Mia Blake is one of Victoria’s most prominent alumni, who in recent years has transformed herself into a leading star of the stage and screen, all the while keeping a surprisingly low profile in the media. She talks to SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam.
One of New Zealand’s biggest film successes of the last year was No.2. The film won the 2006 Audience Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, a festival that heavily promotes independent and world cinema in the United States (Whale Rider won a similar award). Written and directed by acclaimed playwright Toa Fraser, the film was also highly successful in New Zealand. The film made a national star of actor Mia Blake. Well kind of. And that’s the way she’d like it.
“The average day, it’s not as if you get recognised down the street which is great, because I’m not really into that. But it’s more family and friends who ring up and go ‘I just bought the Sunday Star Times and you’re in it’. It’s like, ‘oh yeah, I know.’ Then I have a wee giggle. It is funny, it’s all fun and games really.” However, in spite of her modesty, Blake is establishing herself as a top-class New Zealand actor, both on stage and on film. Blake certainly has been keeping busy. Alongside the film, she’s acted in big productions such as The Holy Sinner and The Women, winning Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, in amongst the movie. Though she had a laugh when I told her that weren’t any biographies of her around. “I quite like that.”
Not bad for a graduate of Vic’s Film and Theatre programme. Blake certainly enjoyed her time studying here. “I loved it. For me it was just the right combination of theory and practical learning. I really enjoyed the environment – it’s great. 77 Fairlie Terrace is great too, it’s like its own campus, because the Victoria campus is so weird with the main road going through it. I felt like we were kind of like a sub-university.” She certainly has some fond memories of the place, as most film and theatre graduates do. “I think you get a little bit addicted to it and there are people who have been there for years and years and years. And then you get your fresh faces who are all really excited. I think it’s a great little space, and I think you get quite selfish with it, like having your own little green room and people being asleep on sofas at two o’clock in the morning because they’ve been editing. It’s a nice little buzz.” She even enjoyed Salient, which won’t be disagreed with by this writer. “I loved Salient, you know, when I was at varsity. I think people who aren’t at varsity don’t realise how much those papers, I think Craccum in Auckland as well, how much they are a part of your life when y ou are studying.” And I wasn’t even fishing for it either. However, she was concerned when she heard about 77 (as it’s known to the “incrowd”) being closed for asbestos last year. “Ohhh was it? Oh god, I hope I haven’t had asbestos poisoning. Oh no.”
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Blake didn’t follow the usual path for a many aspiring actors in New Zealand. Many, after finishing a degree here, often attempt to go to a drama school, like Toi Whakaari. “I initially did that degree to really just get a degree and please my parents while I waited to then apply to drama school, because you had to be 20 or over to apply to get in. But by the end of my time at varsity I had sort of reassessed where I wanted to be and I just changed my mind. I didn’t want to go to drama school and I thought the best way to go was to just get in amongst it.” It clearly seems to have worked in her case. Blake was also particularly grateful for the all-round training she got at Vic, which helped lead her to her conclusion. “For me, it wasn’t such an intense environment as a drama school would be, and I think that suited me. I think it would have all been a bit too much if I was in a room with twelve other actors. Everybody in the class did drama history, you did practical stuff and you made your own plays. There were other things where I was doing production, and I was doing set design, and I did the directing course, so it gave me a real wholistic look at it. You also had people there who didn’t want to be actors at all. They were just interested in the subject and I think that challenged me quite a bit because people were coming at things from a different angle. At the time I wouldn’t have even realised. ‘Yeah I’m just getting my credits, I’m getting my job done and then I can go to drama school.’ Actually I think it made me a much more rounded actor.”
“I’m lucky that I’ve been able to make a living by acting but I’m also really aware of the fact that it’s very fickle. You just have to be adaptable.”
Blake had wanted to be an actor since she was ten. “Othello was on at Downstage with George Henare as Othello and Ray Henwood as Iago and I just made up my mind that was what I wanted to do. And that’s what I’ve done.” However Blake acknowledges you can’t simply be an actor in New Zealand. “I think it would be foolish to close off any avenues. I’m interested in editing, and directing and writing, and I think that it doesn’t mean I can do them all, and it doesn’t mean I’ll ever do any of them, but you have to be versatile if you want to stay in this country and if you want to make a living. And I’m lucky that I’ve been able to make a living by acting but I’m also really aware of the fact that it’s very fickle. You just have to be adaptable. And I think too, it is helpful, even if you can still continue acting while you’re doing other things. It’s helpful to your acting to be able to understand where scriptwriters are coming from, or how directors approach things.”
But that doesn’t mean making a living in theatre is particularly easy in New Zealand. With such a small population, and an even smaller theatre-going population, theatre often feels like a bit of a slog. If Robert LePage couldn’t even sellout this year, but King and Country could, that says a lot for New Zealand’s theatre going taste. While Blake isn’t as critical as some others, she is realistic about how hard it is to make theatre in New Zealand. “It’s an interesting question – you ask me today. Today it’s frustrating (laughs). It’s wherever you live and work, in any art or any job, there’s always going to be ups and downs. But I suppose the frustrating thing in New Zealand is there is always this sort of feeling to what you’re doing. You can be world class and you can be nominated for awards or whatever, but realistically, unless you’re driving the projects yourself and that takes a lot of time, effort and funding, there really just aren’t that many projects going on. You’ve got the flipside when you go overseas, there’s five actors to every café, so there’s more competition but I think the appeal of overseas to most actors and artists is that there seems to be a big ladder to climb. You kind of see where you could possibly go, and I’m not talking about in terms of money or materialistic things like that, I’m actually talking in terms of scope and opportunities and just crazy things for people to do and new things that you’ve never done before or new people to work with. In New Zealand I love it, because you have such a great sense of community and you get to be around really innovative and amazing people. But there really just aren’t that many of us so you get to know each other pretty quickly, and I think it can be a little bit frustrating that the ladder is a little bit smaller.” She also admits that it’s harder for a theatre production to take risks. “It’s a tricky topic because there really isn’t that much money to go around and I suppose Creative NZ or whoever is doing the funding, they’re probably torn with ‘do I want to take a big risk or do we want to get something that will get most people going along?’ So I can kind of see both points of view. It is probably less likely that you’ll have something like Lepage put on.”
Her next project is a stage version of Bad Jelly the Witch, Spike Milligan’s classic children text. However, unlike most children of the 80s, it wasn’t forced upon her at primary school. “You know what? I grew up in Tonga so I never heard of Bad Jelly. I was very shy about the fact that I didn’t know anything about Bad Jelly. I heard the story of Bad Jelly aged twenty-seven, but I loved it. I felt a little bit guilty because there were lots of actors going ‘you’re in Bad Jelly and you don’t know what Bad Jelly is? You should be ashamed of yourself, it’s sort of like doing Romeo and Juliet and not knowing the story.’” After that, though, there’s not much coming up for the moment. “You never know day-to-day, so as long as there’s projects that keep you busy inbetween bigger ones.” However, with her current popularity and undoubted talent, it’s unlikely there’ll be too much of a wait. Adept with accents, she also offers advice for all you drunken people out there who go out into town and put on fake accents. “I think having a good ear is a blessing, so if you can, it’s like music, so if you can really hear something well, then you can mimic it. But practice as well. I mean my Mum is Scottish but my Scottish accent is crap because I never practice it. My American is really good because I always have to do American for a lot of auditions and plays.”
Mia Blake is certainly making a name for herself with her acting. It’ll be up to the fickle New Zealand theatre and film scene to see how far she can actually go, but with her talent, experience, friendliness, and critical acclaim, she’s certainly on her way.