Rose has been featured in NZ Magazine ‘Sunday Star-Times‘ issue from July 31, 2022, with a brand new photoshoot by Chris Ryan Ross.
After a lifetime in front of the camera, actor Rose McIver can handle your rejection
“I’m well-suited to another generation,” chuckles Rose McIver after reflecting on the fact she spent her pandemic-induced downtime reading, doing embroidery and obsessively gardening.
It’s a sunny morning in Los Angeles, US, and a fresh-faced McIver has arrived at an Australian-owned café to talk to me, not long after she appeared on the Late Show with James Corden, where her garden found nationwide fame.
McIver, 33, appeared to promote her prime-time series, Ghosts, but spent most of the time fangirling over fellow guest, skateboarder Tony Hawk, and sharing how she’s been using gospel music to fend off raccoons attempting to demolish her prized garden.
Such a high-profile media appearance comes at a time when McIver’s gracing billboards in New York City, rocking red carpets in Hollywood and appearing in what feels like every second ad break on American network CBS.
The Titirangi, Auckland, native is riding this career high after 10 years in LA. And in that time, she’s tackled the monster obstacle course that most actors face: from crushing rejection and job instability, to being told to “act more Hollywood”.
In recent years, McIver’s also navigated understanding her mental health better, and being indefinitely separated from loved ones due to border closures.
She was just 2 when she first acted, in a television commercial, so has been at it for three decades. It started as a hobby, but when she was 8, New Zealand film-maker Harry Sinclair enlightened her to the creative joys of film-making when she was in his 1997 film, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives.
“He asked me what my character’s name should be, which was a standout moment of, ‘I have input. Somebody cares what I say’,” recalls McIver. “He made me feel like part of the creative process, which made me invested and attentive. I felt empowered.”
McIver went with her dog’s name, Lucy, which turned out to be the name of the next Kiwi who would impact her. Lucy Lawless recorded cassette tapes of details and sounds to help McIver prepare for portraying a child possessed by her character, Xena’s, soul in Xena: Warrior Princess. The gesture opened McIver’s eyes to the power of creative collaboration.
Yet, at first she wasn’t aiming for a showbiz career and began studying psychology, until acting “just kept happening”. So, with credits including Power Rangers RPM, Shortland Street and The Lovely Bones, McIver relocated to LA in 2011. While Hollywood didn’t seem like a far-fetched dream given she’d grown up on American sets doing US accents, she promptly realised the hard yards required to succeed there.
“I had some really lean years trying to stay out here and see if jobs would come and they didn’t,” she reflects, while digging into avocado toast and a decaf oat latte. “But I’m grateful because it means it’s never felt like a given and still doesn’t. Every time I get a job, I’m so grateful.”
McIver says that starting young prepared her for Hollywood’s punishing audition circuit.
“I’ve been told to be ‘more Hollywood’ or that I’m too this or too that. The benefit of being a child actor is I’ve been told that so long it doesn’t shock or shape me. I’m also not crippled by comparison. I have friends who look on Instagram and find it devastating comparing where they’re at to what others are doing.
“I don’t buy into the idea of, ‘These people have it easy now’, because no matter what stage you’re at in this career, you’ll face rejection. I know very established actors who still experience it. So, I’ve never glorified an endpoint of, ‘I’ll achieve this, then I’m set’.”
Staying both grounded and focused has served her well. In 2014, she found herself starring in two prime-time television shows – Once Upon a Time and Masters of Sex. A starring role on iZombie swiftly followed, but now it’s her real, recognisable face, rather than her pale-skinned, white-haired, brain-eating iZombie alter-ego all over television and media.
Adapted from a British series, her new show Ghosts sees McIver portray Samantha, a freelance journalist who inherits a seemingly stunning country mansion, only to arrive with husband Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) to find it in a state that would challenge even the keenest Kiwi DIY pro. Oh, and it’s also haunted by ghosts, and only Samantha can see and hear them.
McIver, who also starred in Netflix’s A Christmas Prince trilogy, laughed out loud reading the script and loved the “troupe nature” of the ensemble cast, who gathered for their first table read on March 12, 2020. She was preparing to shoot the pilot days later when the pandemic jerked Hollywood to a halt.
It then took 10 months for filming of the pilot to commence, and amid challenging pandemic protocols at that. McIver notes that she normally glances at camera operators to assess whether a joke’s working, but this is tricky with masked crew members.
It was months later, after completing MIQ and enjoying her first visit home since Covid-19 hit, that McIver received a life changing call while driving to Westmere Butchery with her mum, Annie.
“Mum was trying to get a read of whether it was good news as I was so shocked because not only did they say they’re picking up the show, but that it’s in Montreal, not LA. News like that means you’re potentially – hopefully – spending your next few years in a different country, so it was a big deal, but I was thrilled.”
