Five minutes with Jennifer Ward-Lealand

Good’s Natalie Cyra caught up with actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who returns to the big screen to play the lead character in the New Zealand film, Vermilion in cinemas November 8. Ward-Lealand describes it as the most beautiful film experience she’s ever had. We asked her why.

Vermilion is a film about life and death and the importance of friends and family. What first appealed to you when you read the script?Firstly, I was really delighted to be asked, although quite surprised, because I thought perhaps I wouldn’t make another movie. I’ve had a very happy career on the stage, and because at my age, women tend to disappear [off screen] at 40 and reappear at 65 as grandmothers. What struck me was that this was a character that would mean I could express all my life experience in, and that she was a creative, a musician. Music really informs a lot of what I do. 

What was it like working with the director, Dorte Scheffmann?

It was beautiful experience. She obviously knew these characters extremely well and has a beautiful aesthetic, so how she wanted this to look and feel was very much to the forefront with her. That’s not say she wasn’t extremely collaborative. She wanted this whole process to be collaborative, for people to bring all their art to their work, in all their respective departments. There was a real mixture of women from very experienced and very inexperienced, and there was a huge sense of mentoring going on. Dorte looked at it not just as an exercise in filmmaking… but there was a much more holistic approach to it, in terms of developing yourself as an artist, a creative, practitioner… giving women a voice. Obviously, you look at this film as full of women over 50, and men are the secondary characters, and I don’t think that’s ever been seen in New Zealand cinema before. This is unashamedly by women for women.

You play Darcy, a modern woman who is fiercely independent, fiercely creative. She evolves throughout the film but also stays true to herself right until the very end of the film. What was it like connecting with the character?

At her core she’s a creative being. She’s a mother. She lives in contemporary Auckland but she leads a global existence, travelling the world in her work as a performer/composer. I think she and I have experienced that same thing – that tension between being the parent and being the creative – and I think many women will relate to that juggle, that pull on your time. And we see very clearly that she is unpractised in her mothering, she loves her daughter fiercely but they rub each other up the wrong way – and it’s because it’s probably not Darcy’s natural forte. And she’s had these wonderful female friends around her who have been helping her. But there is always that tension between the pull of her work and the piano, and the pull of her baby. That’s what I used as a touchstone for almost every scene that I did. There was a lot of pressure on me. It’s a big role and I am in almost all the scenes. I needed to hook into something quite fast, and that was remembering what it was like to be your most creatively fulfilled and then thinking of that baby in the next room crying. And so already there is a tension of, which one do I go to? They’re both equally important, but which one do I go to. I think that’s a familiar thing to many women. We’re supposed to be able to do everything. But it’s sometimes at a cost if you go one direction more than the other. And in this case, I think it plays itself out in the edginess of the relationship between Darcy and Zoe. 

What do you think the audience will take from the film?

I hope they see themselves in their relationships. I hope that they will see the beautiful power of sustenance that female friendship gives you. And see contemporary women in Auckland, living our lives and doing our jobs and being neighbours and cooking and not doing everything right.

It’s been a while since you’ve been on screen, with much of your time being spent working in theatre now.

The last film I did was Fracture. And I kind of eased back into screen stuff from 2009 and 2010 doing some web series, Auckland Days and things like that. It was the most kind of working on a play like role I’ve ever had. We had this thing we’re we’d shoot for a week and a half and then we’d rehearse for a week. And we’d really kind of burrow down the scenes that we were going to be shooting ahead. We shot in one location pretty much the entire time, and you’d be hearing six women’s voices at one time but it wasn’t annoying. There was a lot of sparking off each other going on.

If you could sum up the film in a sentence, what would it be?

It’s about female friendships and how they sustain you through the good and the bad.

Vermilion, an intimate, character-driven drama written and directed by Dorthe Scheffmann and starring Jennifer Ward-Lealand, is a stunningly beautiful meditation on life, death and the strength of family and friends in a summer of crisis. Effortlessly multi-cultural and set in the lush domesticity of middle-class suburbia, Vermilion celebrates love and generosity in a richly female-centred household. It follows celebrity composer Darcy (Ward-Lealand) who sees colours when she plays musical notes – synaesthesia. When she notices her vision is disrupted by the colour vermilion, she knows she needs help. While planning the wedding of her daughter Zoe (Emily Campbell), surrounded by her loving friends Sarah (Theresa Healey) and Sila (Goretti Chadwick), she secretly makes her own plans.

Vermilion hits cinemas New Zealand wide on October 8. 

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