Miriama Smith is a small-town girl with a big-city acting career who is finding balance in both. The 800 Words actress talks to Emma Clifton about taking chances, fighting self-judgement and being a survivor.
the 800 Words actress on why she left Auckland, and finding balance
After making a life-changing decision, there comes a time when you are shown whether you made the right call or not. For 800 Words actress Miriama Smith, the proof came in a common, but horrible, package: a classic Auckland traffic jam.
Miriama, her husband Dylan Marychurch and their five-year-old son Rauaroha had made the move away from the big smoke in 2014 after realising that between jobs and life admin, they were spending half their day just trying to get to each other. So they moved to Katikati, and then to Waihi Beach. But because Miriama’s job is Auckland-centric, she was aware she would have to commute back up. On the day of her Australian Women’s Weekly photoshoot, she did her normal heading-to-Auckland routine: woke up at 4am, showered, and got in the car to begin the two-hour drive. She hit the Bombay Hills – the area that marks the end of the Waikato and the start of Auckland – at 5.30am. “I was highfiving myself: ‘I’ll be able to go to the gym, get a few things done.’” Not so fast. One big car accident had blocked the entire motorway. And so it was that Miriama turned up to the photoshoot at 10am after around six hours of sitting in traffic – yet somehow still in good spirits. “The average Aucklander spends 80 hours a year getting somewhere,” she recites. “That’s two weeks of your life.” She’s never felt better about the decision to move. “Time is the new currency.”
The importance of whanau
The family’s decision to move down country was partly for a better lifestyle, but it was also a chance to reconnect with their extended whanau. Miriama, raised in Whakarewarewa outside of Rotorua, and then Porirua, had grown up with her wider family around her, a relationship that was of great importance. “If I think about the most influential person in my life, it’s my grandmother. She still resonates with me a lot,” she says. “My mum, my nana, my aunties
– they ruled the house when I was growing up.” But with her own child, Miriama had found that Rauaroha’s time with his grandparents, who live in the Bay of Plenty, was becoming more limited, and he was always having to relearn his connection to them. “We realised we needed to protect that relationship, because who knows how long it’s going to be around for. So that was a catalyst for us. Also, as parents, you want to put your stake in the ground. So we just threw caution to the wind and moved.”
There’s a reason why Miriama, who turns 42 this June, is so good at that commute to Auckland, however, and that’s because – in a twist of Murphy’s law – just as her family made the shift south, she was offered the biggest role of her career: as Brady, the ambitious matriarch of a troubled family in Filthy Rich. It was a lead role in a multi-milliondollar TV show – a dream for an actor. But it meant commuting to Auckland and living there during the week, heading back to the Bay of Plenty at the weekend to be with her family and to also help run the five-hectare avocado orchard she and Dylan had taken on. The timing wasn’t exactly perfect, but Miriama and Dylan had already decided she would head back to work when their son turned two. She had been at home with Rauaroha for 18 months, so while the role came ahead of schedule, it was too good to pass up.
“All the signs went to ‘it’s what you want to do’,” she recalls. She knew the decision to take the job would be potentially controversial and require a lot of effort. But she wanted to make it work. “Being honest with myself and sitting in my truth… I really wanted to go back to work. Life is a great opportunity and we shouldn’t live it out of guilt or apology. I was prepared for people to go, ‘What do you mean you don’t see your son for five days of the week?’ And I did [get that], from a lot of mums, generally, who couldn’t really comprehend how I could do that.” It also meant fighting against selfjudgement. “I had to sit back and ask myself, ‘Where is the pressure really coming from?’ And most of it was just myself. So [I had to] accept this desire to work, without feeling guilty.”
Support on set
Even in 2018, the world isn’t exactly set up for working mothers, but Miriama says she’s had nothing but support from her colleagues. While filming the two seasons of Filthy Rich – the show ended in 2017 – she was told by the series’ creators they would work around a pregnancy if she wanted to have a second child. “Rachel [Lang] said to me: ‘Are you ever going to be thinking about it? If you ever do, we’ll write it in or cover you somehow.’ They always made it very clear: do what you want, don’t wait for us.”
