Being asked to stand in the background of a shot in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures was all it took to get Sara Wiseman hooked on acting. “I got it in the back of the head and stabbed in the stomach by this sense of ‘Oh my God’ … I realised I didn’t want to be behind the camera, I wanted to be in front.” Being in front of the camera is now a familiar place for Wiseman, with starring roles and awards for television, shorts, and feature films.
After a trip abroad in her early 20s, Auckland-raised Wiseman did a few months study at the NZ Film and Television School in Christchurch. “I went to a clairvoyant… I had no direction.” While volunteering on the set of Heavenly Creatures as part of the course, Wiseman first caught the acting bug. Moving back to Auckland, she began alternating night classes in acting with stunt work on Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The stunt work was put on hold when she enrolled to study full time at Unitec Performing Arts School.
Wiseman hit the ground running after graduation — her last week at drama school coincided with her first week shooting Street Legal, playing feisty journalist Louise Jarvis alongside series star Jay Laga’aia. “He was absolutely fantastic for a first co-actor to work off … He always made me feel really at ease and I think he was aware of how nervous I was so it was all in all a really good positive experience.”
This was followed by a role in TV series Jackson’s Wharf, which brought her in contact with show creators Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang at South Pacific Pictures. The two were developing a new series, Mercy Peak; they were looking for a lead and Wiseman seemed the perfect fit. Around the same time she starred in short film Letters About the Weather, playing a lonely programmer looking for love online in a dystopian future. Her performance earned her a NZ Film Award in 2000 for Best Performance in a Short Film.
By 2001 she was starring in Mercy Peak as Nicky Somerville, the city doctor who moves to the country after an ill-fated romance. The show rated highly, running for three seasons until 2004. Although the part was written with her in mind, she wasn’t given the role easily. “I had two auditions, because the network wasn’t happy with the first one… I had to wait six to eight weeks to hear anything. I had the possibility of this amazing new role, or nothing.” Her role was clearly well earned, with nominations for Best Actress in a TV Series at the 2002 and 2003 NZ Film and Television Awards.
After Mercy Peak she began a run of major feature film roles. Her first was Luella Miller, playing a quiet seamstress, Lydia, whose life is thrown into chaos when she takes in a mysterious traveller. Then came the starring role in Jinx Sister (and another lead actress nomination) for her portrayal of a supposedly jinxed woman, returning home from Los Angeles, to reconnect with her distant family.
In 2010 Wiseman appeared in both The Insatiable Moon and ensemble drama Matariki. The film was written by ex-Mercy and Jackson’s Wharf alumni Michael Bennett and Gavin Strawhan, and directed by Bennett. In a review for the NZ Herald, critic Peter Calder described it as “another small but accomplished local movie that is well worth attention”. The film he was comparing it to was The Insatiable Moon, which Empire described as a “reminder of the quality of Kiwi filmmaking ... Real and rewarding.” For Matariki, Wiseman won Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 NZ Film and Television Awards — she was nominated for Best Actress for The Insatiable Moon.
In 2007 Wiseman took on a supporting role in Outrageous Fortune as lawyer Jethro’s girlfriend Danielle, featuring in seasons three and four. “It’s such a great role because there’s so much freedom in it … I’d have loved to have done more.” Her next big TV role was two years later in The Cult, playing Annabelle Wills, one of the 'liberators' attempting to rescue their loved ones from the Two Gardens cult.
Her television success continued, with recurring roles in Shortland Street, The Almighty Johnsons and Australian series Crownies. In 2012 she won Best Actress at the NZ TV Awards for docudrama What Really Happened - Votes for Women. In the tele-movie she played real-life suffragette Kate Sheppard, who lead the push for voting equality.
She went on to join her husband Craig Hall on Australian period drama A Place to Call Home, with a fourth season due in 2016. Her other Australian TV roles include Rake and The Doctor Blake Mysteries. She is also part of the cast of based on NZ telefilm Venus and Mars, and Southland-shot thriller Human Traces.
Profile written by Simon Smith
Sara Wiseman ScreenTalk interview
'Sara Wiseman'. Johnson & Laird website. Accessed 29 January 2016.
Bridget Jones, 'Stars Turn Out for NZ TV Awards' - Auckland Now, 3 November 2012
Joanna Hunkin, 'The Cult: A TV Show of Faith' - The NZ Herald, 10 September 2009
Nev Pierce, 'The Insatiable Moon Review' Empire website. Loaded 3 February 2011. Accessed 29 January 2016
Peter Calder, 'Movie Review: Matariki' (Broken link) - The NZ Herald, 18 November 2010
Richard Sarell, “Being a Lead”(Interview). The Rehearsal Room website. Accessed 29 January 2016
Tim Watkin, 'Quality of Mercy' (Interview) - The Weekend Herald, 18 August 2001, page E1