NZ Woman's Weekly

Danielle Cormack: Love without barriers

Toy boy isn’t a word that’s banned in Danielle Cormack’s home – she’s the first to tease her partner Pana Hema-Taylor with it. Neither is the word "cougar", although the beautiful Kiwi actress insists she’s too young for that title when Pana cheekily brings it up.

With an age difference of 19 years between Danielle (39) and Boy actor Pana (20), they’re the first to joke about their love affair, which raised a few eyebrows when it first became public – not that they care. “Hey, I’m not a cougar, I’m still a puma,” Danielle insists, making Pana crack up and reach for her. Jiggled by his dad’s laughter then squashed between his parents in a family hug, their baby boy Te Ahi Ka, who is sitting on Pana’s knee, doesn’t stop chewing his favourite toy for a moment.

Quite simply, this laid-back four-month-old is used to being enveloped by the love and joy of this very happy family. But other emotions bubble up, including a quiet sadness about the fact that Pana and Danielle are counting down the hours until she and Ahi fly to Sydney, where she will work on a play for four months. Pana
is staying in New Zealand, flying between Christchurch, where his dad lives, Wairoa, his home town, and Auckland for work.

“We have a geographically open relationship,” jokes Danielle, an awardwinning star of stage and screen. “For the last four or five days we’ve been trying to have the discussion about where we’re going to be when Ahi and I come back, but we’ve been so busy with packing, it’s impossible to pin something down just now.” Pana, however, is already fretting about being away from Danielle and Ahi. “We have hard time being away from each other – I’m not good with it,” he says, leaning into Danielle as he speaks.

Having lived in the funky 1960s house in Auckland for 14 years, Danielle confesses to having accumulated a vast amount of "stuff", all of which has had to be packed and moved. She and Pana are both exhausted from
lifting boxes and crates, and dreading the long weeks of being apart. But they also know their relationship is so strong now, it’ll survive, making this the right moment to talk openly for the first time about their unique
and beautiful love story.

The two met while working on the play Nga oanurere in Auckland early in 2009, with Pana in a lead role and Danielle in charge costume and set design. Although both felt an immediate intense attraction to the other,
they kept it hidden because they had no idea how to take it further – or even if they should.

“There was undeniable chemistry, right from the start, but at the time I didn’t feel was appropriate to act on it,” says Danielle. “Pana is so charismatic. He’s the sort of person who’s magnetic to other people they want to be around him. I’d see him talking to them and how they responded to him. I was aware of that energy and then, for that to be directed at me… wow!

I thought I’d just be another person going in and out of Pana’s life. But it didn’t turn out quite like that, and
from that point on we’ve been together.” outwardly confident, Pana says he felt very nervous about taking the next step with Danielle. “I was waiting for the right time to talk to you,” he tells her. “I knew you were a beautiful person and I wanted to get to know you more and more.”

one night, his lift home fell through and this is where they’re still trying to work out who said what and when.
“You gave me a lift and asked me to have a wine at your house,” says Pana. Danielle shakes her head, and says it was Pana who suggested she gave him a lift home, adding to a smiley Ahi, “Listen to this, you need to know this for the future, okay?”

“But you asked me if I wanted a wine,” insists Pana, who was based in Wairoa but had come to Auckland for the play. Danielle, blushing, has to agree the wine was her idea. ”I was rapt,” Pana says. “During the car ride, I couldn’t help but stare at her, thinking, ‘Wow, she’s beautiful’. We had a chat and, well, I’ve never really left.” However, Danielle initially believed it wouldn’t last beyond the end of the play.

“I didn’t think we were looking at a longterm future together, taking into account all the points of difference, like geographic distance, where we were at in our lives, as well as the age gap. “The more I got to know Pana, the more I wanted to be with him, but I also had to think, ‘Here’s this gorgeous, amazing young man with the world at his feet, who has just left Wairoa and can do whatever he wants with his life.’ I never wanted to stop that and I still don’t. I’ve done so much already with my life and he needs to feel free to do that too.”

But Pana was also ready to take the next step and finally found the moment to ask Danielle the big question.
“I wanted to be with her – for it to be something more. I was thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? What do I say? What if it’s not what she wants?’ ”I didn’t want her slipping away when the play was over. I went through the thought process of working out how I could make it something more, how we could be together. I was so nervous. So I just came out with it and said, ‘Would you be my girl?’”

