Mabel Wharekawa-Burt – Actor
Update 2009
Mabel received the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2009 New Year Honours for services to the performing arts and the community

Read more.

View Mabel in Whale Rider

For many years Mabel has been quietly travelling outside the district to work on a range of well known New Zealand films made here and overseas.

Fifteen year-old Katikati College student Jacqueline Tran Van chose Mabel as her subject for her 2000 Year 11 English Research Assignment. Jacqueline's interview with Mabel is presented below, followed by her completed Research Analysis.

Special thanks to both Jacqueline and Mabel for allowing us to feature this material.

1. How long have you been making films? How did you get into them?
I made my first film in 1986 while living in the Cook Islands. This was called The Silent One and was made by the Gibson Production Group who are still heavily involved in New Zealand film today. In 1987, I made Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence with David Bowie. The Cook Islands has long been a favoured place to make movies because things like accommodation, location, the New Zealand dollar and availability of cheap casting for extras. I returned to film in 1999 with Jubilee and this year 2000, have done Crooked Earth with Temuera Morrison and in July 2000, my first TV film, Turia in Te Reo Maori. Interspersed have been numerous TV documentaries. I initially got into film as an extension of my stage, cabaret and singing background and at the first film was already quite high profile and also the cast of The Silent One was predominately Maori.

2. How easy was it to make the switch from Director of Performing Arts at the Bay of Plenty Polytech?
As far as the transference of the art form - it was easy as! However, it seemed very new to move from being the creator and directing the performance to being the person to recreate someone else's dream and being told what to do. Working in film and its jigsaw puzzle form was also very different after stage production.

3. Did you have any specialist training?
I have a Diploma in Music but over the years as part of my own upskilling, I have been fortunate to have training and workshops with top specialist tutors in the arts.

4. How many films have you been in?
Four feature movies, television short stories, numerous documentary appearances.

5. What kind of characters have you played in these films?
I've always played the motherly parts of Polynesian women. They have all been very strong characters - the matriarchs.

6. Do you feel you have been typecast?
I have after the last movie, Crooked Earth, I had these feelings that I might forever be add-ons as someone's mum, aunt or grandmother.

7. Does this worry you?
Yes, I don't know that it worries me so much as wishing to play more diverse roles. To also be able to play some parts that should not have a racial or cultural dictate.

8. What did your family think of your career change?
Initially they were just pleased to see me not killing myself in education as all my associates and friends still do. They think it is exciting to be part of the Hollywood hype lifestyle which they are able to share with me while I'm filming.

9. What do you think of it?
Being back in the arts fills my soul. The whole atmosphere of the star treatment is so good for my spiritual recovery. Its like a realisation of my years working to improve myself and a culmination of years of using the arts to help others.

10. It's been a positive change then?
Very positive. Although perhaps more a change of direction.

11. Are you recognised? How often?
Even prior to film-making, I was working in national and international activities so recognition of me was already there. However, the acknowledgement of my work in film comes often now and yet only as an extension of my other involvements - many of them on a voluntary basis.

12. How do you cope with national stardom?
Coming from a front-stage singing career, i was already aware of the influence one could have. New Zealand is not as big an intrusion into my family life as the Cook Islands was. I'm fine with the recognition bit.

13. Do you feel you are a role model for others in small towns that want to act?
I'm never quite sure of this term of 'role model'. Since I was a child, I was encouraged to emulate virtues or admirable characteristics in others but not to emulate 'that or this person'. I like to think that I give encouragement to others to believe in themselves and that we should not be afraid to push the boundaries.

14. What advise to you have for students hoping to enter the film industry?
To actively pursue and seek out persons of influence in the drama field. To research the area where there may be needs because there are so few parts. To be prepared to participate or work experience for nothing and to be persistent. Get to know casting agents!

15. Is there confidence in the New Zealand film industry and in particular for Maori?
No! and the to and fro of the government's 'Heart of the Nation' commissioned report proves it. There are budget allocations which have increased but the final decisions as to which films and which types are still being decided by people who are not and some – never have cared – practitioners of film-making. There is also a lot of racism that exists in the inequitability of funding quality Maori film. The quality of technical crew is very high for Maori but we are still in the position of having non-Maori directors and producers responsible for Maori content films. In claiming racism, I also claim elitism because funding for film is going to the same 'old boys' schools despite the brilliant scripts and films by new and younger filmmakers.

16. Do you work for a certain person or company, or just for yourself?
I work from a Consultancy in Arts Education firm where I am a director. As well as training and professional development, we offer entertainment personnel. I am fortunate in that over the last year, I have not had to pursue audition opportunities. Instead I have had casting agents phone me asking for my interest or if I might read a script for my possible interest. I happen to be in an area where there is no-one else at the moment.