It’s the same with her latest role, starring in TVNZ 1’s Australasian dramedy 800 Words. Miriama joined the cast in the second half of last year, reuniting with several of her former co-stars, including lead actor Erik Thomson, who played her husband in the award-winning film We’re Here to Help. The popular show, which starts again on TVNZ 1 in July, is very family friendly. Actress Renee Lyons, who plays Brenda, was pregnant with twins while filming one of the seasons, and had to be subtly written out when her doctors told her she needed bed rest. Anna Jullienne (Katie) returned to the show three months after giving birth to her second child; Bridie Carter (Jan) commutes from Australia with two children back home in Byron Bay. There are working mothers a-plenty on set: “It’s a very supportive environment, like a family,” Miriama says.
The 30s can be a pressure-packed decade; there are a lot of boxes to tick off: marriage, children, owning a home, hitting your career stride. Will Miriama’s 40s be a more relaxed decade? Well, perhaps – but she admits she’s not ready to shut the door on more children just yet. “I was listening to Toni Street on the radio the other day and
she was talking about the hard decision of whether or not to have another child. And I can so relate to that,” she admits. “I’m still learning to go easy on myself; to not beat myself up so much. ‘I am enough, I have enough, I do enough.’” It does involve changing the habits of a lifetime, though. “When you’re a driven person, you’re always wanting more and you just can’t help that, whether it’s more success, money, travel, another child. So it’s a case of understanding that if this is it, I’m happy. I wake up every morning and I’m grateful, even for my failures. Because if it was all easy, I don’t think I’d be such a survivor.”
A sustainable career
It took a long time for Miriama to believe that acting was a sustainable career choice. Her first role came in 1991 when she was 14, in the police show Shark in the Park, which also starred Kiwi actors Tim Balme and Jeffrey Thomas. She continued to act throughout high school, before being cast in Shortland Street when she was 20. But it was being cast in Mercy Peak in 2001 that gave her an insight into the possible longevity of an acting career, when she was reunited with Tim and Jeffrey. “They were in my first acting job, then 10 years later, these cats were still doing it. I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this could be a career – maybe it’s not just good times and trying on outfits?’”
The more relaxed, relatable vibe of 800 Words fits in well with what Miriama loved about Mercy Peak – and as someone who now really does live in a small, coastal town in New Zealand, she says the show accurately captures what goes on. “The culture, the people… the gossip,” she laughs. “It doesn’t take long for an easterly wind to pick up some gossip and maybe twist it a little along the way before it gets off at a different street.”
Her fellow Waihi Beach locals agree with her – they’re big fans of 800 Words and believe the quirky characters are spot-on reflections of what coastal living really is like.
There’s a nice synergy, that both Miriama’s work and home have seen her living in her happy place. “I love the sea, I love seeing the horizon every day – it resets my mind and my soul.” It really is as relaxed as it sounds, she says. “Waihi Beach is kind of the best-kept secret (until now). It can sometimes get a little too sleepy due to the work being so seasonal, but the quality of life makes up for it. It’s like the 1960s. At New Year’s Eve we had a street party and everybody got invited: there’s a barbecue, ping pong tables, the kids all disappear with their head lamps to go exploring. Everybody knows each other, it’s very special.”
Living in Waihi Beach, where Miriama also teaches a yoga class, has given Rauaroha the kind of childhood that shaped his parents – filled with adventure, nature and quality family time. “We’re trying to keep him in the bubble of what we grew up with, when it was all about staying out until the street lamps came on or until we got hungry. I want him to see how special it is,” she says.
Getting back to her roots has been life-changing for Miriama too. “Throwing what I want out there, liberating myself through my choices, instead of sitting back and waiting for life to happen, because life is already happening. Understanding your truth, and residing in it, that’s where you find your tribe. It’s happened a lot in my life, once I’ve accepted me a bit more: the good, the bad, the ugly, the crazy, the calm, the yin, the yang. All of it.”
“If it was all easy, I don’t think I’d be such a survivor.”
CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT: Miriama and her son Rauaroha at Matilda the Musical in Auckland last year; in 800 Words with Peter Elliott; a scene from Mercy Peak with Tim Balme and Craig Parker.