The new local drama Head High is a show that explores some important themes about Kiwi life and its lead actress Miriama McDowell is an inspiration both in her role and in real life, discovers Nicky Dewe.
When it comes to TV right now, it’s impossible not to view things through a Covid lens. Does this show still make sense in the strange new terrain in which we find ourselves? In the case of the new local drama Head High, the answer is a resounding yes. While it may have been created and filmed in vastly different times – by which I mean, last year – it has a powerful message that seems more important than ever. Beneath the sporting themes and the school politics, this is a tale about looking out for your whānau, staying true to your kaupapa and sticking up for what you believe in. And at the heart of it all is lead actress Miriama McDowell who, it turns out, is the very embodiment of these qualities, both onscreen and off.
Miriama plays Renee, who is the wife of the school rugby coach, a mother to three kids and a hard-nosed cop to boot. Her own life may look very different to her character’s, but just like Renee, this single mum-of-two is a warm, thoughtful and nurturing person who puts doing right by her people at the very top of her priority list.
“You really do love that family,” says Miriama whose previous list of screen credits includes Shortland Street, The Brokenwood Mysteries and Find Me a Maori Bride. “And that is the key to the show. They don’t have much but they do have their values and they’ve got each other.”
As well as her fondness for the characters there was another important factor about this show that drew Miriama towards the part. “Having a Māori family as the lead on a mainstream TV show was pretty exciting to me. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t happen very often and that’s the thing that frustrates me most about our local storytelling. We make these incredible shows but they don’t reflect the society we live in. The Gulf, for example, is such an excellent show, set on Waiheke Island but if someone from overseas was watching it, they would think that only white people live on Waiheke Island. I actually brought that up on Facebook when it aired and there were lots of responses from other Māori actors saying, ‘Yes, we get to play supporting roles but we play a Pākehā version of what being Māori is, which is a different thing.’ When you get to play a lead family, like on Head High, then you get into the meaty stuff and start to challenge how you’re being represented in a way that you can’t if you’re playing a supporting character.”
Closer to home, Miriama is proud of what Head High will mean for her own children. “I can’t help but watch this show and feel excited for my kids. I see it through their lens and think, ‘Wow this is what our family dinner table looks like, this is what our classroom and our schools look like.’”
And while she’s glad about what this show will represent for her daughters, being able to work on it while juggling their daily needs has not come easy. “It’s really hard to balance this with being a solo mum. I still think about the struggle it took for me to show up to the set everyday. It brings tears to my eyes. Every working mother has that struggle, I’m not different to anyone else. It’s just that TV is a tricky world to work in because you show up at 5am and you leave at 8pm so when you’re a mum, that’s really hard on you and hard on your kids. For me, it’s about the mental strain it takes to organise your kids’ lives when you’re doing those 18-hour days. It’s those extra five steps you have to do before leaving the house. Sometimes I think I use my creativity most in my childcare!”
She does think that society might be improving at accommodating working mothers, but Miriama says she herself has also changed in terms of where she’s willing to compromise.
“I think things are getting better but I am also getting better at being really clear about what I need. I know lots of new mums who are actors who apologise for the fact that their children need them. I’m not in that space anymore. I’m really clear that if you want me, I come with appendages. It helps that there is more diversity now and there are women directors and producers so things do start to change.”
But despite the effort it takes to juggle everything, Miriama derives huge satisfaction from what she does in her work. “What I like most about being an actor is that whatever job you’re doing, you’re either the Teina [junior family member] or you’re the Tuakana [senior family member]. I love being the Tuakana, I love leading and teaching and holding. That’s why I love directing so much. Equally, when I get to be the Teina and I get to work with people who are more knowledgeable than me, then that’s really wonderful too.”
It’s this ability to make a positive impact on people’s lives that drew Miriama to acting in the first place – although it took some time to work that out. “I wasn’t into acting as a kid. I thought I might be a diplomat or a doctor. I went to study at an international school when I was 16 on a scholarship so I was quite an academic student. That’s when I discovered acting and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it. This is the thing that I love’. But ever since I was very young I’ve asked, ‘How can I best use my skills to help my community?’ So when I had to choose between medicine or acting I decided that acting was a really great way to access and help different parts of my community – from storytelling, from representation, from teaching. You can use drama to heal and to activate and that’s why I love it.”
And so it all comes back to those core values again: standing strong, staying true and raising up those around us. Whether that’s on the rugby field, through the performing arts or beyond. It’s not just a great philosophy in life, but it sounds like the perfect message for our times.