Awhina-Rose Henare Ashby grew up in a small place situated in the Bay of Islands called Motatau with te reo Māori as her first language. She graduated from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School in 2012. Since then she has taken on a range of roles on stage and screen, including; a Māori language version of Troilus and Cressida (2011-12) directed by Rachel House at the Globe Theatre and took the stage in the 2015 NZ Festival production – Marama, by The Conch Theatre Company.
Ashby made her feature film debut in the ensemble drama Waru, playing “Em” directed by Katie Wolfe, which debuted at the 2017 NZ International Film Festival. Ashby continues to share her comedic talents in a reoccurring role on the Māori Television hit The Ring Inz.
Jessica Sanderson, director and writer of Ways To See, wrote the part of ‘The Woman In Black’ specifically with Awhina-Rose in mind. Jess sat down with Awhi to talk about her career and dreams for the future at their ADR session at Native Audio, Auckland. Awhi' having to periodically stop to breastfeed her newborn baby – legend.
JESSICA: How was it that you came to work on Ways To See?
AWHINA-ROSE: I think you know the answer to that [laughs].
J: Well, you came to my house, I handed you a script and said, “ have a read of this.” and then you said? “How the hell did you come up with that!?” [laughs] Do you remember your first reaction?
A: Oh, yes. Oh, this is dark. That’s why I thought how the hell did you come up with that?[laughs].
J: But you said “yes”, so why did you say yes?
A: I said yes because I thought the script was so intriguing. “The woman in Black” was so mysterious – it drew me in. And I’ve always wanted to work with you.
J: I remember you saying that the grief on the mother was strange to you. You didn’t understand it because you don’t react like that to loss.
A: Yeah, how she shuts everything and everyone out. I think maybe it’s because of the way I was brought up, I mean I understand everyone responds to grief differently. Back home we all come together and grieve together, there’s a process, but I understand it in the film – they’re in a city, they’re not with family, it’s different.
J: Modern life eh? It can be a bit isolating for some people.
A: Yea, just different.
J: Also, you had to have some chats with your family about whether they were ok with you playing this role – we had some concerns.
A: It was more or less about the safety for baby, because I was hapū at the time. Would it be spiritually safe? So, I spoke to my Dad he said, at the end of the day it was up to me and if I felt comfortable doing it. They didn’t have any other issues about it. I absolutely felt ok doing it. I just didn’t think it was a big issue for me. If I had felt funny about it, then I wouldn’t have done it.
J: Do atua Māori play a role in your daily life?
A: They do, especially when I go home. I guess an example would be, karakia before I go on trips, before kai always acknowledging our different Atua in our everyday lives. Dad’s a rongoa guy and lives by the Māori maramataka so it’s been ingrained in me since I was young.
J: I’m watching Cosmos at the moment on Netflix. Did you know we share DNA with plants?
A: I’ve seen it. Yes, did that blow your mind? It blew my mind. We are all connected – but Māori have been saying that have we not?
J: Watching it, I was thinking – Māori have stories for that. We grew up thinking we were distant cousins with the trees really.
A: Well Tāne, did he not make the first human? Then gave her the breath of life? Māori have been saying this since forever. Then it takes programmes like Cosmos for people to actually believe it, it’s funny.
The thing that I found interesting about that show was when they said the day our ancestors came on land, our eyes for some reason didn’t adapt so well initially and through evolution the eyes of all the different species that all whakapapa back to those ancestors are all at different stages of development – so interesting
J: As a kid did you believe in our stories, who was your favourite atua Māori?
J: Really!? Why? He’s so annoying [laughs]
A: Why!? [laughing]
J: I’m just joking, it’s because I grew up in Pōneke, and he’s always up in your face.
A: I loved him because he’s always everywhere – top to bottom. He can visit his mum and Dad (Papa and Rangi). And when you feel the wind in your hair, you feel free and not closed in.
J: So this film, is a pretty mixed up view of an older ancestor, let’s say. Our girl sees the world differently because she’s grown up in a city. She’s mixed te ao Māori up with te ao Pākehā.
A: If every Māori person were to be put into a room together and we were all asked to draw a picture of what we thought Tawhirimatea looked like we would all have a different version. Each of us, We would draw from what we’ve seen, heard and felt – our experiences in life are all different.
J: So that bit of our script made sense to you?
A: Yeah it did.
J: How did you prepare for this role?
A: The first thing I did was figure out how that character moved and talked. Then I made decisions on how she would “be” in the modern world.
J: She had to have some purpose of her own eh.
A: Otherwise how do I play that? What’s my “why”?!
J: You helped our young actress out quite a bit, this was her first acting gig.
A: Yes, but everyone has a key to get into the character they’re given. It’s always there and it’s about finding your way. Making that connection with Manawanui I thought was very important, she’s a very intelligent girl and super open to suggestions so that was awesome, it helped that we could also converse in both English and Māori, sometimes we forget that we’d actually be switching from one to the other.
J: There’s a moment in this film that I didn’t write, you and her created it from improvisation when you’d just met and were playing around.
A: Yeah! We were in the room doing a bit of improv’ together to break the ice, did some dead butterfly jokes and mirroring.
J: Oh yes, that came from you guys too! I love improv’, thanks for being so generous with that.
A: I love working as an actor, I love it.
