Going after what you believe: Miriama Smith – actress, celebrant… and fighter

By:

When Miriama Smith auditioned for her first acting role at 14, she went out to win. Not because she thought she was the best, but because she was competitive enough to believe she could be. It’s this fighting spirit she brings into every role she takes on, whether behind the camera or in real life. And she wears many hats. As well as being a talented film and television actress, Miriama is a marriage celebrant, yoga instructor, mum to Rau, and wife to Dylan.

For six months in a row last year she was commuting weekly to Auckland to film the second series of popular TV drama Filthy Rich, where she starred in the lead role of Brady Truebridge. More recently, Miriama starred in the hit Kiwi-Aussie collaboration, 800 Words. At weekends she leaves her character in Auckland and returns to her Bay of Plenty beachside home for a fully-booked summer of weekend celebrant work, yoga classes and time with the family. Life is a constant juggle of roles.

“With my life I generally find that when it rains it pours, and then I have downtime. I like having to juggle my time and I really enjoy having to find a balance. I like to have my fingers in all the pies and wake up every day not knowing what’s going to happen. I like change, I’m a chameleon.”

It’s fortunate that Miriama thrives on change because transforming into Brady Truebridge must take a chameleon sort of effort. Miriama is welcoming, serene, articulate and strong-minded, whereas Brady is formidable, brash and ballsy, and says things most of us might think but would never actually say. At 6am in the makeup chair on a Monday morning it takes Miriama a good hour or so to tune into Brady again, but when she’s at work for the week, she immerses herself completely in her character.

“She’s a complex character with so many layers and for me she’s very interesting to unravel. As Miriama, I might not agree with what Brady does, but as an actor it’s my responsibility to try and understand why she does it rather than judge her. Writers create characters, but an actor brings so much more colour to them. I always try and find more in her; that’s the thrill of it.”

Big breaks

Acting has always been a thrill for Miriama. Back at that first audition in the 80s she was excited by the idea of going out and trying for something with every chance of winning. The audition went her way and at 14 she had her first minor role in the TV police drama series Shark in the Park, filmed in Wellington in the late 80s and early 90s. She went to more auditions and did lots of commercials. As a young teenager growing up in Porirua she was doing well – travelling, meeting lots of people and making good money. Acting had hooked her in.

“Growing up Maori was a challenge because people’s perceptions weren’t always positive, but I never allowed those to affect me. I’m a competitive person and I just knew that if I hadn’t tried for that first audition I’d kick myself. I see everything as an opportunity to try something new. Children have that attitude, but somewhere along the way we lose the innocence. We overthink everything and our ego gets in the way of it all. You can do anything – that’s what my dad taught me. The world is your oyster, so just give it a shot.”

Miriama Smith, actress, Filthy Rich

Miriama is pleased we are now seeing a lot of positive Maori role models in the media, and that people have a voice and more choices these days. “We are becoming New Zealanders as a whole and I’m enjoying that more.”

While studying at university in the mid-90s she got her big break – playing Nurse Awhina in Shortland Street – so put her degree on hold and moved to Auckland.

Shortland Street was the diving board of my career. I was working every day, honing my skills and learning to understand it as a craft. When I got to Auckland, they sat me down and said my life was about to change. ‘You won’t be able to go to the supermarket, without people recognising you’, they said. I had to live through it to understand it. I was 20 and still wanted to party and go to the pub. It was really good for me because it gave me a greater understanding of what it means to be an actor.”

Finding the real

But Miriama needed change, she needed to be juggling, and after a year on Shortland Street, she found life a little too secure on the Monday to Friday set. She felt she needed to prepare herself for the realities of acting in a somewhat less predictable world and she also wanted to get out before reaching a point where you are only ever known as one character. Nurse Awhi was sent packing up North with her boyfriend, and Miriama spent four years backpacking overseas, and working – as Kiwis do – in bars and on cruise ships, and having time to discover more about herself in the process. She also completed her Bachelor of Sport extramurally.

She would always come back to acting because “acting never leaves you”, and since Shortland Street she has starred in a host of New Zealand films and TV series, including Xena: Warrior Princess, The Tribe, Mercy Peak and Power Ranges. The part of formidable Brady Truebridge was her first leading role in an ongoing drama series and she’s proud that she fought hard to get there.

“Between the years of 20-30 there are lots of roles for women. I wore a lot of miniskirts, I was the girl next door, and then from 30-40 there’s this big gap until you’re over 50 and suddenly we have roles again, because we’ve had challenges, we got political; there are stories to tell. I found that gap really challenging and had to convince my agent to put me forward for roles when being ‘too pretty’ and ‘too young’ were actually barriers. I wanted to show that I could be those other characters, that I could have scars and be a fighter.

“That’s why I like Brady. She’s a fierce, driven woman and I’m allowed to play her as gritty as I want and I love that. It validates me for who I am as a woman – strong, courageous, real.

Fighting for love

The real world of acting is also an act of survival. Ever dependent on ratings, TV series can be dropped at any time and many actors have other income streams. Miriama became a marriage celebrant three years ago because she loves empowering couples to choose where and how they want to get married.

“A lot of couples think there are so many rules about the way something needs to be done, and I love this idea that it’s their day and they can do whatever they want. The two legal elements are saying their full names once during the ceremony, and both coming freely to the relationship, and the rest is up to them. I like being able to empower couples and really making it their day. I think it’s a real honour.”

With all the organising to get there and the pressure on the day to stand up and say your deepest feelings about the other person, as well as the emotion of the ceremony, a wedding day is huge for any couple. Miriama’s role is to help them get through the ceremony in a way that’s not scary. It’s about being super organised to make sure everything goes smoothly, but at the same time she fights for the love story to be heard.

“Most people will have everything else sorted, but the vows are the last thing they do. It’s my job to make them a priority because the vows are what make a marriage. There’s only one love story like it so I fight for that story to be heard. I don’t want them to regret later not saying something they wanted to say. I implore them to try and write their own vows and I help them with that.”

As a celebrant, Miriama loves nothing more than to stay in the background and direct the proceedings from the wings (she can also be booked as an MC), which is a refreshing change from her Auckland life when she is constantly on show and being directed by someone else. She loves to come home from that life and just be Miriama and Mum, teaching yoga in her community and enjoying days at the beach with her family.

“There is so much we can do in our life. I’m a mum, actor, celebrant, yoga instructor, and one day, something else. How exciting! I don’t know yet what that something else is but it doesn’t scare me, it excites me. It’s about creating opportunities for yourself and taking risks. Fight for what you want. Don’t wait for the phone to ring.

“I think we have so much to be thankful for, but as New Zealanders, we often focus on the negatives. If we can get out of that glass-half-empty mentality then I think it would be uplifting for us as a culture. I love being in a small community because it’s not about having the latest and greatest stuff, it’s about ‘hey, how are you doing?’ If you want to make changes, take small steps in your own community. I feel some people think it’s too late and too overwhelming, but it isn’t and it’s not too late for me as a mother to teach my child empathy, sharing and kindness.”

The team behind the photoshoot

Photographer: Hayley Smith, Creative Grain

Hair: Sam Crapp, Shine Hair Company

Makeup: Angela Quinlan, Angela Q Makeup

Floral Crown: Tami, Flowers by Tami Hadfield

Wardrobe: Augustine by Kelly Koe

Photographer’s Assistant: Keryn Jarvis