Kiwi icon of stage and screen Rima Te Wiata speaks to Aroha Awarau about flipping the script on dementia, standing up for trans rights and what Matariki means to her.
As an actor, love is one of the strongest emotions to express on the stage and screen, and it has inspired many powerful performances.
For Rima Te Wiata, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed actresses, she was selfless when caring for her mother, Beryl, during her eight-year struggle with dementia, until she passed away in 2017. Reflecting back on the many tender moments she had with Beryl, Rima has realised that showing unconditional love towards her mother during her illness has made her a stronger person.
“People describe dealing with someone with dementia as ‘the long goodbye’. But I like to think of it as ‘a continuing hello,’” Rima says about one of the most trying times in her life. “You have to look at it in another way. I’m going to continue to say hello, I’m going to be here for you, no matter how hard it will be.”
Rima was born in London in 1963 and was destined for a life on the stage and screen. Her mother was an actress in movies, theatre and television, and performed one-woman shows across the country. Her father was renowned Māori opera singer and master carver, Inia Te Wiata. As an only child, Rima remembers a whirlwind upbringing of world travel as she and her mother joined Inia on tour.
“We were on the move a lot, going around from place to place. There wasn’t always time to establish close friendships. It made me appreciate that you’ve got to make the most of things and try to get an insight into people very quickly.”
Rima – who made her screen debut in the 1980s on Australian soap opera Sons and Daughters – was eight years old when her father passed away. Two years after his death, she and Beryl moved to New Zealand. Throughout the years, Rima and her mother only had each other and formed a close bond. So it was extremely difficult when Beryl was diagnosed with dementia and her memory started deteriorating.
“It’s a cruel disease,” Rima says. “When someone is suffering from dementia, it’s really hard to grapple with. You become frustrated and angry because it doesn’t get any better. It only gets worse.”
After the Christchurch earthquakes, Rima moved to Auckland and trialled being her mother’s full-time caregiver. But after 15 weeks, Rima realised Beryl’s dementia was taking an emotional toll on them both and she made the heartbreaking decision to put her mother into residential care. She says the day of the move was a very emotional time.
“While remaining outwardly strong for my mum, inside I was devastated,” the actor recalls. “I felt like I was dropping off a little girl to boarding school. She was so vulnerable and had to put her trust in me that I had found the right place for her.”
Beryl reached a point where she didn’t recognise her daughter and had forgotten all of the wonderful memories she shared with her husband. When Beryl passed away at 92, Rima was relieved that her mother’s suffering was finally over.
“She didn’t know who I was towards the end, but I could see that she loved me through the delight in her eyes. I learned a lot from Beryl. I learned about the fragility of humanity. I felt blessed to have this test in my life and to expand my capacity to love.”
Today, Rima has comforted and supported friends who are dealing with loved ones suffering from dementia. She’s grateful that she can use her experience to help others.
“It’s okay to feel hard done by or angry. That’s normal. You have to lift your game. When you feel down and feel dreadful, you have to get over it again and find a new lease of yourself. The best way to cope is to understand that this is just a part of life. This had nothing to do with me, all of my worry and concern needed to be about Beryl.”
It’s okay to feel hard done by or angry. That’s normal.The best way to cope is to understand that this is just a part of life
Since Beryl’s death, Rima has kept busy working and starring in some of our most popular TV shows and films, from TV’s Westside to the feature film This Town and the recent TVNZ movie The Tender Trap, in which Rima portrayed Sharon Armstrong, the victim of a romance scam who was jailed in Argentina in 2011 for drug trafficking.
In Rima’s latest project, the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of The Life of Galileo, she will again display her diverse acting range by tackling the role of 17th century Catholic leader, Pope Urban VIII. It’s an interesting role for Rima, firstly because it’s based on a historical religious figure, and secondly, because she’ll be playing a man.
“I’m tall, I don’t have an uber feminised voice, so I think I’m suitable to fluidly shift between genders. I love being challenged and doing these types of different characters,” Rima explains.
