She’s a woman who has trouble saying no, and that has led Karen O’Leary to some life-changing opportunities. The accidental actor tells Siena Yates how she’s hoping to change the world.
“Funnily enough, I didn’t want to be one of those drama kids, which is ironic, obviously,” says now-famous actor Karen O’Leary.
“Kind of like when I got into the rep team for cricket and I remember turning up to practice and thinking, ‘Oh, I think they’re all lesbians’, and it freaked me out, so I dropped out of the team. Which again, in hindsight is very ironic and weird. I was really into sports though, which is also obviously typical because look at my haircut. I’m allowed to say that because I have one. Those are the rules. You can say long hair things if you want to.”
Speaking with the Wellington Paranormal star is certainly never boring; she’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met. Karen is incredibly warm, her energy is palpable and “friendly” doesn’t quite do her justice. She gets very serious and passionate when conversation calls for it – especially when she’s talking about education and social justice – but at the same time, she’ll flip to cracking jokes with whiplash speed.
What really makes Karen outstanding, though, is her attitude to life. She is unendingly positive, but not in the annoying, self-help-book-touting, inspirational-Instagram-quote-posting kind of way. There’s just a genuine excitement for life and what it may bring.
“Change,” she says, “is as good as a holiday.” If anyone would know, it’s her.
She’s just resigned from her day job as a teacher at Wellington’s Adelaide Early Childhood Centre, where she’s worked for 21 years – “exactly half of my life”.
While she still has “a very, very deep passion” for early childhood education, her success in the acting world meant she was being offered more roles and had to make “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make”.
“I didn’t want [Adelaide] to not get the best version of me,” Karen explains. “If I’m always going off to do these other things, which I also feel very passionately about, then it’s going to be very hard for me to maintain being the best team leader I can be for them. So I just thought maybe it’s a sign that I should give this acting malarkey a bit of a go.”
One thing about Karen is she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Even though, as an actor, no one would blame her if she did. She started out in Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows with no prior training or experience, and went on to become a lead in its spin-off TV series Wellington Paranormal – which is due to air its third season on TVNZ 2 later this month and shoot its fourth early next year. It also just won Best Comedy and Best Comedy Script at the 2020 NZ TV Awards.
Karen also hosted kids’ education show Karen’s House on Home Learning TV during lockdown and starred in the six-part web-series The Eggplant, a drama-crime-comedy aimed at helping young Kiwis navigate the internet, which is currently screening on TVNZ OnDemand. And when we catch up, she’s not long finished shooting a (top secret) movie written by fellow comedic genius, Jackie van Beek.
Not bad, considering she never even meant to be an actor in the first place.
The story of how she got started is fairly well known by now: Taika’s casting director Tina Cleary had a child at Adelaide and suggested Karen audition. Perhaps the lesser-known tidbit is that Karen actually said no, but was tricked into it nonetheless. Tina told her to come along just to chat with her, but what actually transpired was an audition opposite actor Cohen Holloway, while she was totally unprepared and a bit dusty from the previous night.
“Luckily, because I was terrified and also slightly hungover, I was very deadpan because I was just trying not to be sick. So that paid dividends,” she laughs.
Karen, it seems, has a habit of falling into things and invariably making the best of them. Just recently, she took on a job as third assistant director on Jackie’s film shoot simply because someone joked that she should.
“We kind of both thought we were joking, but in the end they were like, ‘Do you actually want to do that?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I came up to Auckland to be a third AD,” she tells with a happy shrug.
A similar incident led her to release a children’s music album with her musician friend Tom Watson. They started making music for the kids while working together at Adelaide, and a parent who happened to work for NZ On Air suggested they apply for funding to make an album. So with no idea what they were doing, they did – they released their album Better than Normal in June and have a live gig on the horizon.
That’s not all though. Karen has also taken a job in retail thanks to a similar incident, in which she was hanging out with her friends who own the well-known Cuba St clothing store Spacesuit, telling them, “Now that I’ve become a full-time actor, I’ve got no job”.
“They were like, ‘Oh, you should come work in the shop’. And this is, again, another one of these stories where they were joking and I was like, ‘Yes, I can do that. Sure. It’ll be fun.’ So I’ve just been doing a couple of days here and there. I’m getting very good at steaming and hanging stuff on coat hangers.”
It’s a wildly admirable approach to life; one many dream of having. To be presented with an opportunity and to just say yes and see what happens, without all the self-doubt, worry and fear of judgement or regret.
“I like to give things a try because it might just be like, ‘Wow, this is another one of my passions and I’m gonna explore it.’ That, and I’m just very bad at saying no,” Karen admits, comparing herself to comedian Catherine Tate’s character Helen Marsh. “She always says she can do these amazing and ridiculously skilled things that she’s got no idea how to do and I feel sometimes I’m a bit like that, but you know, you just gotta fake it till you make it. I’ve been doing it for years. No one’s worked it out yet.”
You just gotta fake it till you make it. I’ve been doing it for years. No one’s worked it out yet
All jokes aside, almost all aspects of Karen’s life relate back to one simple desire: to have fun. It’s why she adores spending time with her nine-year-old son Melvyn, who she had with her former partner Jen, and who’s “just the best thing ever”. It’s also why she became a teacher; because she’s “always had an affinity for children and hanging out with them”.
