Performance likely runs in Rima Te Wiata's blood. Her father was famed opera singer and sometime actor Inia Te Wiata, and her mother is actor/singer Beryl Te Wiata (nee McMillan).
Inia died when London-born Heather Rima Te Wiata was eight. Aged 17, she made her stage debut at Auckland's Mercury Theatre as one of the students in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The family name may have opened some doors, but as she said later "if you aren't any good you get chucked out, don't you?". After graduating from NZ Drama School, she began a six month national tour, singing in Footrot Flats.
She made her screen debut in 1986 across the Tasman, thanks to long-running Australian soap Sons and Daughters. Te Wiata would play the puritanical Janice Reid for two years and 200 plus episodes, and is thankful for the acting advice she was given by straight-talking Australian actor Pat McDonald.
On her return to New Zealand in the late 80s, Te Wiata was surprised to win a part as one of the cops on new police drama Shark in the Park. But she would soon be winning a reputation for her comic skills, especially her gift for mimicry. After appearing in the sitcom version of The Billy T James Show and short-lived hospital comedy Porters, she joined sketch show Laughinz. It featured a veritable who's who of Kiwi comedy, including David McPhail, Jon Gadsby, Alison Wall and Mark Hadlow. Many of the cast went on to work on Issues, a skit-based comedy series which weathered a number of variations of title and channel.
Issues and More Issues made prolific use of Te Wiata's talents in music and impersonation. She is thankful to writers McPhail, Gadsby and AK Grant for creating material that was tailor-made for her. Along the way she played a chain-smoking version of future PM Helen Clark, and was asked to take on newsreader Judy Bailey, a caricature which won a strong following and became a regular Issues feature. The show won her the Viewers' Choice Most Popular Female on TV Award two years running. But when More Issues was extended to a commercial hour, Te Wiata wrote to producer Tom Parkinson with her worries that resources would be stretched too thin. When she quit, five episodes into the 1992 season, TVNZ quickly took the show off air in order "to try to rework the format". Later Te Wiata mourned that Kiwi satire shows had come to rely more on make-up and prosthetics, than acting talent.
She regrouped in Australia, and had an "extraordinary experience" doing two years on sketch comedy show Full Frontal. The ensemble included fellow Kiwi Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Eric Bana (Chopper). Te Wiata's contributions included Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney.
She had also begun appearing on the big screen. After debuting with a small role in 1988's feminist comedy Send a Gorilla, she went on to a lead role as a frisky policewoman in 1994 trans-Tasman black comedy Cops and Robbers, which sadly sank without trace.
She also starred in Christine Parker's 1995 short, Hinekaro Goes on a Picnic and Blows Up another Obelisk. Based on a Keri Hulme story, it features a Māori woman with supernatural powers, on a mission to avenge white male aggression. An arresting image of Te Wiata in character adorns the cover of Kiwi women's film history Reframing Women.
In 1998 she joined the cast of movie Via Satellite. Anthony McCarten's comic-drama was based on his play about a dysfunctional middle class family, who end up in the media spotlight. Te Wiata let rip as Jen, a part she described as "a consummate blackmailer, and a very domineering wife to her weak-willed husband". NZ Herald critic Peter Calder called the film a "deftly paced and hilarious gem", and argued that Te Wiata, "while never greedy, gives her ample comic skill free rein as the egregious Jen".
The same year, Te Wiata presented two-part motoring documentary Motormania, which required her to learn to drive. She went on to a stint on Shortland Street, playing mother to Ben Mitchell's character, and coming of age tale 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous.
Since being nominated for Best Actress for Via Satellite, Te Wiata has concentrated largely on a busy stage career, including starring roles as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, the voice of the cannibalistic singing plant in Little Shop of Horrors — and directing and acting in The Vagina Monologues in Dunedin.
Two screen roles in particular have impressed those unfamiliar with Te Wiata's theatre work. In 2014 she won strong notices — and two horror genre awards — for hit horror comedy Housebound. Te Wiata co-starred as the sometimes naive mother to the film's anti-hero (Morgana O'Reilly), who is forced to return to return to the family home after being placed on house arrest. Later Te Wiata found herself being recognised on the street for her turn as Aunty Bella in Taika Waititi-directed record-breaker Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as the kind-hearted woman who welcomes a troubled child. The role also earned her another form of public recognition when she picked up the NZ Film Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Te Wiata has also released a self-titled jazz album, and toured a Summer Pops season with the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
In the 2017 New Year's Honours list, Te Wiata was named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to film and television. Te Wiata called the award a "humbling delight" in an interview with website Stuff — she also spoke of finding it "quite amusing that after this many years in the theatre I'm only being recognised for stuff that's been recorded."
Profile written by Ian Pryor
'Rima Te Wiata: Imitation as the sincerest form of flattery' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded April 2012. Accessed April 2012
Peter Calder, 'A STAR is born' (Review of Via Satellite) - Weekend Herald, 10 October 1998, page D4
Finlay MacDonald, 'More Issues - Rima's Story' (Interview) - The Listener, 8 June 1992, page 14
Michele Hewitson, 'Michele Hewitson interview: Rima Te Wiata' - The NZ Herald, 27 October 2012
Amanda Saxton, 'Rima Te Wiata and her beloved Kiwi characters' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 31 December 2016. Accessed 9 January 2016
Via Satellite press kit