17. When do you start your next film?
I am in pre-production to do a series of Shakespeare. An eminent scholar, Pei Te Hurinui Jones, translated four of Shakespeare's plays to Te Reo Maori. The first is to be The Merchant of Venice. As a Maori dramatist, I consider this to be a pinnacle - Shakespeare in the traditional reo of Aotearoa. Choice!

18. Is it a New Zealand film?
Yes. Commissioned by He Taonga Films with renowned Maori actor/producer, Don Selwyn and his partner Ruth Kaupua. They have just released Feathers of Peace.

19. Have you filmed Eye of the Storm yet?
Unfortunately I had to turn down Eye of the Storm as I was contracted to Crooked Earth which overran the estimated shoot by two weeks because of wet weather delays. It was fortuitous though because I got to do Turia , my very first in Maori.

20. What is it about?
Eye of the Storm was about the first Mormon missionary to the Tongan Islands. I was to play the wife of the first convert to the Mormon faith.

21. Did you enjoy filming Jubilee?
Jubilee was amazing. At the time when I was invited to join, it was through the urges of the lead actor, Cliff Curtis, whom I had known for years. I was still on a stick at the time, recovering from a September 1998 stroke. We were halfway through the shoot before the producers realised I actually needed the stick and it wasn't a prop. This film gave me the opportunity to see all the virtues I admire being put into practise – like courtesy and respect. The producer and director treated even those with the most menial tasks the same as the big stars. Loved it!

22. What were the cast like?
We learnt so much from each other in that respect environment created by the director and producer. We Maori loved being together and others non-Maori claimed to love the 'whanau' feeling. For Cliff Curtis, he was trying to wipe out his role of Uncle Bully in Once Were Warriors which he did just for the money. We also enjoyed each other because Maori have some dignity and we were shown having a community relationship, despite the race. I also loved working with people like Liddy Holloway, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Theresa Healey who have been around for ages. Michael Hurst of Hercules, as a director was wonderful - as a person I love him heaps.

23. Are the majority of the roles you are offered New Zealand or overseas scripts?
They have been commissioned and cast in New Zealand but filmed occasionally overseas.

24. Would you say you've built a large amount of contacts?
I thought you might take a copy of this poster I did for my granddaughter. I have so many friends, many who have gained international stardom. There are many who are not seen too much as they don't like to be too visible. I have made these friends and its only later in my profession, have been made to realise how influential they are in their field or professions.

25. Do you have many actor/actress friends?
The poster shows a few - I have many more although my granddaughter, Danielle Waller asked -'Nana are you famous?' - 'Well - yes I suppose so!' – 'But you're not really famous are you because you've never been on Shortland Street!' I don't even watch Shortland Street, I think it's rubbish, and yet I have dear friends within its cast and crew.

26. Do you ever want to pursue other areas of film, such as director or producer?
I have been watching every move they make. Even on days when I wasn't shooting, I'd go on set to observe and learn. There's always, always something to add to your own knowledge. The job of director is more challenging than producer.

27. Any other positions?
If not those two, or as well, I want to get into casting. Because I'm always moving around and meeting people, I think I could provide perfect characters.

You can find more information about New Zealand films by clicking here:

To go to the Jubilee website click here:

How Does National Stardom Affect a Local Smalltowner?
As part of a Year 11 English assignment I was required to do a research topic. I chose to find out about local personality Mabel Wharekawa-Burt and put to her questions relating to my topic study, 'How does national stardom affect a local smalltowner'. My findings establish that Mabel Wharekawa-Burt is an excellent asset to have associated with Katikati. She has worked hard to achieve a great career for herself in the industry of theatre and movies and in my opinion has gained national stardom.

Seeing that she had a job as the Director of Performing Arts at Tauranga Polytech led me to wondering why she didn't keep her job there as it was a stable income for herself and supporting her family. When looking through the newspaper article, 'A move into movies,' I read '...disillusioned with the education system ...' and realised that though she had a well paying reliable job it wasn't what she wanted for herself. When I interviewed her I asked if it was hard in her opinion to make the switch. She did overall find it easy. The hard part was however, changing from being in charge of the performance to being part of it. She also found it was hard going to film when she was used to stage. As Mabel was already on the road to being an actress, having been involved in stage and also cabaret and singing she found the switch of careers not as hard as she initially imagined.

