Miranda photographed at home, wearing a Kate Sylvester dress (worn open), $469. Photography by Victoria Birkinshaw
You’ve probably already seen some of Miranda Harcourt’s best work. You just don’t know it. As an acting coach to some of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors, she’s worked on projects including [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted], with the likes of [redacted], [redacted] and [redacted].
That’s half the reason behind her work’s hidden nature - privacy is paramount when you’re working with the big names. The other is that the best acting doesn’t look like acting at all.
“If you think of it as a drama school,” Miranda says of her multifaceted job, “sometimes you're the movement teacher, sometimes you're the voice teacher, sometimes you're the acting teacher, sometimes you're the music teacher.”
An acting coach, Miranda adds, is a bit like a good bra. “We like to think that our body looks like that all by itself,” she says, “but actually there’s some serious engineering going on.”
One day Miranda might be helping a nine-year-old forge a connection with the pretend parents they’ve just met. On another, she might be working with someone incredibly famous on the deeper resonances of their dialogue, digging subtext out of stacks of Courier New script font. (She has worked closely with Nicole Kidman as her regular ‘coach’)
Recently she has helped a pro-wrestler morph into a pro-actor. “What makes me useful is that I've got a little bit of all those things in me,” she says of the numerous roles she adopts. “If I was a Trilogy product, I would be the Everything Balm.”
Miranda’s skill at salving ‘Everything’ comes from a broad-reaching life and career. She grew up in a family that consumed stories like air, binging anything from ballet to film to the entire program at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in the 1970s.
This is in part thanks to her parents (her mum is New Zealand acting legend Dame Kate Harcourt, her father writer Peter Harcourt), and partially due to her appetite for reading and storytelling. She graduated school with 98 percent in English and 17 percent in maths, “the biggest gap between the lowest and the highest in the whole country,” she says, laughing.
Next came a stint at NZ drama institution Toi Whakaari, before Miranda landed a lead role on popular ‘80s drama Gloss, about a rich family that owns a fashion magazine and thrives off champagne and shoulder-pads.
“This is how long ago that was,” she says, “trainers were invented for the first time.” Their comfort was nothing short of a miracle for Miranda, who had spent three years on the set of Gloss enduring the opposite. “Your earlobes were uncomfortable, your feet were uncomfortable, everything was uncomfortable.”
Until then, Miranda thought she was going to spend her life as a “jobbing” professional actor, but three years of achilles-slicing heels and heavyweight earrings changed her mind. “I felt like I was busting out,” she says. “I was like, no, I've got too much of a short attention span. I need to go and find other things that are more engaging, and actually, more meaningful.”
So she moved to London, got a job in a psychiatric ward and studied drama therapy (a form of therapy that draws on theatrical techniques, like role play and acting). “My parents at the time were like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”, she says. “‘You've just established this awesome profile. You could be an announcer on Newstalk ZB!’”
Shirking parental advice and new presenting prospects proved formative. On Miranda’s return to Aotearoa, she combined her learnings in therapy with her experience in acting and directing. Along with writers William Brandt and Stuart McKenzie, Miranda visited numerous prisons to interview offenders of violent crime, turning the words and stories of these people into one-person plays. Miranda then spent the best part of five years touring around prisons and theatres across the country, and later the world.
“Of course, because we were actually trying to do something useful, that would have some sort of societal impact, by mistake we ended up making really high quality pieces of work,” she says.
The pieces, Verbatim and Portraits, showcase her commitment to using storytelling for change, and remain a huge part of her work today. She begins every class with Verbatim text, and it’s the script she gives to clients worldwide to work with. “Verbatim has continued on as - in New Zealand we would say the pou,” she says, “The central pole of how I built my practice.”
The coaching aspect of Miranda’s career kicked off when Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh called her up to help a then-unknown girl with an audition. Heavenly Creatures was the film, and Melanie Lynskey - now one of New Zealand’s top acting exports - was the girl.
Despite this initial success, Miranda wasn’t sold. “I was like, wow that was fun!” she says, “But I’m an actor so thanks bye.”
Then she and her husband, writer/director Stuart McKenzie, got pregnant with their first child. “I was like, this is going to put a serious dent in me being able to be a full time actor, or director, or whatever I want to do - for a little bit anyway.” So Miranda returned to Toi Whakaari to coach acting, before getting the call to help actors AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson on the NZ-filmed Bridge To Terabithia.
It took Miranda just one day on set to decide this was a path she wanted to charge down. What grabbed her was the pace of set life, a glove fit for someone who lives life at breakneck speed.
“My whole life, people have said, ‘God Miranda, slow down. Do that more slowly. Eat more slowly. Talk more slowly. Think more slowly. Read your book more slowly.’ I'm like, why don't you guys all just speed up?” she says laughing. “You could get so much more stuff done if you'd all been a bit faster.”
This mentality is why Miranda’s built a practice around her “Two Minute Tools.” Two minutes is about all the time she gets with an actor between takes, and while that may seem like a tiny window to coax an Oscar-worthy performance out of someone, two minutes is the perfect nugget of time for her. It’s a far cry from the three year stint at drama school people often assume is necessary for Serious Thespians. “I'm like, whatever,” she says, “you can do it in two minutes, so let's cut out the hard yards.”
Miranda can’t answer whether or not drama school is the best move for an actor: it depends on the person. What she doesn’t like is the increasing commodification and commercialisation of “a beautiful, holy skill,” she says.
