New Zealand actress Rachel House reflects on playing Moana‘s “Gramma Tala” (EXCLUSIVE)

One of the Summer’s biggest hits has been the Disney animated film Moana – which has its home entertainment release this week. To reflect on this film, we spoke to New Zealand actress Rachel House, who plays Gramma Tala in the film. We talk about what it took to bring the character to life, the Polynesian mythology behind the film, what it means that Disney has taken on this story, and we find out if there are any Hunt of the Wilderpeople spin-offs in the works.

How long does it take to get all the voices together for a film like Moana?

I think it went over a period of 18 months. I know that much. I was flown back and forth from New Zealand to LA for a few days at a time, for around about 5 or 6 times. Then we did some final recordings in New Zealand.

I’d like to talk through a little bit about the process behind bringing your character, Gramma Tala to life. For starters did you know what your character looked like when you started recording for the role? I’m always intrigued about how much the character is developed before the part is recorded, and how much is developed afterwards.

When I auditioned I didn’t know what she looks like, but I had a very good and clear description. Enough to create a character vocally for the audition. They were pleased with the quality of that and when I finally got to see what Gramma Tala looks like, she looks like, I thought she was in many ways, I thought she was absolutely beautiful. I was so happy. I was so happy that she looks like I’d imagined her to look.

I think Disney gave such clear and accurate descriptions it was easy to create a character without seeing the visuals initially. It was a great relief to see how wonderfully drawn she was. I think as time went by throughout the recording, they altered Gramma Tala’s appearance a little bit to match some of my expressions. I think it’s the procedure with most of the characters which is so satisfying. As you know, vocally, the expressions you make vocally, have an effect on our expression, so the animators could make slight alterations.

How did you prepare your voice, your voice for a new life as an elder?

Yeah. Well, interestingly enough, I’ve been playing elderly women (laughing) since I was in my early 20’s. For some reason I’ve been cast as older women since I was very young. In many ways I’ve had 25 years of preparation for Gramma Tala. I think now I am getting older, I’m starting to get the roles that actually match.

Did you feel you were able to provide your own input on the character and how much of Gramma Tala is your own character?

I wish I could have, you know, been helpful in that regard, but there really was no need. She was already a beautifully drawn character, and one that felt very familiar to the extraordinary elderly women I know, back here in New Zealand. They did a very good job of creating a believable, wry, fun, Gramma Tala that was immediately recognisable.

Adults have enjoyed this film as much as kids have. What do you hope adults take away from the film?

To be honest, there’s are couple of things that I really hope adults take away from this film. One is teach your girls to be brave, teach your daughters to be brave, teach your nieces, if you don’t have daughters, to be brave. Teach all the young women around you to be brave and to go for it and to not fear failure. That’s what I hope the adults take away.

The second one would be when you have to look after this planet. I mean, really it is. We’re living in troubled times and we really need to look after … you know, I really hope that people see the beauty of the Pacific and however that relates to them, where they’re from, they’re homelands. We have to, you know. The planet needs to be looked after and I think it’s a very good thing. Even for cultures who aren’t like ours who see that mother earth is a woman. I think it’s a very good thing to think of the earth that way. It’s a living being and we need to look after it.

Oh absolutely, and I feel like New Zealand people are so conscious, and great stewards of the environment that people should, hopefully…

We could do more, we really, really could. I think we’re still oblivious I think to the damage we’re doing and we just need to go a little bit more carefully.

Was there anything that surprised you about the film when you saw it for the first time?

So many things surprised me. The chicken, Heihei, really surprised me.

Oh yes, love Heihei.

I got a lot of laughs and I just think Alan Tudyk is so cool. I guess I was just blown away by the performances. By Auli’i and Dwayne Johnson, and Jemaine Clement… genius. He’s such a genius, wonderful man, Jemaine. He’s one of my favourite actors in the country if not the world. So I was completely in love with his character. I was really blown away by the Kakamora, and I was really blown away by the end. At the end when Te Fiti came to life, I was a blubbering mess. *laughing*It was so wonderful to imagine through Te Fiti, to imagine our own earth like that. You know it could be healed so I was blown away by how emotional I was actually.

The film views different stories rooted in the Polynesian mythology. Moana has become a vehicle for people to learn about a very real belief system such as mythology, and would you agree that it is still strongly looked to for guidance in the contemporary poly-culture?

Absolutely, absolutely, although we could do more but we’ve lost our way a little bit perhaps, in terms of the deep respect (for the cultural references) that are used. Really, there are still many of us though who understand we are guardians, in the same way Moana feels that she is a guardian of the ocean, and a guardian of the well being and health of the Pacific of her home.

There are many of us who still are that way, and that to me is one of the most central beliefs in the film, but also the one that I’ve certainly looked up to and respected. The extraordinary scale of navigation, that’s making a resurgence as well, and through that, what I see as a respect for what we have in nature being the guiding force. In our way of life, we need to look more to nature I think generally.

Actress Rachel House attends The World Premiere of Moana at the El Capitan Theatre on Monday, November 14, 2016 in Hollywood, CA. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Disney has finally started embracing the multi-cultural princess stories, which is great to see. First Princess and the Frog and now Moana, ultimately the message is an all important one about inclusiveness and equality, and an increasingly divisive world. What do you feel is the responsibility of studios like Disney as they raise the next generation of leaders and thinkers on their stories?

That is such a beautiful crafted question and really in many ways, it answers itself. I really believe that the studios, I mean that’s the beauty of this industry, of the stories that we powerfully film through television, is that we don’t need to hammer, no I won’t say that. You know, we don’t want to force these messages into people but also that’s the beauty of story telling is that we can bring to light issues that are affecting us all. That’s why I’ve always loved story telling because we have the opportunity to stand in another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective, which brings us together.

If we can stand in another person’s shoes, then we can start to open our worlds and our minds. I feel I’m really glad that I’m part of this story telling industry, and you know, Disney and studios like this, they generate wonderful empathetic stories which in turn allow us to be empathetic. What I love about what Disney has achieved is something they have acknowledged, and in this way they can at the moment. They have acknowledged the inclusion of authentic Polynesian people in their casting, that some of the animators and the script writers have committed to that. I think studios need to commit a bit more. I think it’s important if we’re going to tell stories about other cultures, which I believe is absolutely imperative to our understanding of the world, it’s also imperative they put the appropriate culture in the driving seat.

I for one would love to see Paula from Hunt for the Wilderpeople, have her own spin-off cop TV show. *laughs* Has there been any talk of spin-off, if not please let this start the conversation.

First of all thank you. I would love to see Paula in her own television series too. Although I’m not sure how long that could last before people really wanted to see her suffer in some way. Anyway, I will pass that on to Taika (Waititi) I think. I might email him today.

What is coming up for you in 2017?

What’s coming out from me? Look the thing about this industry is you don’t always know what’s coming up. I’ve got a Netflix series. I’m writing a film which I’ve been working on for the last four years and hopefully that will finally be finished. Of course I’d like to then make that film. So, that’s what I’d really like to concentrate on. I also think that, you know, with Moana, the great thing about Moana is that it has sparked interest on a global level, of our culture. I think now is a really great time for people with Polynesian culture to start writing their own stories, and getting them out there.

My film it’s very much a Maori story, but it’s also a universal story. I want to be part of, you know, the tradition of telling our stories and making them for the world, accessible for the world. I really hope more people follow his lead and feel proud about who they are, and the stories that we have.

Moana hits Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow, 29th March 2017. 

Questions by Sosefina Fuamoli and Larry Heath.