• Interviews

Rachel House: “It is the power of storytelling that brings us together.”

Rachel House has been in the business of acting and directing for over 25 years. You may recognize the now 50-year-old New Zealander from her striking looks in roles such as Topaz in the Hollywood blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok (2017), or you may recognize her voice as Gramma Tala in the Disney animated film Moana (2016), or as Terry in the Golden Globe-winning animated feature Soul (2020). You may also have seen the Māori actress in director Taika Waititi’s early films from New Zealand such as Eagle vs Shark (2007), in which she plays Nancy, or in Boy (2010), in which she plays Aunty Gracey or Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016), in which she plays the less than smart child welfare service officer, Paula.

House, who grew up in the township of Kamo, located near the tip of New Zealand’s North Island, has recently been seen in the celebration of wāhine Māori [Māori women] in Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith’s adaptation of Patricia Grace’s 1992 novel Cousins (2021). She is currently working on her debut as a feature film director, which will also be a celebration of Māori culture.

We talked to Rachel House from her apartment in Prague, where she is currently filming the TV series Foundation.


You are in Prague shooting the science fiction series Foundation. What can you tell us about it?

Jared Harris is the anchor of it, and he is wonderful, so that is lovely. I play a very strong leader of a gathered tribe. She is very powerful.

We last met on the set of Next Goal Wins, a film about a Samoan soccer team that is not very successful, to say the least. How was the experience of following Taika Waititi to Hawaii to be in this film? And what is your part in the film?

I play a tiny role. But I followed Taika to Prague as well to shoot Jojo Rabbit and to a few other places – among them Waihau Bay, where he shot the film Boy, and where he is from on his Maori side. I will say that I do find it a bit sad when we don’t get to go to the real place, but it was set up in the very well-resourced Hawaii.

You were there with a big team of actors from New Zealand – Taika tends to bring his people with him whether he is making a movie about Nordic gods or about Nazis. Why do you think that is important to him, and, as an actor, how important is it for you?

It is wonderful – it is a privilege, and I do not take it for granted. We are in a very fortunate position that he gets to do that. There is such a strong belief in Taika as a creator and as an artist, that he is listened to when he asks to have his team around him, and they willingly go. It is at a point now where lots of us are doing quite well in our chosen fields, but we would drop everything to do what Taika is doing, and we have all done that in order to be by Taika’s side. It is a rare and wonderful thing to work with your film family.

You have worked with Taika Waititi several times now – you were in his first film Eagle vs. Shark from 2007, and even though your scene in Jojo Rabbit was cut, you were still in it in: you were even coaching the young actors. What is it that makes you and him a good team?

We are both Indigenous. We are both Māori. So we have that in common. We are both mixed race, so we have feet in two different cultures – that is a very strong connection that we share. We make each other laugh, which is really important. We are both irreverent and reverent, and that works. We get on and we have known each other for so long that it is very much family. I certainly feel like we are almost like siblings, so there is an ease and a lot of shortcuts. I was also the acting coach on Boy for the kids and I think I am handy to have around because I can help him out in other ways than being an actor. It just feels very natural.

How significant has Taika been in terms of paving the way for Māori culture, not only in New Zealand but also internationally?

It is immeasurable. It has been fundamental. He has been the most important leader in our stories and our culture reaching an international audience. He started out with his first short film, Two Cars, One Night, winning an Oscar in 2004. I find it so significant that I find it overwhelmingly emotional to talk about, because with it has also come healing in terms of cultural relations and race relations in our country. It has been very healing, and I feel very proud to know him and work with him. He has made one of the biggest impacts that an Indigenous person could in our country.

It is the power of storytelling, which brings us closer together. I firmly believe in that, which is why I stuck with it for so long. I believe it can heal and I think we can learn so much from the exchange of stories. It brings us closer together. The power of story is that we get to stand in other people’s shoes and to experience people’s lives and cultures and it is wonderful. What I really enjoy about his work is that we, Māori, are being celebrated.

What has been your favorite role in a Taika Waititi film?

That is actually hard to answer. I suppose that my role in Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of my favorite roles ever because she was so ridiculous. I love that. It is another reason why we love Taika: he writes great women’s roles. He does not make them in a particular way. He is into exploring all possibilities – not all filmmakers do that. He likes to see women be clowns and incredibly flawed and complex. It was also kind of an honor to play one of his aunties in Boy. It was really cool to represent someone who was important to him.


You mentioned that you were coaching the young kids on Boy. You also coached Roman Griffin Davis on Jojo Rabbit. How did you find out you wanted to be a coach, and how do you like it?

Taika had a fantastic acting coach and then he was not able to do it anymore, and thus they pulled me in because I had done acting workshops with young Māori teenagers with an organization. I was a theater director as well and had just come to film school here in Prague learning to be a director, so it made sense. I could do it. It was one of the hardest jobs I ever did because I was also their chaperone on Boys. It was never-ending and exhausting, but also satisfying. I did not want to be a coach but there was this familiarity, so I continued doing it. It was born out of accident and familiarity. 

Some directors think that they can leave it to the coach to do the work, but that is not the case; they still need to do the directing. I went away and rehearsed with Roman on the set of Jojo Rabbit, but as soon as he was on set, Taika took over. He knew exactly what he wanted from Roman, so, particularly here, I was a rehearsal and warm-up person.

People are always asking me to do coaching on their movies, but I absolutely refuse.

But you did it on Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog!?

Jane Campion is a friend. I had worked with the young actor James Rolleston on The Rehearsal – James is fantastically talented, and I was his acting coach a few times after his role in Boy. And I was recommended to Jane and worked with her on Top of the Lake. So Jane did not ask me to be the acting coach for the cowboys in The Power of the Dog. She told me that I would be the acting coach. I did not have a say in the matter (laughs). I suppose it is the beauty of these wonderful artists who believe in the work and that everything will fall in place. 

You are a director too. You directed a short called The Winter Boy as well as a large number of theater plays, and I believe there is a feature film on the way. Am I right?

I was in theater for 15 years and have a lot of experience with theater. Taika started in theater, and I think some of the best directors come out of theater. And yes, there is a feature film coming up and it is a wonderful kids’ adventure, which involves a strong and warm Indigenous perspective, and it is funny.