standards in place now, and our generation is the one that has to do it. It's not about revolutions; it's not like we're all going to bail if we don't get a million bucks a week. It's just about setting up structures."
Ward Knox has always known her own mind. When she was 10 she failed to get the lead in her school's Christmas musical. The teacher let her have first pick of another role and she chose to be the rag doll. The young actress decided the doll would be sad, "but the teacher was like, ‘smile, smile'. It was the only direction I was given. So I was like, ‘Okay, I'll smile. In the rehearsals'."
Opening night. The rag doll is slowly unwrapped. Ward Knox slumps out. Unsmiling.
Tell that story to director Roy Ward in 2008, and he laughs. "I'd trust her instincts," he says.
Design for Living by Noel Coward, Maidment Theatre, Auckland, February 14-March 9
- Sunday Star Times