It was a joke that kickstarted Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne’s film career and, as she freely admits, not a good one.
After a casting call went out around schools in her region of New Zealand for Taika Waititi’s beloved comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople, her parents forced her to audition. “They made me do it — I didn’t even want to do it,” she says. 15 at the time, she was asked to sing a song and tell a joke. So in the ‘Marae’ — the traditional Maori meeting house (Ngatai-Melbourne is Maori, of Ngāti Porou and Ngai Tūhoe descent) — they recorded a video of her singing and telling her grandfather’s favourite one-liner.
“OK, I’m just gonna say it,” she says, speaking to THR from Auckland. “What’s the difference between a bird and a fly? A bird can fly, but a fly can’t bird.”
Poor joke though it may have been, Waititi and his team thankfully liked its delivery enough for Ngatai-Melbourne to be cast in Wilderpeople as the comically talkative Kahu, who appears on horseback in the second half of the film and whom Julian Dennison’s Ricky Baker takes a shines to. The film would serve as Waititi’s global breakout, paving the way for him to become one of the most in-demand director’s working today. But it also laid the foundations for Ngatai-Melbourne, who would later appear in local TV series such as Kairākau, Mystic and We Are Still Here, and films such as Cousins and Whina, the 2022 biopic of Maori leading Dame Whina Cooper (she played the teenage Whina). “I helped him, and he helped me,” she jokes.
This year sees Ngatai-Melbourne, now 23, in her biggest role to date, playing the female lead alongside Guy Pearce in Lee Tamahori’s New Zealand historical epic The Convert. Premiering in Toronto, the action drama is set in the 1830s and follows Thomas Muroe (Pearce), a preacher who arrives at a British settlement and is caught up in a (very) bloody war between two Māori tribes after he takes Rangimai (Ngatai-Melbourne), a local chieftain’s daughter, into his care.
Although the plot of The Convert is fictitious, it’s drawn from real-life events, events that actually involved Ngatai-Melbourne’s tribe.
“I grew up knowing some of our histories, and the first thing we learned was about a war between another tribe up north and my tribe. And they came with their muskets, so it’s a similar story,” she says, adding that the characters in the film are “roughly based” on both her and Tamahori’s Maori ancestors.
“It’s based on our histories and Aotearoa [New Zealand] histories, which is probably why I said yes to it… to embody Rangimai, because she’s a representation of our ancestors and what a lot them went through.”
While Ngatai-Melbourne may have jumped at the chance to take on Rangimai, she does acknowledge the “weight of responsibility” the role brings, especially with The Convert now launching on the international stage.
“I’m not only representing myself, I’m representing my culture, my family and my culture,” she says. “So yeah, it’s like, far out… I’m feeling a lot things.”
In Toronto, there’ll be an added spotlight on Ngatai-Melbourne, who has been named a Rising Star of the festival, not that she any idea what that meant when she was initially told (“first off, I didn’t even know what TIFF was!”). She may not even get to enjoy much the praise, with some untimely deadlines due in mid-festival.
“I’m writing a play and went for funding earlier in the year, and now I have a mentor,” says Ngatai-Melbourne. “But I didn’t know TIFF was gonna happen and I have to finish the first draft while I’m there. So I’m going to be doing the whole The Convert thing and then going back to my laptop.”