Mabel has had her foot in the door of film making since living in the Cook Islands and making the film The Silent One. She made this film in 1986, then in 1987 had a part in a film starring David Bowie called Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. So with credentials like this Mabel was obviously on her way to stardom. After leaving the job at the Polytech Mabel recommenced her film career with Jubilee, which starred Cliff Curtis and in 2000 made Crooked Earth with Temuera Morrison. In July 2000 Mabel made a film called Turia, which was done in Te Reo Maori. There have also been several TV documentaries. She had been offered a part in an American film called The Eye of the Storm about the first Mormon missionary to the Tongan Islands, but had to turn it down after Crooked Earth ran two weeks over the time scheduled. Mabel did not feel disheartened by this however as she got to do her first ever completely Maori speaking role in Turia instead. She is now in pre-production to do a series of Shakespeare, where a scholar has translated four of William Shakespeare's scripts into Te Reo Maori. The first one is The Merchant of Venice. This is what Mabel is really passionate about film for, 'I consider this to be a pinnacle - Shakespeare in the traditional Reo of Aotearoa. Choice!'

Mabel is probably most well known for her role in the recent film Jubilee. In the film she plays '...the sharp witted battle-axe of a mother...' to Cliff Curtis' character. She took the role through the encouragement of Cliff, whom she had known for years before Jubilee. The offer came less than a year after Mabel suffered a stroke of which she was still recovering during filming. It wasn't until halfway through production that the producers realised that Mabel did indeed need the walking stick and it wasn't just a movie prop!

The way Mabel put the experience she had while filming put the whole 'behind the scenes' region of film making into perspective for me . It wasn't 'the director treat people badly', or 'the leads lock themselves in their trailers and talk to no-one'. Maybe that only happens in the movies or in overseas movies.

Mabel made cast and crew like her family away from home. 'Jubilee gave me the opportunity to see all the virtues I admire being put into practice, virtues like courtesy and respect. The producer and director treated even those with the most menial of tasks the same as the big stars.' She also felt that everyone was learning from each other all the time.

When I asked Mabel if she was recognised often now that she's involved in New Zealand films she told me that she was already working in activities of National and International recognition. Mabel also said that the acknowledgement of her work comes often, yet only as an extension of her other involvements, many of which are voluntary.

In my interview with Mabel I asked if she felt she was being typecast and if it worried her. She answered, 'I have after the last move Crooked Earth, had the feeling that I might forever be add-ons as someone's mum, aunt or grandmother.' For me, I don't think for a second that playing someone's mum, aunt or grandmother is such a bad thing for Mabel or the people who cast her, as she has had life experiences in these characters. She is someone's wife, someone's mum AND someone's grandmother. And she still manages to have a progressive film career on top of that. Mabel's family think that her involvement in film is 'exciting' as they are able to share and be part of her 'Hollywood' lifestyle when she is filming.

Mabel seems to be a very down to earth person considering her jump into the limelight of New Zealand films. She does the 'normal' things a grandmother and mother would do, like taking kids to and from sports practises'. However, she also does things a normal person wouldn't do. Like introduce her adopted children to celebrities at her film premieres, inviting the family to the cast wrap up parties and also having other well known national and international celebrities and family friends over for dinner occasionally. When talking to Mabel I realised that she has a very close relationship with her family. She has two adopted Cook Island children, one of whom attends the college here. She also has many grandchildren, some of whom I am associated with through sports.

In the interview with Mabel I asked if she had many actor/actress friends. She presented me with a poster to prove she has some if not more. She then proceeded to tell me what her granddaughter Danielle once said to her, 'Nana, are you famous?' 'Well yes I suppose so', Mabel replied. At which Danielle said, 'But you're not really famous are you because you've never been on Shortland Street!'

That made me giggle, until one night I was watching Shred on television and Oliver Driver was being interviewed. He was asked how the fans affected him and he answered that they think he's exactly like the make believe character that he portrayed on TV. That they will always compare him to 'Mike' on Shortland Street. He then went on to say, 'You're not really famous until you've been on Shortland Street.' An opinion exactly like Mabel's granddaughter.

So to the public outside of Katikati. They probably haven't been exposed to Mabel's acting abilities seeing as she hasn't yet been honoured with a role in Shortland Street. So I guess her fame isn't as widespread as I thought.

I'm probably one of a biased opinion though. I know Mabel personally, know her family members and also know and am part of her community. I had actually heard of her and some of her films before I decided to research her and her fame. So for me to decide if Mabel Wharekawa-Burt is worthy of the 'national stardom' label wouldn't be fair, but from my research I will comfortably say that if she hasn't achieved national stardom yet, she definitely isn't far away from it.

Her attitude is so positive that if she wasn't to succeed then I would be very saddened. Mabel puts so much effort into her performance, her family and her own life that it would be a real shame for her not to get recognition for it.

Jacqueline Tran Van