Hollywood experience and personal pain help television actors recreate a dark day for New Zealand and a famous cricket test, writes Stephanie Holmes.
In a Wellington churchyard on a sunny morning, Rose McIver is intently watching herself on screen. She has just been filming an emotional scene for telefeature Tangiwai and, as the footage rolls, her face betrays no trace of approval or disapproval for her performance. Co-star Ryan O'Kane wanders among the gravestones, pausing every now and then to read an inscription or to gaze into the distance.
The pensive mood is understandable, given the subject matter of the drama they're filming. The Tangiwai disaster is still one of New Zealand's worst – 151 people died when the train they were travelling on plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River on Christmas Eve, 1953.
In the Sunday Theatre dramatisation of the story, O'Kane and McIver play young couple Bob Blair and Nerissa Love, whose budding relationship was cut short by the tragedy. New Zealand cricketer Blair was in South Africa to play a test match when the disaster hit; his 19-year-old fiancee lost her life on the train.
Blair was declared a hero after going in to bat in the test match on Boxing Day, despite having just learned of her death. Although New Zealand lost, the match is remembered as one of the most emotional in cricketing history.
Aside from the tragedy and heroism that go with the Tangiwai story, the main focus of this production is the love affair between Blair and Love.
"The most important thing for Nerissa is the love of her life," McIver says. "They had their problems, but, by and large, they are still in the honeymoon stage of things. They're still in such a beautiful phase of a relationship, which makes it all the more sad when it's lost and it's still so young and hasn't had a chance to blossom into the marriage that they had planned.
"Anything, when you're dealing with mortality, it just makes you appreciate the people in your own life even more, and appreciate the time you're spending with them."
Blair and Love's relationship, and its tragic end, was poignant for O'Kane too, who had recently split with his girlfriend of six years when filming began.
"This is a first love, this is a love where neither of them have been burned by anything, so it's very much just open, `here's all of me', with no fear of being hurt. In a weird way it was actually really helpful because [my relationship] was my first serious one and that sense of loss has come at a time where, with this project, it works amazingly well. In a way I'm quite looking forward to the [scenes where Bob learns of Nerissa's death] because they might be quite cathartic."
O'Kane comes across as quite a sensitive soul. Not only did he channel his personal heartbreak into his character but he also initiated a special way of getting to know co-star McIver. The pair had no time to bond before filming began, with O'Kane based in Melbourne at the time, starring in popular Australian cop-drama City Homicide.
"He started writing letters to me," McIver reveals, "which was just brilliant because that's how Nerissa and Bob had been in communication. So we just had this little collection of letters where we kind of learnt about each other. It felt like such a sincere way to get to know each other."
Although O'Kane will again be seen on New Zealand screens later this year in Rage, which tells the story of the 1981 Springbok tour, McIver has packed her bags and headed to Los Angeles for a couple of top-secret projects. But even co-starring in Sir Peter Jackson's blockbuster The Lovely Bones hasn't made getting a break in Hollywood any easier; McIver says that was just the beginning.
"Life hasn't changed a lot," she laughs. "I've worked a bit, I've been studying and just getting on with things. It was a really great experience but it was years ago now. The hype always fades and you just get on with things."
She is grateful The Lovely Bones is an entry point – "when I go into a room of people there's at least a glimmer of recognition" – but that's where it ends. "Over there, there are lots of Lovely Bones's being filmed. It's not like you have anything that anybody else doesn't. It's been really great and it's given me a little launching pad, which I appreciate, but it definitely hasn't set me up for a career or anything."
McIver's screen debut came at the age of two and she has been acting ever since, with roles in Power Rangers, The Piano, Xena and, last year, in the Jemaine Clement/Heath Franklin movie adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's novel Predicament. "We shot it in the middle of Taranaki in the middle of winter and it was just a nice, small group of people who were working on a story. It was good fun. It was with a bunch of comedians so it was going to be a good time really."
McIver's career has been nothing if not diverse – after Predicament came a stint playing cheerleader/promo girl Candice in Madeleine Sami's comedy series, Super City.
"I was just thinking about it last night, about what I'm loving so much about acting, and it's just that you can jump into different genres and different approaches and different characters and it's like a big smorgasbord. You can pick up a project that you really just feel like you're needing. I think it's just so important to keep that open and keep looking at all those different kinds of ways of storytelling."
McIver is planning to spend time working both in the US and New Zealand, which means that for now, her psychology and linguistics studies at Auckland University will have to wait.
"There is definitely a career path. If you get off it for too long it's quite hard to reintegrate yourself in the industry," she says. "I'm just enjoying acting while it's around but I really want to study again at some stage. I'm not a very good long-term planner, I just take things as they come."
And McIver, aged just 22, surely has time on her side.
Sunday Theatre: Tangiwai, TV One, tonight, 8.30pm.
- Sunday Star Times
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