In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Karen O’Leary.
With 20 years as a beloved early childhood teacher, Karen O’Leary was already a national treasure but her career pivot from education to comedy actor put her in a far bigger spotlight. She talks to Capsule about the joys of teaching, the amazing story of how she started acting, changing tack after getting kicked out of teacher’s college (twice), and why working with under-fives was great training for both comedy and her current stint on Celebrity Treasure Island.
Hi Karen, How Are You Today?
I’m marvellous, I’m so marvellous. I’m just living the dream.
I know you’ve talked about how you got into acting before, but it is so…
Well, it’s very niche! Would you mind just telling us how it all happened again – how you were cast in What We Do In The Shadows?
I think of this story and I feel so fortunate, to have had the opportunities I have had. So, it all came down to being an early childhood teacher – which I’ve been absolutely passionate about for my whole life – and one of the parents at work, Tina Clearly, is the casting director for Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement]. She came up to me one day and said ‘These guys are making a movie; they need a couple of cops – you should try out.’
‘I sometimes revert back to what I would like to think I was instilling in the children I was teaching, which is: give things a go, have a positive attitude, try your best and if it doesn’t work out, you’ll probably learn something and if it does work out, then that’s great!’
I looked at her straight in the face and said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that – I’m not an actor, I’m a teacher.’ But she’s such a nice person, and I’m terrible at saying no, and also, I sometimes revert back to what I would like to think I was instilling in the children I was teaching, which is: give things a go, have a positive attitude, try your best and if it doesn’t work out, you’ll probably learn something and if it does work out, then that’s great!
Why was being an early childhood teacher such a long-term passion of yours? Did you have a teacher that made a difference to you?
There sure is, there was a teacher called Jo Carter, she was my teacher in Form One and I’ve never met someone so inspirational. I wasn’t a kid who fitted in that well – I wasn’t your regular female child at school so with that came a certain number of challenges, even though I was still pretty optimistic and positive. But she made me feel very empowered and valued.
When I left school, I thought university would be so cool – just a big party – and I enrolled in politics and education. But because I wasn’t in a hostel – I lived in Wellington with Mum and Dad, because why would I? I love them – I didn’t get that same level of connection. So, I got a bit disheartened and dropped out of university. And then after a year of watching Sky Sport on my couch, I thought, ‘I should probably do something with my life.’
I enrolled in primary school teaching and then I had [laughs] so much fun that I got kicked out of teachers’ college, twice. Which is quite an achievement [laughs]. I bumped into someone I knew on the bus, who knew I was doing primary school training, and she worked for Adelaide, an early childhood centre in Wellington and said they were always looking for relieving teachers.
So, I started relieving at Adelaide while I was still studying, and the more time I spent there, the more I realised that those first five years are so crucial for a child – you’re working out who you are as a person, how to relate to other people – and that’s where we need the best teachers, the most inspiring teachers with the most open minds and the ability to celebrate diversity. And, I was there for 21 years.
What are some of the other reasons that it’s such a privilege to be teaching that age group of children?
Children are such honest, creative, amazing people. They haven’t learnt to put filters on, as adults often do. Children are kind of raw – they’re bloody funny and they have an inherent sense of joy, generally speaking. There are not many jobs that you can turn up to every day, and know that you’re going to laugh for at least half of the day, get heaps of really positive touch and affection, which is really good, and just be constantly surprised and amazed by how imaginative they are.
‘Children are bloody funny and they have an inherent sense of joy…’
It was a bloody good breeding ground for becoming this hilarious actor that I am now [laughs] because kids can switch characters at the drop of a hat! You have to be quick to keep up with them. And the more ridiculous you are, the better!
When you started acting, how long did it take you…
I was amazing immediately.
Of course, a prodigy! How long did it take you to feel comfortable on set?
Oh, five minutes? [laughs] I was very lucky, because there was absolutely no expectation on me, so with that comes a certain level of freedom and not having to worry – no-one knew if I could do anything, so there was no bar to meet. I walked in on the bar, basically, and tried not to fall off it. And, again, I was very fortunate to work on a project like What We Do In The Shadows with Taika and Jemaine and all the people and crew, because it was such a collaborative experience. I got sucked into thinking it was always like that – even on Wellington Paranormal, I remember saying to Desray Armstrong, an amazing producer, ‘Is it always like this? It’s so nice, like a family’, and she said, ‘No, it’s not!’
