Diana Rowan arrived in New Zealand as an actor, but soon became an expert at identifying the ‘next big thing’, be it Keisha Castle-Hughes or Cliff Curtis. She is the woman who discovered some of our most renowned screen actors, but a key to her success as a casting director is maintaining distance between herself and the hype surrounding success. Some of her most famous discoveries were found in the classroom.
“I prefer to catch children unaware, because then you get to see who they really are as opposed to ‘choose me, choose me, I want to be a star”, she says.“It helps that they don’t know who I am”.
Rowan was born in England. She spent most of her childhood in hospital, dealing with the effects of tuberculosis. The experience undoubtedly affected her life profoundly, but one of the strategies developed to liven up her days fostered a talent. In a 2004 NZ Herald interview she described a game to journalist Michele Hewitson — a game “played inside her head where she predicted the mood of the people coming through the door and the first thing they would say”. Rowan describes her knack for casting as an extension of that game. “Instinct, built up on experience .. have lead me in a direction where I read people. That’s my gift if you like”.
Her acting abilities emerged during elocution lessons to battle a stutter; she discovered she was more confident pretending to be other people. But acting was only ever supposed to be a stepping stone to film directing. “I figured if I could be an actor then I could figure out how to be a director”. Rowan studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and later understudied for Cherie Lunghi (Excalibur) at London’s Royal Court Theatre, before taking over Lunghi's role in the debut run of David Hare's Teeth'n' Smiles, opposite Helen Mirren. When she met her Kiwi fiancee she was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and their joint decision to move to New Zealand was a nervous one.
Soon enough Rowan landed a part in homegrown cop show Mortimer’s Patch, and co-starred in 1981 TV series Open File. She landed the role of Arthur Allan Thomas’ wife Vivien in John Laing’s 1982 feature Beyond Reasonable Doubt, and met and worked with many key players in the 80s Kiwi film scene, including acting alongside Bruno Lawrence and Martyn Sanderson in sci-fi movie Battletruck.
Her next role would lead to a new screen career. After being cast in One of Those Blighters, director Lynton Butler asked Rowan if she’d cast the rest of the actors for him. She agreed — and immediately made her first decision, to re-cast her own role. Rowan described her beginnings as a casting director in a 2005 OnFilm interview as largely improvisational.
“There weren’t any casting directors so nobody knew what you should be doing and I didn’t realise what the parameters were to stop myself working unnecessarily. So I just went on auditioning … they always wanted more tapes so I think I just kept on auditioning — almost everyone in New Zealand”.
Rowan was growing more confident in her ‘knack’ for finding the right talent, and her new career blossomed. After introducing Donogh Rees to the screen in Constance (1983), she went on to cast some of the biggest and most acclaimed New Zealand films of the 1980s and 90s, regularly discovering fresh new actors. Among them were 12-year-old Fiona Kaye, on-screen for almost the entire length of Vigil (1984), Hamish McFarlane in The Navigator (1988), Vanessa Rare, who made her screen debut as Rata in Ruby and Rata (1990), Kerry Fox and the many child actors in An Angel at My Table (1990), Stephen Papps and young Stephen Fulford for The End of the Golden Weather (1992), and Anna Paquin for The Piano (1993). As early as 1989, Rowan was being described as New Zealand's only proper casting director, by her Australian-based equivalent Liz Mullinar.
The Piano and Whale Rider (2002) stand out in Rowan’s career for the international impact of the two child actors she helped discover. Paquin became an international star after winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Flora in The Piano, the second youngest winner in the history of the Academy Awards; Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest actress to be nominated for Best Actress, as whale rider Paikea ‘Pai’ Apirana. Rowan was scouting around Auckland schools, and in Glen Innes came across 11-year-old Castle-Hughes — who pretended she could swim, assuming Rowan was scouting for a Māori swim team.
Earlier, just days into her work for The Silent One, Rowan knew she’d struck gold with the film’s star Talo Malase. “We walked into a school. We were looking for a mute kid who looked like the cover of Joy Cowley’s book and there he was. I said ‘I think he’d be great’. So we auditioned him and he proved to be fantastic. And he could swim underwater with his eyes open”.
Rowan then had to convince producer Dave Gibson to halt further auditions, on the eve of a three month national search. She was proved right. This ‘knack’ for spotting a potential star isn’t limited to lead roles; she advised a young Temuera Morrison to head north to Auckland after he auditioned for a part in The Silent One.
Alongside Rowan’s involvement in a long list of successful feature films are some major moments in television. She was the NZ casting director for American television series Hercules, one of the highest rating syndicated series of the 1990s. After casting Lucy Lawless as an Amazon in tele-feature Hercules and the Amazon Women, Rowan recommended her to producer Rob Tapert for the lead role in spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess, after the original choice was sidelined by flu.
While busy casting films, television programmes and commercials, Rowan’s desire to write and direct still burned. In the 80s she wrote and directed several television items for Top Half and Kaleidoscope, and in 1985 she directed half-hour drama The Secret. 1990 Rowan won Short Film funding to write and direct short film Christmas Shopping. The film sold well overseas, and played at a number of international festivals. In the same period she adapted Shonagh Koea short story ‘Mrs Pratt Goes to China’, and turned it into The Wall, a domestic psycho-drama that explores ideas of suburban repression and escape. Rowan was among a wave of Kiwi female writers and directors producing high calibre short films in this period, including Niki Caro and Christine Parker.
Despite plans to leave casting, Rowan continued to work on many of the major feature films to come out of New Zealand. She was casting director for Christine Jeff’s debut feature Rain (2001), Roger Donaldson hit The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), Toa Fraser ensemble piece No.2 (2006), the critically acclaimed In My Father’s Den (2004) and British telemovie Not Only But Always (2004).
Rowan was awarded the SPADA /OnFilm Industry Champion Award in 2004. She was nominated for her "immeasurable passion, commitment, integrity and success in helping NZ drama". Rowan has been a board member for WIFT NZ (Women in Film and Television) for ten years, and served as president for five. In 2007 she was honoured with a WIFT award for Outstanding Contribution to the New Zealand Screen Industry. She is a founding member of both Film Auckland and the Screen Production Task Force.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Barbara Cairns and Helen Martin, Shadows on the Wall - A Study of Seven New Zealand Feature Films (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1994)
Nick Grant, 'Industry honours own' - Onfilm, December 1989, page 9 (Volume 22, no 1)
Nick Grant, ‘The Reluctant Casting Director’(Interview) - OnFilm, February 2005
Ann Hardy, 'Quest For the Best (Interview with Liz Mullinar) - Onfilm, October 1989, page 40 (Volume 6, no 6)
Michele Hewitson, ‘Casting Agent’s sharp eye for talent’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, March 5 2004
Deborah Shephard Reframing Women – A History of New Zealand Film (Auckland: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000)