Miranda Harcourt, ONZM, has acted on screen, stage and in prison, ventured into directing, and launched another string to her career as an acting coach, following seven years as Head of Acting at drama school Toi Whakaari.
The daughter of actor Kate Harcourt and broadcaster Peter, Miranda began acting early: at the age of four she was a young Katherine Mansfield in a documentary for television. Aged 20, fresh from a small role in 1981 feature Bad Blood, and with a number of radio and stage roles already on her CV, she auditioned for Toi Whakaari. After graduating, she began a two-year apprenticeship at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre.
The role of Gemma, the sophisticated city slicker in Gloss, would rocket Harcourt to national fame. She spent three years on the hit soap, charting the character's journey from innocent to "unbelievably horrible" manipulator. Viewers spat at her and insulted her in public. Gloss made her realise how acting for stage and television was "like the difference between peeling potatoes and playing the piano; you still use your hands but they're totally separate skills". Harcourt was nominated for Best Actress at the 1989 Listener Film and TV Awards.
The same year she teamed up with Annie Whittle to star in miniseries The Shadow Trader. Whittle and Harcourt played odd couple Auckland café-owners, facing off against a property developer who fantasises about wrecking balls.
Harcourt used her TV profile to launch a sellout tour of sisters tale Oracles and Miracles. She and Fiona Samuel played 11-year-olds for part of it. It was the third play Harcourt had toured around New Zealand. The NZ Times described her performance in solo show Kaz - A Working Girl as "almost frightening in its stamina and emotional range".
In 1990 Harcourt won grants to spend a year at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, studying the use of drama and movement in therapy. While in England she worked in psychiatric institutions, and with the deaf and disabled. Harcourt had previously learnt sign language for play Children of a Lesser God, and worked on 1989 kidult series Strangers as a dialogue coach for deaf actor Sonia Pivac.
After seeing drama therapy in action at a prison in England, Harcourt came home and got to work on Verbatim, devised with William Brandt. The solo play is based on interviews with prisoners involved with violent crime. Harcourt performed it in prisons and theatres across Aotearoa, plus in Australia and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Excerpts from her performance can be seen here in prizewinning Shirley Horrocks documentary Act of Murder. Verbatim and a later show, Portraits, would feed into 2003 feature For Good (see below), which Harcourt helped develop and produce.
Harcourt put acting aside in 1993 to be interviewed — alongside her mother Kate — for documentary It's in the Genes Girls, which asked several mother and daughter artists the question: is art in the genes? The last half of the 90s proved especially busy for Harcourt in terms of screen acting. She played husband to the late Kevin Smith in ensemble drama City Life, based around a group of apartment-dwelling 20-somethings. She was nominated for a best supporting actor award for a guest role on Duggan tele-feature Death in Paradise, appeared in the sixth episode of the acclaimed Cover Story, narrated the animated Hairy Maclary, and appeared briefly in movie Topless Women Talk about their Lives.
Harcourt is also seen in docudrama Clare, playing cervical cancer whistleblower Philidda Bunkle. She acted in Maurice Gee ensemble drama Fracture and played mother to the main character in two well-regarded telemovies: Jean and Tangiwai - A Love Story (she was nominated for the latter role). On stage, she won rave reviews and a 2009 Chapman Tripp theatre award for autobiographical show Biography of My Skin.
In 1997 Harcourt made her screen directing debut with short film Voice Over, an experimental documentary inspired by her radio announcer father. Pavement described the film as "fascinating, provocative, yet surprisingly personal". Voiceover won the award for Best Short Film at the 1998 NZ Film and TV Awards.
That year Harcourt began a seven-year stint teaching acting at Toi Whakaari. Her time at the drama school can be glimpsed in behind-the-scenes series Tough Act, directed by her husband Stuart McKenzie. During this period Harcourt made another short, co-directing with fellow acting teacher Rawiri Paratene: 1940s-era tale Needles and Glass was invited to the Montreal Film Festival.
Harcourt is a partner in the company MAP Film Productions, alongside McKenzie and Neil Pardington. She has appeared in short films directed by each, including McKenzie's darkly comic Ends Meat and Pardington's The Dig (which was invited to Cannes, as part of a special New Zealand showcase).
The trio later worked together on McKenzie's feature debut For Good, the story of a young woman who grows fascinated with a convicted murderer (Tim Balme). Harcourt also appars on-screen, playing the mother of a murder victim. Christchurch Press reviewer Margaret Agnew praised her "superlative" performance: "Harcourt's raw pain and anger is awe-inspiring." North and South called her "bloody brilliant".
In 2017 Harcourt and McKenzie were finally able to realise longtime passion project The Changeover, and shared the directing reigns. The adaptation of Margaret Mahy's supernatural coming of age novel featured Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, and Brit Timothy Spall (Topsy-Turvy). Listener reviewer David Larsen called it "an involving, likeable adaptation of a modern Kiwi classic".
Harcourt has also found herself increasingly in demand as an acting coach. In early 1993 she was given just a few hours to prepare teenager Melanie Lynskey for an audition, and help determine whether Lynksey had the talent to pull off a demanding role in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. Harcourt has gone on to coach castmembers — often young ones — for The Lovely Bones, Under the Mountain, Home By Christmas, Jane Campion's Bright Star and Top of the Lake, and Kiwi-shot fantasy Bridge to Terabithia. In 2015 she was in India, coaching Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) for his Oscar-nominated performance in Lion. Two years later Nicole Kidman thanked her, while on stage receiving an Emmy award for Big Little Lies.
In 2002 Harcourt was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the theatre and the community. In 2011 she was appointed to the board of organisation Film New Zealand, which marketed the country to overseas filmmakers.
Harcourt has passed the "terrible virus" of acting to her daughter Thomasin and son Peter.
Profile updated on 31 August 2018
Miranda Harcourt website. Accessed 31 August 2018
MAP Film Productions website. Accessed 31 August 2018
'Miranda Harcourt' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Ian Pryor (Uploaded 14 August 2009). Accessed 31 August 2018
Margaret Agnew, 'Delving Deep into Crime, For Good' (Review of For Good) - The Christchurch Press, 6 March 2004
Graham Ford, 'Miranda Harcourt' in 'Performing Arts' - The Listener, 24 June 1989, page 28
Miranda James, 'a working girl' (Interview) - Salient, July 1990
David Larsen, 'The Changeover: Film review' - The Listener, 28 September 2017
Ruth Laugesen, 'Miranda's in Control' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 3 February 1990, page 27
Suzanne McFadden, 'Why Hollywood is lining up to learn from Kiwi acting coach Miranda Harcourt' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 1 August 2015