At just 26 years old, actor Te Ao o Hinepehinga Rauna has landed roles on two of Aotearoa’s biggest shows – and the lead role in a new series by Snapchat. She talks to Capsule about the balance of opportunity and luck, the freedom of knowing you need very little to get by and hitting the jackpot on year six of her seven-year acting plan.
During the past year-and-a-bit of Capsule’s existence, we’ve done some remote interviews to some pretty funky places but Head High actor Te Ao o Hinepehinga Rauna is really taking it to the next level when she announces that she’s coming to Capsule live from Tequila.
For the past couple of months before this interview, Te Ao has been in Mexico filming a TV series for Snapchat – yes, Snapchat – and added a whistle-stop sight-seeing trip before flying home to NZ (only to arrive in lockdown, such is life in 2021). But on the day of the interview, she’s thrilled to announce that she’s in Tequila, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is famous for its… you guessed it.
“I very smartly put this place at the end of the trip, because I knew I would be buying MANY bottles of tequila to bring home with me,” she laughs down the phone. This trip has been a beautiful combination of two of Te Ao’s great loves: travel and acting. Both of them became great passions of hers when she was a teenager with a very strong sense of goal orientation. Looking forward was something of a survival mode when it came to getting through a particularly difficult time.
“I’m from a small Māori village – well, actually, multiple small Māori villages; if you ask me to do my whakapapa, it takes me about 15 minutes”
“I didn’t have the easiest childhood,” Te Ao says. “There were a lot of traumatic things that happened nad then when I wa 15, things took a sudden turn and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I had all these emotions bubbling up in me.” A saving grace appeared in an unlikely place when a new drama teacher started at her small high school. “I’d grown up doing kapa haka my whole life so I thought ‘why not give it a go’. Drama gave me an outlet for all these big emotions that I didn’t know what else to do with. From that moment, I was hooked.”
She credits acting with not only improving her mental health, but creating a sense of purpose. “I know people who have gone through things that I have, who have not been so lucky, have not found that external outlet that I did. It gave me the drive to pursue something bigger than myself, outside of the small community that I’m from.
Te Ao describes her whānau as being very traditionally Māori. “I’m from a small Māori village – well, actually, multiple small Māori villages; if you ask me to do my whakapapa, it takes me about 15 minutes,” she laughs. “We all grew up with doing the arts in that traditional context.” There was one modern exception to that in that her mother was a break dancer – and an extremely successful one – when Te Ao was a kid. “She always wanted to be a dancer but given my family’s traditional way of being – and the sense that most of the people in my family do politics or social services, my family wanted to ground her ins something that felt more stable and reliable.”
This meant that when Te Ao announced that she wanted to be an actor, her mum was immediately on-board. “She didn’t even blink; she’s been my number one supporter and biggest fan since day one.”
It’s a career path that isn’t for the faint-hearted, however. Te Ao says she was always consistently made aware of how few people make it in the industry. She describes a defining moment in her first year at university, when the drama teacher sat them all down and gave them the lay of the land, expectation wise. “She said, ‘I’m going to be real with you – out of the 24 people that are here, three of you will make it – and it might take seven years. And of the three of you, it’s likely only one of you will make a life-long career out if this.’”
“She said, ‘I’m going to be real with you – out of the 24 people that are here, three of you will make it – and it might take seven years. And of the three of you, it’s likely only one of you will make a life-long career out if this.’”
It was a pretty damning indictment of how hard it is to make an acting career work, but Te Ao says it gave her a realistic mindset of the timeline she was looking at. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m giving myself seven years to commit to this and if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to pursue something [else].’” Six years into that promise, she booked Head High, the TV3 local school-rugby drama. “It was at the point where I was just starting to lose momentum and thinking of what my next step could be.”
In a bit of beautiful but difficult timing, she was back in Aotearoa – after travelling in Europe and living in Sydney – because her beloved pāpā had become very sick, very fast. She describes her mother’s father as “the most important male figure in my life” and says his sudden passing was very difficult. “I didn’t have the heart to go back to Australia and leave my family, and that ended up being the thing that launched my career.” She ended up booking Head High and then Shortland Street in quick succession.
“There’s a part of me that looks up at the sky and thinks, ‘You did this, Pāpā.’” In quick succession, she also booked a US agent and now has auditions coming out of America as well, like the lead role she got in the upcoming Snapchat series Breakwater. She says that coming from Aotearoa and going into the huge pool of actors has been humbling in terms of seeing how many people have the same passion as her but haven’t had the same amount of opportunities. “Hard work and dedication doesn’t always give you the result you want, it’s a combination of hard work, dedication and a hell of a lot of luck.”
However, she does think there’s a type of freedom that comes from growing up poor. “When you’re born into nothing, you learn to exist and find happiness in nothing,” she says. “In some ways, the cards are stacked against you when it comes to getting a house or having a credit card but you do have a stronger appreciation for the simple things in life. It sets you up with a strength that I’m glad I have. As hard as life has been in the 26 years I’ve walked this earth, in my experience, it’s given me a better appreciation for the opportunities I’ve had.”