And Danielle’s reply was? “She said, ‘What?’ I thought, ‘oh no, she doesn’t want this,’ so I took it back,
but I texted later to say that I did mean it. And she said yes, she did want to be my girl. That’s when I said, ‘I love you’.” Being "Pana’s girl" was just what Danielle needed to seal the relationship. “It all fell into place at that point. I couldn’t deny how I felt about him any longer and that overcame any of the barriers I felt might have been there.

“I had always been open-minded to the possibility of it being more, but the world can be a conservative place and I knew there were issues. I thought a lot about the age difference. But at the end of the day, we
are happy, we love each other and we’re connected – that overcomes everything.”

But Danielle, already mum to Ethan (14), had to do more soul-searching about the difference in life stage when she found out surprise baby Ahi was on the way. “I really worried. I’ve been 20 and it’s when you go on your oE, do stuff for the first time. That age is not about settling down and having a family, and I questioned it over and over. I wanted to give him the freedom to experience life if it didn’t feel right to him. I’ve had many more years on the planet than Pana and I had to consider the choices we were making.

“I also had to think about what it would be like to bring up a child on my own again, if he didn’t want to make a go of it.” Pana had no hesitation in telling Danielle that he was going nowhere. When Ahi arrived in a birthing pool, Pana was also in the water, supporting Danielle through her labour, then cradling her and newborn Ahi. ”We were actually talking this morning about having another baby soon,” says Danielle. “I’ve only got a certain amount of time left to have babies, and Pana comes from a big family, so it’s something we have to discuss when we have more time.”

“I am totally committed to whanau – it’s everything to me. I love being with Danielle and Ahi as much as possible,” says Pana, who is one of 10 kids. “Sure, I have my moments and she says, ‘Go see your bros,
I’ll still be here,’ and I do. We trust each other. I can take off for a month or so or she goes to Australia, and I know we’ll be loyal. our relationship is strong and it’s genuine. It doesn’t get affected when one of us takes
time out. We are totally in love.”

Pana also credits Danielle with helping him leave a sometimes troubled past behind. Raised in Wairoa, a oongrel oob town, he inevitably became involved and ended up in strife. “I started going down a different path in life. Then a teacher introduced me to Shakespeare and I started reading Romeo and Juliet and other plays. It changed everything. I had one-on-one acting training and I knew what I wanted to do.”

Although Pana’s talent took him away from Wairoa and into theatre and movies like Boy, the town will always be home and, although he no longer embraces the gang lifestyle, he still has a bond with the oob. ”It will always be part of my life, of who I am, but I’ve made a choice not to be involved. Danielle and Ahi are my focus,” he says.  He has shared everything about his past with Danielle. “I respect Pana’s honesty,” she says. “He inspires me. I see him for who he is now, not who he was then. I want to bring out the best in him, as he does with me.”

Her son Ethan gets on well with Pana “for obvious reasons,” she adds, nodding at Pana making funny faces at Ahi. Her son hasn’t questioned the fact his mum’s boyfriend is so much younger than her. To those who do find the 19-year age gap a problem, Pana doesn’t mince words.

“You can’t print what I just said though, can you?” he grins, after revealing exactly what he thinks of their critics. “The people who know me, like my bros, they’re all for it. When they heard I was with Danielle, they were like, ‘Chur!’”

Danielle has a more printable response. “It’s not our problem, it’s theirs. I welcome challenges like this in a relationship. “one thing that really has surprised me is how much Pana gets me. When I think I know it all, when I’m flying around in a panic, he knows exactly what to say, like, ‘Honey, I can’t read your mind, tell
me what’s happening for you’ or ‘Just chill out’. I love it when he tells it how it is.”

Looking around at the last of the boxes they’ve packed up, Pana adds, “Good communication really makes it work, especially when it’s long-distance.” But despite the pain of being apart, it is simply another challenge that both Pana and Danielle believe will ultimately enrich their life together.

“We never take each other for granted,” she says. “And when tough times come along, I find myself pouring more into our relationship. When Pana says to me, ‘We need to talk’, I think, ‘Awesome’. I’m never able to be anything but totally honest with Pana, and it keeps us both aware of what’s happening between us. And right now, for me, this feels totally right.”

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