While she’s no stranger to the responsibilities that come with being number one on the call sheet, this time round McIver’s leading a cast of 10 main characters.
“It’s tricky with comedy because you have to maintain humour and fun on set, but also get through a day, and with 10 cast members making jokes constantly, sometimes I have to be the annoying school teacher going, ‘Let’s try to get this day wrapped!’ You don’t ever want it to come at the cost of morale and vibe, so it’s a fine line to walk.”
“I did Maddigan’s Quest at 15 and grew up in the New Zealand industry, which is about making art, working with friends and collaborating,” she adds, about how her New Zealand experience helps her set a good vibe on set. “It was treated more as a trade than an art and there’s more acknowledgement of crews. I try to bring that here, so it feels like everybody’s making art together.”
Treating everyone on set as equals is one of many qualities she’s grateful to have picked up in Aotearoa. She misses the sandy stretches of Piha, our humour and loved ones, but gets her Kiwi fix hanging with US-based actors like Fleur Saville and Keisha Castle-Hughes, plus co-star Ambudkar’s New Zealander wife Naomi Campbell.
Hearing about 2020 border closures marked a “terrifying” moment for McIver. Unlike the many expats, myself included, who immediately fled home, McIver couldn’t do so without breaking her Ghosts contract. She and Australian boyfriend, George Byrne, hunkered down in LA during 2020, a tumultuous year fraught with political unrest, local rioting and Covid-19.
“It was scary thinking I wouldn’t be allowed into my own country, and there were moments that were overwhelming, but luckily FaceTime exists. As challenging as it’s been living out here the last two years, I’ve had the most privileged version of that challenge. I was with somebody I love and we have a home with a garden, so I gardened obsessively for a year, which kept me sane … sane enough … sane-adjacent!”
“I actually felt fortunate I have OCD,” McIver adds. “I’ve always worried about things I can’t control and with the pandemic everybody else was going, ‘Oh my god, we can’t control this’. I was like, ‘That’s how I feel all the time!’ I want to fix things and can’t always do that, but I’ve done enough therapy that I was prepared to cope with the anxiety around so much uncertainty.”
McIver has long struggled with OCD, but didn’t recognise the condition until recent years. She believes that understanding such conditions is more important than curing them.
“Being diagnosed helped me start a longer journey of understanding how my mind works. And having set times to talk to somebody about it means it takes over less of the rest of my life and I’m able to function better, but it’s an ongoing journey.”
“This is an interesting job for somebody who struggles with uncertainty, but luckily, and weirdly, I’m comfortable with work uncertainty and not knowing where my next job’s coming from because I’ve had to embrace that throughout my life.”
While therapy has helped her manage the condition, she’s also grateful for the support of Byrne, a photographer and visual artist who she’s been with for almost eight years. Describing him as the funniest person she knows, Byrne (brother of actress Rose Byrne), constantly makes her laugh and is her first port of call when she’s prepping for comedic scenes. Likewise, she’s the first to view his artwork, which he exhibits globally.
“He’s in a different scene completely, so he understands the highs and lows of creative work and the vulnerability of putting yourself out there, but he’s not caught up in show business. It’s a nice middle ground of somebody who gets it, but doesn’t get caught up in it and that helps keep our life about other things, too.”
McIver often travels with Byrne and he visits her in Montreal. Over the summer, the two visited New Zealand, where McIver’s parents are also creatives – Annie pursued art in her 50s while father John’s a photographer.
“My parents couldn’t afford to travel or work overseas, so they didn’t have the same pull in different directions that George and I have, but we both chose a partner who gets excited by their work and that’s part of what we love about each other.”
“We’ve figured out how to prioritise one person’s career for a moment, then hop to the other and we make sacrifices. We just try to ensure neither of us sacrifices too much, because our work’s part of what makes us happy and why we found each other.”
McIver says the couple are contentedly taking life as it comes. Right now, that means focusing on Ghosts, continuing to upskill by taking improv classes and writing her own screenplays, all while revelling in finding the same joy on set at age 33 that she did at age 2.
“It still amazes me that I get to play and be creative for a living, but it’s a very consuming job, so I’m mindful now of getting involved in projects that are truly how I want to spend my time, and with people I want to work with. I love comedy because it’s an opportunity to laugh every day.”
This is why she’s thrilled to commence filming season two of Ghosts: and while she’s never had any ghostly experiences herself, she’s ready for one. “People I love and trust have, so I don’t roll my eyes at it. If any ghosts want to give me a positive ghostly experience, I’m ready!”
Just as long as they don’t mess with her garden.