“I think they’re just some of the most honest people that we’ve got, and they also have such a good keen sense of fun and often as adults, we learn to negate that aspect in ourselves and to think everything’s a lot more serious than it needs to be,” Karen says. “There’s just an authenticity to children that you don’t find with adults and that’s the appeal of working with and alongside them,” she says.
That, and as someone who absolutely loved school and remembers her teachers “being so great and so influential”, it seemed an obvious path and one which, one way or another, has led to all the others she’s found herself on.
Acting for example. Her first job on What We Do in the Shadows required a lot of improvisation as there was literally no script at all.
“So I was like, ‘Oh, good one Karen, you’ve given yourself the hardest acting job ever’, but then realised actually, that works for me. If you think about hanging out with 35 two to five-year-olds, and their amazing imaginations and their ability to switch between roles just like that, to make silliness and fun out of whatever, it gives you a pretty good practice ground to try out all your improv and see if it’s funny or not.”
The same kind of focus-group theory applied to her music endeavours too. Even her stint as assistant director linked back to Adelaide, because her job was basically to wrangle actors.
“It’s just like early-childhood teaching because it’s like, ‘Go over there, wait till I tell you to start, and then start’, you know? Just trying to get people that don’t really want to listen, to actually do what they need to do.”
All this goes some way toward explaining why leaving her early childhood teaching job was “like ending a 21-year relationship, in a way”.
“I miss it already because it was never just a job. It was much more than that. Maybe if I’d been in some nine-to-five office job – no disrespect to them – but I think that would have been different rather than leaving a job that is part of who you are as a person.”
Nonetheless, the future is immeasurably exciting, not just with her music and acting, but she’s also hoping to write children’s books, having been approached by Scholastic.
It’s an exciting opportunity, not just because of her love of children, but for the chance to make a difference. As Karen says, “books for early childhood can be pretty hit and miss” – especially when it comes to tackling topics of diversity, as she hopes to.
“I’d be really keen to write some books that present a different way of being, but it’s not the whole point of the story. It should just be embedded within a children’s story. It’s like, ‘The whole value of me is because I’ve got two mums’ but, ‘Well who cares? Are they good parents?’ Or the whole point of the story is, ‘I’m a boy who likes girls’ things’ – that’s problematic in itself, because you’re reiterating those stereotypes that mean if you’re not someone that fits into the norm, you feel like you’re a little bit wrong or different.
“This is the thing, even with schooling people are like, ‘Oh, we just want everyone to feel the same,’” Karen says. “But nah, you don’t want people to feel the same. You should see difference as an absolute asset and that should be the most valuable thing.”
You should see difference as an absolute asset and that should be the most valuable thing
Publishing isn’t Karen’s only dream. She also wants to be in a movie with Jane Lynch. And then, as if it’s an afterthought, she offhandedly – and quite surprisingly – adds, “maybe when I’m 50 I’ll go into politics”.
For a fun-loving person, politics seems like the last place she’d want to be.
“I could make it fun,” she posits, with a laugh. “But maybe it just comes down to having a passion for people. I feel strongly about things being good for people and I feel like everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness, and often people aren’t.
“Growing up gay and seeing the challenges people face purely because of something that has no impact on anyone else, I do have a passion and an understanding of how you need advocates – people that are trying to positively educate other people who have an issue with stuff that they shouldn’t really give a s*** about.
“If you look at children in poverty and all that kind of stuff, we shouldn’t have that in New Zealand,” she continues. “We should be working so much harder and so much better at trying to fix those things, rather than being like, ‘Ah, those poor people are just wasting my taxpayer money’. Don’t even get me started on the fact that we’ve screwed over our tangata whenua.”
Justice is also on her political agenda, thanks to her own experience playing Officer O’Leary in Wellington Paranormal. While you wouldn’t think a comedy show would have too much of a political effect, Karen has experienced the power that comes from wearing a police uniform, and she doesn’t like the implications.
“It’s amazing, the weird power and influence you have just because you’re wearing something that makes people think you’re a police officer,” she says. “It’s a bit creepy really. You see why we then have issues with people that join the police who shouldn’t be in the police. Even when I walk around in my uniform, you’ve kind of got a bit of a strut to you.
“So if you’re not someone that actually cares about people and understands them, and are just like, ‘I want to be the boss of everyone’… That’s why we have issues with some police doing not-positive things in terms of the groups of people that they interact with, whether they be people of colour or people of different diversity, and I think it’s something that needs to be very quickly addressed.”
Then, as she does, Karen flips back to a quip with a massive grin: “I’ll just do that when I’m in politics, I’ll fix that too.”
There’s that unyielding optimism again that is both incredibly endearing and admirable. I’ve been met with it at every conceivable point in our interview, so the question has to be asked: where does it come from? Especially after 2020, at a time when it feels so easy to lose hope.
It’s a question which actually stumps her. She’s clearly never thought about it because it’s always been there.
“I guess you’ve got your dispositions that exist from f when you’re born, and I’m fortunate to be blessed with a pretty positive disposition and pretty positive outlook. And I think I just really value fun, right?”
Past that, she admits, “I don’t know. I just like to say yes to stuff. And you only live once; variety is the spice of life. That’s what my nana used to say to me and she was right.”