They are two of the most popular actresses in New Zealand who have, between them, clocked up 68 years on the stage and screen. Now Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Katie Wolfe will be working together for the very first time on a play called Luncheon, premiering in Auckland on May 20.
It’s about 1950s Hollywood actresses who are all nominated for an Academy Award, with Katie directing and Jennifer in the starring role.
The Weekly invited Luncheon’s two leading ladies to a soiree, and to chat to each other about the play.
Jennifer: How come we haven’t worked together before?
Katie: At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of work out there!
Jennifer: We have a lot in common, though. We both married actors [Katie’s husband is The Almighty Johnsons’ Tim Balme and Jennifer is married to Hercules star Michael Hurst].
Katie: I’ve been with Tim for 21 years.
Jennifer: And I’ve been with Michael for 31 years.
Katie: We’re freaks of nature because these days, nobody is married for that long in our industry.
Jennifer: Yes, we’re four actors, who have been married for lots of years and have had children.
Katie: Another thing we have in common is that we have both learned to speak te reo Maori.
Jennifer: Ae. Learning another language when you’re an adult is hard. I thank God for the actor’s brain, because the older you get, the harder it is to retain information. As actors, we’re used to always engaging our brains. I’m a confident speaker but I’d love to be as eloquent in Maori as I am in English.
Katie: To me, the Maori language is a life force. It’s a nurturing language. The Maori world allows you to be emotional, and in the theatre world, we get that.
Jennifer: You know what, I’m looking forward to being directed by you.
Katie: How do you feel about being directed by an actor?
Jennifer: I love it. I think an actor understands the insecurities of the profession and knows when to be encouraging.
Katie: I’m looking forward to directing you! I love working with women because I think we’re all under-represented.
Jennifer: We are like beautiful birds – more so than men! And I’m excited that you speak Maori, so we can korero together.
Katie: This play is great too, because it explores how complex women can be. It may be about Hollywood actresses in 1958, but for me it’s about five women who are under a huge weight of expectation – they have ambitions and dreams and with those come anxiety. Women can relate to that. We’re put under so much pressure, even today. You have to be thin, you have to be healthy, you have to be successful, you have to be a mother. Anxiety is a real thing. Do you get stage fright?
Jennifer: Not stage fright, because as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to deal with my nerves better. I like being nervous because that’s the little bubble that makes you want to do a good job. I just don’t want the nerves to cripple me.
Katie: Now, let’s talk about Hollywood. You worked closely with Eric Bana in the Australian TV skit show Full Frontal in the 1990s. He’s now a big Hollywood star. Do you keep in touch?
Jennifer: I did heaps of work with Eric for two years. I often played the straight woman to his funny guy. We would film lots of our skits in front of a live audience. I’d always loved that the most, because it was more like theatre. We don’t keep in touch, but if I saw him, it would be just like old times.
Katie: So who is your favourite Hollywood screen legend?
Jennifer: Katharine Hepburn. I loved the confidence she exuded. Did you know I went to the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] awards in Hollywood two years ago?
Katie: Really? How was that?
Jennifer: I wore a fabulous World dress and I got to mingle with the A-listers. Christina Hendricks from Mad Men came up to me and said she loved my dress, and we got chatting. That was my major Hollywood moment. I can die happy!
Katie: Would you rather be Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe?
Jennifer: As admirable as Marilyn was, I’m less attracted to the sex kittenish actor. Elizabeth was so fascinating and wow, what a great actress. And you?
Katie: I can relate to Marilyn’s struggle with identity. She never knew who the hell she was. That persona that she built was so put on. I love the story of someone creating this persona, and in the end she couldn’t control it.
Jennifer: Have you ever practised your future Oscars acceptance speech in front of the mirror?
Katie: I have done my “winning the award” speech! I talk to myself in the car, practising my speech. It’s great, because people think I’m talking on a hands-free phone. I’ll never forget the day Anna Paquin won an Oscar. That was an amazing moment. Have you had the desire to win an Oscar?
Jennifer: Not really, but it’s in the realm of possibility because so many Kiwis have won Oscars now. A gracious and funny winning speech is a really good thing. Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep give the best speeches. But you’ve got to cut to the chase, otherwise they will play the music!
Luncheon is at The Basement theatre, Auckland from May 20-30.