Irene Wood: I had three beautiful variegated children long before Angelina Jolie thought of it10/19/2021
Irene Wood has been a star of stage and screen for over 55 years and has had leading roles on Shortland Street, Go Girls and Rest For The Wicked. Wood is currently starring in The Pact, where she plays beloved grandmother Betty, wife to Frank (Ian Mune), a pair of septuagenarians who decide it’s time to take control of their lives. Available on TVNZ OnDemand.
I was born in Whanganui towards the end of World War II. Back then, because most of the men had been soldiers, or had done things for the war effort, their big reward was the state house, with all its promises and benefits. It was as if people were owed a house, which is so different to now.
Our house was in Taita, part of a huge estate, and I lived there with my older sister and younger brother. We had radio, but no television or car, although nobody else had those things either, so there was no envy from comparison. My mother was a home-maker, and she started a skiffle band to satisfy her performing aspirations. She’d invite all the neighbours in and they’d make their own fun. The men would drink home-brewed beer – which put me off ever drinking beer myself – and that was Saturday night in Taita. Prince Charles said that for a long time he thought everyone lived in a palace, and when I was young, I thought everyone, all over the world, lived in a state house.
I was taught by nuns and they made a huge impact on me. We used to watch them wander over the playing fields, from the convent to church, going to mass in the morning. Black and white-robed figures that seemed to float on the mist. They just glid, as if they had no feet. They were very formidable and, if asked about their vocation they’d say: “I’m in love with the Lord Jesus Christ.” The first time I ever went overseas, I was 50 and I took mum to Ireland because she wanted to visit the nuns, my old teachers, in the convent, and they were just as thrilled with their vocation 40 years on. We drove around Ireland with them, me, mum and these nuns, singing all the old Irish songs like Take Me Home Kathleen. It was very spiritual, but not in a godly way, more in a worldly way.
At school, I’d heard people talk about university and I thought I’d like to go too. But we didn’t have the options there are today, especially in drama, so I took English, French and Latin. But I was a rather average student. At school, we learnt everything by rote, but at university we were expected to assemble our own thoughts. It took me virtually three years to get the hang of it, by which time I’d finished my degree. I don’t think I absorbed very much. In my last year at Victoria, I found the courage to join the university theatre society. I auditioned for a part, and that’s how it began.
When I left university, there was lots of radio work and theatre was blossoming. Downstage had just opened, and Brian Bell was wandering around, talking about homegrown television, which back then was black and white and live. Then I was cast in the second play at Downstage – The Bed Settee by Peter Bland – and when I realised I’d be paid £6 a week, I decided acting was what I wanted to do forever. It was a very heady time.
My husband and I adopted two girls whose ancestry was Indian and Māori. From the time we applied to Social Welfare, and they visited us, we had a baby in the house within seven days. They told us that the mother and father met at a Christian youth rally, but things went wrong. The story didn’t make sense – if the mother was Indian, what was she doing at a Christian youth rally – but we didn’t care because we were just so excited.
Because we fell so deeply in love with that first child, we decided to get another. Then I got pregnant and had a son, as sometimes happens after people adopt. I had three beautiful variegated children long before Angelina Jolie thought of it.
I’ve since met the mothers. They’ve become good friends and we love them both dearly. But one terrible thing I discovered, the mother of one of our girls, she was very young, she watched us arrive at the hospital to view the baby. I had no idea she could see us, and hearing how she watched us broke my heart. Adopting was very simple back then, although the system had a total disregard for the mothers. I look back on that with some guilt, but we adopted with ignorance, not malice. I just wanted to look after a child who would otherwise go to an orphanage.
One of the mums, her partner was an overstayer, an Indian from Fiji. When she was six months pregnant he was torn from her bed and the police spat on her and said she’d never see him again. We met her at her marae way up north. Everybody was there, waiting to meet us and she walked us through a crowd of my daughter’s relatives and said: “This is my eldest daughter and this is her mother.” I’ve never been greeted with such grace and beauty, and I discovered why my second daughter has such a beautiful nature, because she inherited it from her mother. It was a very healing experience, to have this woman tell us her life story, to know how she suffered, and yet still be willing to share her love with us.
I did my Big OE when I was 65, and it was the best experience of my life. I was out of work, my children had grown up and left home, and I thought, what do I do? I have an English passport, the one thing my father gave me, and I decided to go overseas and work. I did a course in English as a Foreign Language and for three years I was based in Spain. In the weekends I’d fly out to Monaco or Morocco or Marseilles in the south of France. The Spanish people thought I was so strange and wonderful. I had a much better time than I might’ve if I’d been young.
I had a beautiful apartment near Basin Reserve. It had wooden floors, high ceilings and huge windows. Then a law was passed that said all conjoint brick buildings had to be earthquake proofed, which was fine. it started at $100,00 then rose to over a half a million, then $800,000. But banks wouldn’t lend to me because of my age so suddenly, in my early 70s, my home was gone and over half my money with it, because you can’t sell earthquake-prone buildings. I had nowhere to go and the money I would’ve made if I’d sold, I wouldn’t have had enough to buy a unit in a retirement village. Lucky for me, one of my wonderful daughters had a beautiful piece of land north of Wellington, and she invited me to live there.
I designed my own home, and I’ve been here three years now. My daughter and her wife grow all our veggies, I collect eggs and the neighbours give me meat. I live very well. That experience with my apartment could’ve broken me but I found a solution. I’ve always found it’s better to bend rather than break, to go with the flow.
Playing Betty in The Pact has ruined me for playing stupid old women. My character is treated with so much respect, that it’s made me resolve to never diminish the power of older people by playing a part that isn’t respectful ever again. Age is The Pact’s central concern, and it’s all about fighting for control of your own life, which a lot of people feel they give up as they age.
There are lovely things about getting older. You’ve made your own decisions, for better or worse. You know your own mind and you have your own opinions, but you don’t force them on everybody else. If somebody’s outlook differs from mine, I’ll just smile and say, “oh really”. Although if somebody was a right-wing fascist, I might punch them in the nose. But as you become frailer, what you lose, you make up for with self-respect. Beauty fades, and you might lose your agility, but those things that are lost are traded for confidence and security, and for me, the knowledge that I’m okay, and I’m surrounded by my lovely whānau who treasure me.
• The Pact brings up complex issues that some people may find challenging. If viewers require support they can go to: www.koha.co.nz/support
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