Nancy Brunning was an actor of mana. Starting young, she proved herself in the cauldron of five day a week soap Shortland Street, then displayed both grit and sensitivity in the sequel to Once Were Warriors. By the time she played the family matriarch in 2016 movie Mahana, Brunning had amassed an impressive CV on both stage and screen. She'd also made her mark as a playwright, and was helping a new generation of Māori actors learn their craft. The same weekend she died, she took away Aotearoa's premiere theatre writing award, and was up for a fourth screen acting award, for Teina Pora TV movie In Dark Places.
Brunning grew up in Taupō, "the second youngest of seven children", six of them girls. Her father was a Chinese/Maori builder. Her mother had been fostered by a family that believed in "beating the Māori out of you". By age 15, Nancy knew that she wanted to do Māori theatre. At 18 she began studying at drama school Toi Whakaari in Wellington. She heard Pākehā parents whining that she shouldn't be on the course, since she hadn't done speech and drama lessons, or time in amateur theatre. Instead she'd been busy doing kapa haka and competing in high school speech contests.
When soap Shortland Street launched in 1992, Brunning she began a two year run playing straight-talking nurse Jaki Manu. As the only female Māori character on primetime, she was resistant to her character being seen in a negative light; in this video interview from 2012, Brunning recalls that viewers often referred to her character not by name, but "as the Māori nurse". "So I made a conscious decision just to make sure that I didn't take her down a road where there was no way of her being able to get up on her feet again ... and I was quite staunch about that."
On the big screen, she had a minor role in 1992 misfire Chicken, before making her mark in the late 90s with two very different movies. In When Love Comes she and Sophia Hawthorne played a "garage-band chorus", watching on (and occasionally singing) as the other characters tried to make sense of their lives. In Once Were Warriors sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? she impressed as a tough yet sensitive gang girl — including this memorable scene where her character was encouraged to break through her shyness, and sing in a music store.
Brunning won a New Zealand Screen Award for Broken Hearted; she was nominated again for Māori western Crooked Earth, and was named Best Actress in 2000 for her dual roles in Ngā Tohu: Signatures. This teleplay about a land dispute jumps between the present day and the time when the Treaty of Waitangi was about to be signed.
Brunning would join her longtime friend, Māori playwright Briar Grace-Smith, for quirky village tale Fish Skin Suit (2000) and Hokianga set feature The Strength of Water (playing "a hard-working Mum"). She also co-starred in Grace-Smith's 2000 play Haruru Mai. Grace-Smith has said that Brunning was unafraid of playing or writing complex and flawed Māori characters, "at a time where there were few wāhine Māori on screen". She was also strong on "upskilling Māori women, and putting Māori women at the forefront of storytelling".
In 2017 she was named Best Actress at a festival in France for Lee Tamahori movie Mahana, playing matriarch to a warring shearing family in the 1960s. The film was based on Witi Ihimaera's novel Bulibasha.
Brunning acted in a number of short films, including the multi-awardwinning Turangawaewae (which was invited to the 2003 Cannes Film Festival) and Kerosene Creek (2005 Berlin Film Festival). Journey to Ihipa (2008) marked her first time behind the camera (although she'd begun directing for the stage in 1995). The tale of a woman hoping for her son's return screened at festivals in Canada, Japan and Russia — plus the NZ International Film Festival. The press kit for the film consists largely of Brunning paying tribute to others; she stresses that Ihipa scriptwriter Vicki-Anne Hiekell deserves more credit than her.
An impassioned advocate for Māori theatre, Brunning said she was "fortunate to have arrived on the scene on the coat tails of great change in Kiwi theatre" — as more Māori stories and creatives found their place onstage. Brunning can be seen in one of those plays — Hone Kouka's Waiora — seven minutes into this 1996 arts show. A veteran of Māori theatre company Taki Rua, she wrote her award-winning first play Hikoi in 2011. Two years later she was a key player in the launch of Te Pūtahitanga ā te Rēhia, a collective of theatre creatives aiming to strengthen the Māori theatre community, and "advocate for a space to house" it.
Nancy Brunning passed away on 16 November 2019, the same weekend she won the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award. She was 48. Actor Temuera Morrison, who worked with her from Shortland Street to Mahana, remembered Brunning as gracious, tenacious and "so humble". "Nancy blossomed in the theatre," he said. "That's where her passion was". She also encouraged and trained emerging actors; she coached younger cast members on both Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night and The Strength of Water.
Profile updated on 21 November 2019
‘Nancy Brunning: Nurse Jaki Manu and beyond…‘ (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 20 March 2012. 2019. Accessed 21 November 2019
'Nancy Brunning' (broken link) Auckland Actors website. Accessed 21 November 2019
Nancy Brunning, 'Loose Cannons: Nancy Brunning' The Pantograph Punch website. Loaded 8 June 2018. Accessed 21 November 2019
Nancy Brunning, 'Finding Tūrangawaewae' - Playmarket Annual 2013, page 12 (issue 48:12)
'Nancy Brunning' (broken link) Young and Hungry website. Loaded 24 September 2018. Accessed 21 November 2019
Felix Desmarais and Glenn McConnell, 'Nancy Brunning wins Bruce Mason playwriting award one day after death' Stuff website. Loaded 17 November 2019. Accessed 21 November 2019
Meriana Johnsen, 'Nancy Brunning put Māori women at 'forefront of storytelling' Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 18 November 2019. Accessed 21 November 2019
Unknown writer '"Oddball" love story - Praise for performances' - NZ Film, May 2000, page 4
'Actress Nancy Brunning receives awards posthumously' Radio New Zealand website. Loaded Accessed 21 November 2019
Journey to Ihipa press kit