Performance runs in Heather Rima Te Wiata's blood. Her father was famed actor and opera singer Inia Te Wiata (Ngāti Raukawa), and her mother is actor/singer Beryl Te Wiata (née McMillan). Born in London, Rima often found herself living out of a suitcase with her parents — until she landed with a thump in Auckland at age eight, after Inia's death.
Wary of being seen as stuck-up or a show off — and far from studious — Te Wiata had childhood designs to be a dentist. After leaving school, she did a short stint as a dental assistant. Performing had already entered the picture: at age 10 she sang in TV presenter Max Cryer's children's choir, and on variety show Happen Inn. At 17, she was surprised to win a role as one of the students in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, at Auckland's Mercury Theatre. "As soon as I completed the part, I knew acting was what I wanted to do forever,' she later said. "I felt I'd been missing out."
The family name likely opened some doors. But as she said later, "if you aren't any good you get chucked out, don't you?". Te Wiata did two years training at Mercury, then in 1983 graduated from NZ Drama School in Wellington. Soon she began a six month tour, singing and acting in Footrot Flats.
Her screen debut was in 1986, in long-running Australian soap Sons and Daughters. Te Wiata was only able to take on the role thanks to the offer of a free airfare from the producers. She went on to play the puritanical Janice Reid for two years and over 200 episodes. Te Wiata talks about the experience in this video interview.
On returning to New Zealand at age 22, Te Wiata was surprised to win a part as Jacko, one of the cops on new police drama Shark in the Park. Soon she would 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 1989 series Laughinz. The sketch show featured a veritable who's who of Kiwi comedy, including David McPhail, Jon Gadsby, Alison Wall and Mark Wright. Many of the cast went on to work on skit-based comedy series Issues.
Issues and More Issues would prove to be both high and low points of Te Wiata's screen career. The shows made heavy use of her gifts for music and impersonation. She felt lucky; writers McPhail, Gadsby and AK Grant created material that was tailormade for her. She played a chain smoking version of future PM Helen Clark, and was asked to imitate Judy Bailey. Te Waita's impression of the beloved newsreader won a strong following, and became a regular Issues feature; she was voted the Viewers' Choice Most Popular Female on TV Award for two years running.
But the show involved stress as well as joy. After hearing of plans to extend the next season from a commercial half-hour to an hour, Te Wiata wrote to producer Tom Parkinson, worried resources were being stretched too thin. She made the call to sign on for only five more episodes. Unaware she planned to leave, TVNZ executives quickly took the show off air for a "revamp". As speculation raged over what was going on behind the scenes, Te Wiata was under pressure to change her mind and save the day. As she told The Listener, she took a call from another of the show's producers, who said "I'm not trying to make you feel terrible or anything, but 60 people will lose their jobs". Ironically when Issues returned it was in a half-hour format, on rival network TV3.
Regrouping in Australia, she was thankful for the "extraordinary experience" of sketch comedy Full Frontal, which she did for two seasons. The ensemble included fellow Kiwi Jennifer Ward-Lealand and future Chopper Eric Bana. Te Wiata's impersonations included Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney.
By now she had begun adding big screen roles to her resume. Having debuted with a small role in feminist comedy Send a Gorilla (1988), she later co-starred as a frisky policewoman in Trans-Tasman black comedy Cops and Robbers (1994). Also known as Kevin Rampenbacker and the Electric Kettle, the film sank without trace.
Next was Christine Parker's 1995 short Hinekaro Goes on a Picnic and Blows Up another Obelisk, based on a Keri Hulme story. Te Waita stars as a Māori woman with supernatural powers, on a mission to avenge white male aggression. An arresting image of Te Wiata in the role adorns the cover of book Reframing Women.
In 1998 she joined movie Via Satellite. Anthony McCarten's comic-drama was based on his play about a dysfunctional family caught 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". Praising the film as a "hilarious gem", NZ Herald critic Peter Calder argued that "while never greedy", Te Wiata "gives her ample comic skill free rein as the egregious Jen".
The same year, Te Wiata presented two-part motoring documentary Motormania, which forced her to learn to drive. She went on to movie 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous and a stint on Shortland Street, as mother to Ben Mitchell's character.
For over a decade following her 1999 Best Actress nomination for Via Satellite, Te Wiata concentrated on her stage career. She starred as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, did solo show White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, supplied the voice of the singing plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and directed a season of The Vagina Monologues.
Then Te Wiata got busy on-screen again. In 2014 she won acclaim — and two horror awards — for hit movie Housebound. Te Wiata balanced comedy and empathy as the often naive mother to stroppy anti-hero Morgana O'Reilly, after she is placed on house arrest and forced to move back to a potentially haunted house.
Thanks to hit movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Te Wiata found herself being recognised on the street. She played the joyful Aunty Bella, who welcomes a troubled child into her life. Named Best Supporting Actress at the 2017 NZ Film Awards, she was nominated in the same category at America's Chlotrudis awards for independent films.
Te Wiata has gone on to appear in the 2018 season of Westside, and added her voice talents to animated series Kiri and Lou. Off-screen, she has released a self-titled jazz album, and sung alongside the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
In 2022 she was named Best Actress at the NZ TV Awards for her role of Sharon Armstrong in The Tender Trap. The drama film tells the true story of how Armstrong, a grandmother and senior New Zealand public servant, fell victim to an online romance scam that landed her in prison.
Te Wiata talked about the role with Stuff. "Because Sharon is a living person, the responsibility actually amps up even higher and particularly when she’s not a famous person, she’s an infamous person — not of her own choosing, it just wasn’t her fault. So it was my duty to represent her as loyally as I could, and try to uphold her mana.”
In the 2017 New Year's Honours list, Te Wiata was named a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for her work on-screen. Te Wiata called the award a "humbling delight" in a Stuff interview. She also found 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; updated on 4 March 2022
Rima Te Wiata
'Rima Te Wiata: Imitation as the sincerest form of flattery' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded April 2012. Accessed 28 June 2019
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
Wendy Nissen and Jenny Scown (Photographs), Filling the Frame - Profiles of 18 New Zealand Women (Auckland: Reed Books, 1992)
Amanda Saxton, 'Rima Te Wiata and her beloved Kiwi characters' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 31 December 2016. Accessed 28 June 2018
Pania Shingleton, 'Rima Te Wiata: stage success in her own right' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 18 January 1990, page 3
Unknown writer, 'Theatre' - Pacific Way issue 12, November 1988, page 33
Via Satellite press kit
Unknown writer, 'Conned by love and a dream in local drama The Tender Trap' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 4 March 2021. Accessed 4 March 2022