J: What would be your dream role?
A: Something with important issues I guess? Something that makes a difference but also working outside of New Zealand maybe? But the thought of working with non-Māori and people outside of Aotearoa scares me.
J: Really? Why?
A: I just don’t know if I’d be able to communicate well enough or have that same connection you know? I dunno, I think it comes from childhood thing and the struggle to read English and speak it. Perhaps it’s an, “am I good enough” or “do I understand what’s happening” thing. Geez, I struggled with the language at drama school.
J: Oh, but me too and English is my first language [laughs]
J: Yes, because a lot of the tutors spoke in metaphors – I didn’t understand that at first.
A: Honestly they’d be talking about certain things or have a debrief about something, and people would be nodding and I wouldn’t have a clue, I’d be thinking did I miss something are we still talking about the same thing?
J: I’m trying to think of an example, “...can you speak to this? Or that.” And I didn’t have a clue what they meant, or “...what is the shape of this?” But they meant the metaphorical form.
A: Yes! And I remember so many of those moments left me feeling absolutely dumb.
J: Oh God, that makes me feel sad.
A: I’d call home and say, “...I don’t get it! Get me a flight home!”. I didn’t like being asked, “...how does that make you feel.” either. Because I've never been asked before, learning how to articulate my thoughts and gut feelings were very hard yet very rewarding.
You wouldn’t believe it, but now it makes so much sense to me.
J: I remember talking about some quite heavy things you were dealing with, but you were quite grounded about it all. So you have your own strength that you draw from too eh?
A: Yeah, everyone has that pou to draw strength from or that thing that keeps you grounded. For some, it’s music, a person, whanau, exercise. It’s important to have that especially with the mahi actors do, you express yourself in so many different ways, you have to.
J: So why acting?
A: Because I enjoy it! The journey of finding that spark in every character, finding the game between scene partners, the energy you get from an audience, the absolute joy of performing after weeks of rehearsals. The power you have to tell a story. That feeling you get before watching your film for the first time. Yeah, all of that.
I also remember making a promise to myself when I was around eight, I know it sounds wanky, but – that whatever job I do when I grew up I wanted to wake up every morning and be happy I’m going to work.
J: I remember on set you weren’t quite sure about offering ideas up at first. But I totally wanted to hear what you had to say.
A: I think it’s because I hadn’t worked with you before, I wasn’t sure how you’d take it, I didn’t want to stand on anyone’s toes especially yours. I was nervous that you’d think, “oh damn I’ve chosen the wrong person!”.
J: No way! I love what you had to say! And there was no other person for this role, egg. What was your favourite part of our process?
A: Probably when I was working closely with Manawanui and there was no one else, and we just got to play. Also, you going “...now try this!”. Sometimes it can be overwhelming having lots of people on set, like when we were in the bathtub and even on the roof, but you allowed us to have the space to figure it out between us. That was the part that I loved the most.
J: Well you really helped her get there emotionally, with that last scene.
A: She got herself there. She found her key into it.
J: What else have you got going on at the moment?
A: After Ways To See, I did RingIns until I was about 7 months pregnant. Nothing after that, I had really bad morning sickness. I mastered the skill of vomiting in a plastic bag while driving [laughs].
J: Um. What a legend! That’s multitasking eh? Are there good roles for Māori women on offer?
A: Um personally no! Not enough anyway. I’d like to see more Māori women roles in mainstream television.
J: Yeah, me too.
A: I just don’t like those female Māori roles are little roles, they’re always supporting someone else. I think I’ve done my fair share of token Māori roles and it’s just dumb, you know?
J: That sucks. And is so true, can you think of any Māori women in leading roles when we were growing up?
A: Farrr, I didn’t really watch films growing up, I was either too busy down the marae with my Dad or making dance numbers and tree huts with my cousins in the paddock, I only remember one film growing up, Once Were Warriors so Rena Owen and I remember always seeing Nancy Brunning.
J: We shouldn’t have been watching that film [One Were Warriors] though eh!? Not really old enough [laughs]
A: Exactly! Actually, you know how Taika directed Thor? I want to be Thor, what if Thor was a woman!
J: Interesting that you say Thor. I was jealous we didn’t have the budget to do all the flash special effects like that [laughs]. One day.
A: That’s the first time I’ve worked with SFX, and it was the best experience. Yeah, the lenses were hard. One split and then there weren’t any available in the country, they’re too popular, dunno what people are wearing them for! [laughs]
I had to go to Takapuna to get them put in professionally at a mall, and then walk around with completely black eyes, lucky Desray (producer) had some sunnies I could put on.
J: [laughs] I didn’t know that! What about the moko, what did you think of it?
A: My gut instinct was, go simple.
J: That’s cool, that’s what the artist Mokonuiarangi Smith was thinking too.
A: I saw these images of Māori, old photos, and the photographs were so clear that you could see that there was no ink in the moko, it was just carved into their skin.
J: Advice for young Māori women who want to get into acting?
A: Just bloody go for it!
J: And your dream project for the future?
A: To eventually write/direct my own stories, stories from home. Like the story of how Motatau got its name – that story is epic! I would love for people to know that, to see it.
J: You need to start writing e hoa! I look forward to seeing your films! Thank you for your time sis.
Awhina-Rose is represented by Gail Cowan Management.