Gender swapping has been a proud theatre tradition since the era of William Shakespeare. In fact, this is the third time Rima has played a Pope (twice before in the Caryl Churchill play Top Girls). She even voiced the part of the carnivorous plant in a 2012 musical production of The Little Shop of Horrors, a role traditionally played by a man.
Throughout her career, Rima has been open to portraying the opposite sex, but in 2013 she took a stand against playing the part of a transgender woman when she was offered the role in a local production. Today, trans activists and LGBTQ+ groups have strongly opposed the casting of straight cisgender actors in trans roles. These protests have influenced Hollywood stars like Scarlett Johansson, who was set to play a trans man in an upcoming film, but pulled out of the project to support fair representation of trans characters on stage and screen.
When Rima was asked to play a trans character nine years ago, she was ahead of her time by having the foresight and sensitivity to turn down the role.
“It’s a hot topic right now, but back then it wasn’t,” she says. “It could have come across like I was this novelty actor proving that I could do this role. I felt really sensitive about it and it felt wrong. There are so few roles for trans actors and they are entitled to have these opportunities.”
Throughout her illustrious career, which spans more than four decades, Rima has worked with the best in the business. From the likes of Taika Waititi and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to Hollywood actor Eric Bana in the Australian sketch comedy show Full Frontal.
She says one of her biggest role models was comedian David McPhail, who Rima worked with on the ’90s TV comedy More Issues. The satirical show is where Rima got to display her comedic talents with her spot-on impersonations of Helen Clark and Judy Bailey. David died in May and at his funeral in Christchurch, Rima was able to pay her respects to a mentor and friend, thanking him for everything he had taught her.
“He ran a tight ship. He was a great anchor and leader in our team. He was well-mannered and never showed that he was stressed. He instilled confidence in me.”
The Life of Galileo – which also stars fellow acting royalty Michael Hurst as Galileo Galilei – is Rima’s return to the stage. The play is based on historical events from more than 400 years ago, but the story tackles themes that are still relevant today. It’s about the Italian astronomer Galileo, who discovered the proof that the Earth rotated around the sun, but his findings were challenged and not accepted by arrogant leaders.
Rima says the topic reflects what’s happening in society today, where some people challenge the effects of climate change or have doubts around the Covid-19 vaccines.
“This play is looking at authority versus science,” Rima says. “I have empathy for people and see
how easy it is to become very frightened of new information, especially when people start to panic and think it’s evil.”
I have empathy for people and see how easy it is to become very frightened of new information
For research purposes, Rima and the cast recently visited the Stardome Observatory in Auckland to see the stars and planets and learn about how they move. As she was gazing up to the galaxy, Rima was reminded of Matariki, the Māori New Year, which is named after a cluster of up to nine stars and will be celebrated during the season of the play.
Traditionally, Matariki is a time for remembering those who have passed and celebrating new life. Rima, whose iwi is Ngāti Raukawa, says it’s marvellous that the occasion has had a renaissance and will be acknowledged with a public holiday from 2022.
“For me, Matariki is about the land. It’s primarily about harvesting and sorting out what to plant next season, preparing for feasting and the next lot of growth of kai. But it resonates with what to savour in your own journey, what to weed out, what new things to plan, what to achieve and improve about yourself over the next year.”
Another period in which Rima had the opportunity to reflect on her life was during lockdown last year. She had been so busy prior to the pandemic and the forced restrictions gave her time to finally stop and breathe.
“I realised I was burnt out and I needed to stop. I had time to reflect on what I considered valuable as a performer and honing down on what I still wanted to achieve in my life and career. I don’t want to do just anything at all. You want to find work that elevates you as an artist and presents you with the right challenges.”
Rima Te Wiata performs in Auckland Theatre Company’s upcoming season of The Life of Galileo at ASB Waterfront Theatre, June 22 to July 10.
PHOTOS BY JAMIE WRIGHT, TAANIKO AND VIENNA NORDSTROM AT SOLDIERS ROAD PORTRAITS