22 Feb 2020

NZer of the Year Jennifer Ward-Lealand: 'The stage is my place that I let te reo be heard'

From Saturday Morning, 9:40 am on 22 February 2020

Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira has been named the 2020 New Zealander of the Year. The actor, director and  te reo Māori advocate talks to Kim Hill.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira

Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira Photo: Supplied

Jennifer received her Māori name 'Te Atamira' (which means 'the stage') at a te reo conference in 2017.

"At morning tea, I hear from one side of the room 'Jennifer, haere mai' … so I went over and there [Sir Timoti Karetu] was with [Professor Te Wharehuia Milroy]. And they basically said 'we think it's time you had a Māori name. And I went 'what?!' Tears instantly spring to my eyes. And they said 'yes, Te Atamira. Koutou? Settled?' I'm like 'okay, are you sure? Thank you!"

The name is a tremendous gift that comes with a responsibility Jennifer takes very seriously.

"Te Atamira, the stage, has to be the place... when I have the opportunity – when I'm MCing something or whatever – that my first language should be te reo Māori. It's my place that I let te reo be heard.

"That is really settled in me now that I use the name and the place for good … I just want it heard."

Jennifer was only a child when she knew she wanted to be an actor.

After a production of Oedipus at Wellington's Unity Theatre (which became BATS Theatre), she went home and told her mum and since then the desire has never shifted.

Jennifer is now a determined advocate for actors and an 'intimacy coordinator' who supports actors through scenes with sexual contact or nudity.

Producers and actors can be too embarrassed to talk about the logistics of these scenes, and Jennifer says her job is to ensure every performer knows exactly where they're going to be touched and what's going to happen.

Actors have a risk of mental illness four times greater than the general population, she says.

"Anything that makes this kind of work easier is a winner for me.'


  • New Zealander of the Year: Jennifer Ward-Lealand
  • Jennifer Ward-Lealand: on the big screen in Vermilion
  • Bookmarks with Jennifer Ward Lealand
  • To be or not to be… an actor