These days, acting is synonymous with money and fame and lounging around with beautiful people at the Chateau Marmont. And while that’s far from the reality for most working actors, there’s inevitably a large chunk of people drawn to it for reasons beyond the craft itself. “You can get way more Instagram followers if you’ve been in a movie,” Miranda says.
So if a thirst for a blue tick doesn’t an actor maketh, what does? “Collaboration, the ability to listen to the other person, the ability to be curious,” Miranda says. “What the camera wants to capture is you being interested in me, not you just thinking about you,” she says. “That’s what makes you beautiful and interesting to the camera. When you're not thinking about yourself, but you're thinking about somebody or something else.”
They’re qualities Miranda admires in her daughter, Thomasin McKenzie. At just 20-years-old, the rising Hollywood star has scored roles in films the likes of Taika Waititi, M Night Shyamalan, Edgar Wright and Debra Granik. “She operates genuinely off a sense of, 'Does it excite me, is it intellectually and emotionally rewarding?’”, Miranda says. “As opposed to, ‘Let me just get my kit off so I can get famous as quickly as possible and roll around in the free shoes and lollies that people give me’.”
Thomasin isn’t the only one in the family taking up acting - Miranda and Stuart’s youngest daughter Davida is also getting into it. But neither of them were initially that eager to step into the family trade.
“I think they saw what I was doing as an actor, which was working really hard for no money, and not spending enough time with them because I was thinking so much about my projects,” Miranda says. “And they were like, ‘Hmmm, that doesn't seem like a very healthy way to be’.”
It wasn’t until they got a bit older that they started to realise the appeal of the work - the ability to tell a story, to research other lives, to step into a different world for a while. Miranda mentions a school project she keeps by her desk, one Thomasin did on Verbatim.
“It's interesting to me that that's the project she chose, because it was a project for social change, and that’s what she’s into,” she says. It explains why the first project that piqued Thomasin’s interest was a film called Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story, about the true story of Louise Nicholas, who fought to take a group of police officers to court after they allegedly raped her as a teenager.
“Thomasin was like, I'm prepared to go through the quite intense journey of playing that role, because it's a story worth telling,” Miranda says. “I think that's what changed her mind, understanding that it's not all about showing off,” she adds. “Because you would look long and hard to find a more interior person than Thomasin.”
Between them, the family has ticked off a fair few air miles through their work. But Miranda and Stuart ensure one thing remains the same: wherever they go in the world, the first place they visit is the local art gallery, where Miranda takes photos of the art to use in her coaching.
Her aim is to get actors to understand things visually and emotionally, not just intellectually. “It’s thanks to Stuart that we always go straight to the galleries, and it has been such a balm,” she says, “personally and professionally."
For Miranda, inspiration involves anything from quantum physics to poetry, the night sky to building a house. She even uses a video of Justin Trudeau pausing for 21 seconds before answering a question about Trump. “There’s so much going on there,” she says. “I've watched it many, many times.”
Covid may have ground the film industry to a near-halt in 2020, but it didn’t stop Miranda and Stuart’s creativity from churning. Quite the opposite - it inspired their next project.
Transmission, set to debut at Wellington’s Bats Theatre on April 20, is a play about the government’s decision to lock down New Zealand before the virus could choke the country. Like some of Miranda and Stuart’s earlier works, it’s based on verbatim interviews, and features a year’s worth of conversations Stuart had with Finance Minister Grant Robertson, leading epidemiologist Michael Baker and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“It’s the theatre end of journalism, which I think is really exciting,” Miranda explains. “It’s kind of funny, kind of sad, and features heaps of secrets.”
Miranda and Stuart have also teamed up on multiple films, which - when you consider how many couples implode over building IKEA furniture - is a testament to their ongoing partnership. To prepare for co-directing their 2017 feature film The Changeover, they even attended couples counselling, which both front-footed any potential tension and strengthened their shared creative voice.
Teamwork is at the core of Miranda and Stuart’s practice. Not only with each other, but with every member on set. “Creating ongoing relationships with actors, creatives and crew makes any team stronger,” they say.
It’s a democratic approach that aligns with the New Zealand film industry’s way of operating. Miranda notes how our union system means less entrenched hierarchy and more practicality. For example: say you’re on set and an actor drenches their crisp white shirt in orange juice, a crew member can stick up their hand and lend their own.
“If you say that in America they'd be like, what?,” Miranda says. “But, sorry - you could all sit around for two hours while the wardrobe people drive back to base to get another T-shirt, or you could wear mine and we could get out of here in two minutes.”
It speaks to the quintessentially Kiwi ‘Number 8 Wire’ mentality. We’re resourceful and ingenious and don’t cry over spilt orange juice.
In a way, Miranda is the personification of this philosophy. She’s smart, pragmatic and can leapfrog across roles, something that’s necessary when you live in a tiny country at the bottom of the world with a population just nudging 5 million.
“You go to another place with many more people, and you can afford to be a specialist,” she says. “But in New Zealand, you've got to do a bit of everything. Because there's no way you're going to be able to dedicate yourself to one thing for the rest of your life.”
Miranda doesn’t really like the Number 8 Wire metaphor though. It sort of sounds like everything is reduced to being a bit shitty. “I think, as opposed to being a jack of all trades and a master of none, we have learnt to be good at a number of things,” she says. “And sometimes, really good at a number of things.” Miranda is proof that’s true.
• Transmission will play at Wellington’s Bats Theatre from April 20 - May 1; tickets available here