Why were Taika and Jemaine such good leaders?
They were really good at listening, there was no ego whatsoever – which they could easily both have, they could have massive egos if they wanted to! – and they were regular, kind, open people, who just wanted to have fun and have a laugh, and create something cool. And they always wanted other people’s input – which is the ultimate in leadership, I think, because if you can make people feel like they’ve got something to contribute, then you’re going to get the best out of people. The whole ‘leading with an iron fist?’ I don’t get that as a strategy.
One of the best things about being a teacher is that you are recognised by past students forever – and you’re also now recognised for your acting work, as well. What’s it like being a well-known face for both of those things?
I love it. Not in a big-headed way, but I love chatting to people, so it’s perfect for me. I do remember pretty much every single child that came to Adelaide – and their families – so it’s lovely to see them, and also the people who recognise me from the TV are always so nice and so apologetic. And I’m always like, ‘Don’t be sorry, I love talking to people!’ and it’s also, it’s so nice and kind to come up to someone and say, ‘I like what you do!’
You’ve mentioned that you have a naturally optimistic attitude – where do you think this comes from?
I bought it, from the $2 shop. [laughs] No, I’ve got my parents to blame for that. My parents are both very funny and I was very fortunate to grow up in a household that was very loving and supportive and caring – and it’s hard not to be optimistic when you realise how lucky you are.
And after working with thousands of children, I also know that there’s a certain level of innate-ness to this – so luckily for me, whatever happened in my DNA mix-up, I’m a glass-half-full person. But you can choose to enhance those aspects of your personality and I’ve tried my best to.
When it comes to all the things you were teaching kids at that young age, how has the conversation around mental health changed over the years?
I think the conversations we’re having now in terms of mental health certainly are improved, in terms of allowing children to express their feelings and emotions, and knowing that there aren’t any bad emotions; it’s just about finding ways for them to be expressed in a way that’s safe for everyone involved. That’s where really good teachers have such a big role to play in early childhood education.
At Adelaide, we had a really good, diverse range of teachers. Having a diverse range of teachers means that, generally speaking, there was always someone available for each kind of child that we had – someone that felt like their kind of person, if they needed support or help or if they were feeling sad or worried.
Why is that diversity so important for kids to see?
I think it’s crucial – and I think that’s why the shift in the modern learning environment towards team teaching is so important, where it’s not just 30 kids and one teacher. Because if you’re someone that doesn’t connect with that teacher, that’s a whole year that you’re going to find it really difficult to feel valued or included. If you’ve got a range of teachers, who offer a range of different styles, that’s going to be of huge benefit.
For me, as a lesbian, I see the importance of the language that gets used a lot in teaching – it can be very exclusive, as opposed to inclusive. Like when Melvyn started school, the teachers would always refer to ‘mums and dads.’ I mean to be fair, it didn’t bother me, and Melvyn didn’t care either, but it’s not that hard to say ‘whānau’, or ‘caregivers’. But if you’ve always been someone that fits into ‘the norm’, then you don’t think like that, because you’ve never had that as a challenge. But for me, I was always keenly aware of it, because of who I was.
How did both of your jobs – and both of the workplaces you’ve experienced – prepare you for being on Celebrity Treasure Island?
[laughs] Ha, time will tell – you’ll have to watch to find out. I think both were crucial in keenly observing the other contestants, because I love other people so much and watching people’s interactions, it was kind of like being in a big version of an early childhood centre.
It gave me a level of resilience that maybe some people didn’t have and it gave me the ability to have a very open mind, which I think is always important, because it helps you create open relationships with a diverse range of people. And that’s a skill I have honed both from teaching, and chucking myself into the ridiculous business that is acting.
I think the attitude of leaning into the ridiculous is a great thing to highlight.
It’s basically my life motto, my mantra. It’s what I always said about teaching; we would go to conferences and people would be speaking so seriously about all this pedagogical stuff – and it is serious, the work we’re doing – but I don’t see how you can remove the most important aspect of teaching, and learning, and relationships, which should always be fun! Fun is such a powerful tool and it makes any experience, in my opinion, so much better.
Karen O’Leary and the rest of the Celebrity Treasure Island team can be seen on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7.30pm on TVNZ and TVNZ+