Even as a child, Wellingtonian Jackie van Beek had her fingers in several pies. The keen performer had "incredibly generous" parents who let her learn recorder, flute, piano, gym, ballet, tennis and swimming ... the list goes on. In one year, soon after leaving high school, she found herself studying linguistics and contemporary dance full-time, as well as writing and directing plays.
In the late 90s, van Beek became a part of the burgeoning Wellington theatre scene, which was centred around Victoria University and Bats Theatre. She wrote, produced and performed in a run of productions, alongside Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement, and her old Onslow College classmates Loren Taylor and Taika Waititi. "Wellington in the 90s, for me, was just this hugely creative, liberating period of time," she said in this extended interview for TV series Funny As.
She was commissioned to write play The Swimming Lessons for Auckland's Silo Theatre, and her play Space Migrant was performed at Ohio Northern University while she was there as a writer in residence.
In 2005 van Beek teamed up with comedian Jonathan Brugh to create black comedy My Brother and I are Porn Stars. The show toured New Zealand’s main centres before playing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and selling out two seasons at London's Soho Theatre. Van Beek and Brugh also took the starring roles, as two abandoned incestuous siblings, left to run their parent's porn business.
The show received glowing reviews in some cities, and appalling reviews in others. Van Beek claimed she was happy with the response. The mix of reviews encouraged her to take risks with the work she creates. "If we were receiving three star reviews in each city, that would depress me".
While touring with My Brother and I are Porn Stars in Melbourne, she met comedian Jessie Griffin and fell in love. Soon after, van Beek moved from Auckland to Melbourne. She fell into filmmaking after finding work running a clown workshop in Alice Springs. Soon she was offered the chance to make a short film there — despite not having film experience. One Shoe Short, about two kids searching for a shoe in Alice Springs, won Best Indigenous Achievement at the St Kilda Film Festival and was voted Best Film made by Adults for Children at a Sydney film festival devoted to young people. "Once I made that film, I just really got the bug. It was just like, oh, this is what I want to do."
Over the next decade spent between Aotearoa, England and Australia, she directed seven short films, which screened at international festivals (including Berlin, BFI London, Melbourne and Palm Springs). Just Like The Others, was made with a group of kids she met on a council estate in London. It won Best Film in Aotearoa's Show Me Shorts Festival. Her work with students at Sunshine Special Development School in Melbourne inspired two films — one of them, Little Red Riding Hood, starred 40+ students with autism and special needs. An autistic character also featured in 2011's Go the Dogs, which was invited to screen at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival.
Van Beek told The Listener's Russell Baillie in 2017: "I do love combining spontaneous elements, and that for me is what young people represent — spontaneity, unpredictability. Adults often will think about it, analyse it, overanalyse it, fall in love with an idea, fall out of love with an idea. But a kid is just like, 'What are we doing today?' I love that."
In Safe Hands retold a real life New Zealand hospital scandal through a young woman’s eyes. The film won Best Independent Short Film at the 2012 NZ Film Awards. She went on to direct and star in Uphill (2013), playing a tramper who finds her solitude interrupted in a Southern Alps hut. The Lawnmower Bandit (2015) marked a rare venture into documentary. In 2017, Show Me Shorts screened a special retrospective of van Beek's short films.
Van Beek’s first feature, The Inland Road, was also set in the South Island high country (where van Beek holidayed while growing up). It follows a teen car crash victim and a farming couple. "I started with the idea that I wanted to throw a group of very different characters into the same room after a crisis and see how they related to each other," says van Beek. Selected for the Generation section of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, the film won praise for newcomer Gloria Popata, who played the teen. Praising the "unsentimental, affecting performances", The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney found it a "sensitively observed drama ... shot through with kindness, compassion and compelling stillness".
The same year Inland Road emerged, the ever versatile van Beek co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred with Madeleine Sami in relationship comedy The Breaker Upperers. Sami and van Beek’s characters play the service providers of the title, helping end relationships that have done their dash. Van Beek came up with the film's premise over a cup of coffee. "I was actually thinking about how horrific it is to have to break up with someone that you've cared about or loved. I thought people would pay a lot of money to not have to do that themselves." The film debuted at American festival South By South West in March 2018, before arriving in New Zealand cinemas in May and finding an international home on Netflix.
Absurd comedy Nude Tuesday, about a married couple trying to reignite their romantic flame, saw van Beek try something completely different — write a film in which the characters speak only in gibberish. A fan of British comedian Julia Davis, van Beek asked Davis to come up with the ridiculous and frisky subtitles, 'translating' the made up language. Director Armağan Ballantyne found that the made up language helped the actors concentrate on the tone of scenes, rather than trying to remember their lines.
She is also an established performer, with an array of comic roles on both stage (Hudson & Halls Live, Flashdunce) and screen. She was the upfront Gloria in 800 Words, hapless producer Pauline in TV sketch comedy Funny Girls, and dominating fiancée Stacey in Coverband. In semi-improvised web series Educators (2018) — which she co-created with Jonathan Brugh, and her partner Jesse Griffin — she played opinionated guidance counsellor Robyn Duffy.
In hit mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), she played the fawning wannabe to Jonathan Brugh's vampire. At the 2014 NZ Film Awards she scored a Best Supporting Actress gong for the role. Van Beek thrived on her improvised role, and loved working with her "dear old friends", directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. She went on to direct for Shadows spinoff Wellington Paranormal, which she talks about in this interview.
When not writing, directing or performing, van Beek keeps busy mentoring emerging practitioners, and running workshops for organisations dedicated to improving life skills for young Kiwis.
Profile updated on 11 May 2022
Jackie van Beek
'Jackie van Beek - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded ? September 2019. Accessed 21 November 2019
Russell Baillie, 'Jackie van Beek puts the gags aside for The Inland Road'(Interview) - The Listener, 24 July 2017 (broken link)
Diana Wichtel, 'Jackie van Beek: Funny for a living' (Interview) - The Listener, 15 October 2015 (broken link)
Author unknown, 'Doors into other worlds' (Interview), The Otago Daily Times, 7 November 2011
'Jackie Van Beek' Playmarket website. Accessed 29 August 2019
Unknown writer, 'JACKIE VAN BEEK and MADELEINE SAMI TO DIRECT AUBREY PLAZA IN FEATURE COMEDY "HOPE" FOR NETFLIX' Netflix Media Centre website. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 29 August 2019
Alex Ritman, 'Berlin Hidden Gem: Gibberish, Full Frontal and Giving Jemaine Clement “Mild Hypothermia” in 'Nude Tuesday' The Hollywood Reporter website. Loaded 12 February 2022. Accessed 26 April 2022