As a child in Auckland, Lisa Harrow dreamt of performing Shakespeare. Already she had been won over by the sounds of words, "and the power of language to move and illuminate and to affect you."
In 1966 Harrow won an Arts Council grant to study at England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. An extended "voluntary exile" would see her based in England for at least another two decades. A year after joining the Royal Shakespeare Company at age 25, she was starring as Olivia in Twelfth Night — the first time the RSC had offered a leading part to an actress fresh from drama school.
Harrow began doing occasional screen parts in the early 70s, after turning down a screen test for Marlon Brando farce Candy. Harrow was devoting more energy to theatre, initially unsure if she was interested or decorative enough to chase the "glamour" roles women were then commonly being offered on screen. In 1976 she won a Variety Club most promising artist award, thanks to an "exceedingly boring" part as partner to vet James Herriot in the first screen adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small.
She had almost "given film away for good" when famine abruptly became feast. By late 1980 Harrow found herself working on her fifth consecutive screen project within a year; as a result she was growing more confident and ready "to let that camera in". Twice that year she acted alongside Sam Neill: Omen movie The Final Conflict (which she turned down twice) saw her playing journalist girlfriend to Neill's devil incarnate. The pair also flew to Poland for John Paul II biopic The Man From a Far Country.
In Margaret Drabble adaptation The Waterfall, Harrow was a woman who "eats up her husband and spits him out". But the big showstopper in this period was 1981 BBC series Nancy Astor, starring as the first woman member of England's House of Commons. Harrow endured four hour long make-up sessions, as her character aged from 17 to 73. Newsweek praised it as a "knockout performance"; New York magazine's John Leonard called her "dynamite", and hadn't "admired an actress and disliked a character so much since Fleur in the Forsythe Saga. The other members of a fine cast must brush like cats at the hem of her skirt."
In 1984 Harrow was finally offered a screen role back in New Zealand: starring in Other Halves. Drawing from a Sue McCauley novel which Harrow called "a kind of battle cry for New Zealand women", she played Liz, a middle aged pākehā who gets romantically involved with a polynesian teenager with a criminal record. Initially "terrified" of acting alongside untrained 16-year-old Mark Pilisi, Harrow changed her mind after two weeks rehearsal. She told Onfilm: "I'm working with somebody who has no mask, no acting ego, no history to live up to in terms of a past career....he's one of the best actors I've ever worked with." Harrow also praised director John Laing for having taught her "a huge amount" about screen acting. In turn The Listener praised Harrow as "magnificent: an intelligent actress of marvellous gifts".
Harrow followed it with her only other Kiwi screen project to date: Shaker Run. This car chase adventure saw her racing through New Zealand with America's Cliff Robertson, playing a scientist who steals a deadly virus from the New Zealand military.
Since then Harrow has done much of her screen work for English television, although many of her more notable roles have been in Australia: a "superb" turn as wife of a ex IRA man in TV's Act of Betrayal, Tim Winton adaptation That Eye, the Sky, and the wife caught up in a love triangle in Gillian Armstrong movie The Last Days of Chez Nous, with Kerry Fox.
In the early 90s Harrow's busy screen career began to slow. Despite good notices and an AFI award for Chez Nous, few film offers came her away for the next five years, until she won awards for Sunday. Shot in Washington, the film chronicles a brief encounter between an English actor and a man (David Suchet) claiming to be a film director. Variety called her "mesmerising", and the film won best film and script at Sundance. By now Harrow had asked to be written out of TV's Kavanagh QC, so that she could join her biologist husband Roger Payne, studying whales on the yacht Odyssey.
In 2000 she wowed New York in Pulitzer-Prize winner Wit, playing a professor fighting cancer. Since then she has joined Sam Neill in Jessica, an award-winning mini-series based on the Bryce Courtenay novel, starred in Kiwi short Snooze Time (2012), and played live-in mother to the solo parent at the centre of 2014 TV dramedy Step Dave.
In the 2015 New Year Honours, she was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to dramatic arts.
Harrow has also authored multiple editions of What Can I Do? a handbook for ecologically-sound living, and tours ecological performance piece SeaChange with her husband.
Radio New Zealand
Judy Bradwell, 'NZ actress and leading role' — The Auckland Star, 16 August 1969, Page 14
Gordon Campbell, 'Sunday' star times' (Interview) — NZ Listener, 7 June 1997, Page 32
Noel O'Hare, 'The Down-to-Earth Star' (Interview) — NZ Listener — 28 May 1990, Page 32 (of TV Times pullout)
Sue Pollard, 'Top actress Lisa would come back if she could' (Interview) — The Evening Post, 30 April 1979
Nevan Rowe, 'Lisa Harrow' (Interview) — Onfilm, June 1984, Page 9, Volume 1, Number 4
Marcia Russell, 'Stardom and Shakespeare' — NZ Listener, 6 December 1980, Page 19
'Other Halves'. The Film Archive website. Loaded September 2005. Accessed 7 November 2012
'On the movie-go-round' (Interview) — The Auckland Star, 27 October 1980, Page 14
'Rave Reviews for Lisa Harrow' — NZ Herald, 19 June 1984