There's never been a better time to be a New Zealander, says Rachel House. "All of that awful pervasive cringe around Māori culture that I grew up surrounded by is being challenged daily. Our language is being embraced. Leadership and what leadership looks like is being challenged – it's finally popular to have a Prime Minister who isn't afraid to outwardly care and be kind."
That and the food. House is "so proud" of her country's produce, "from the flavour to the way it looks," she shares. "The recent emphasis on organic and free range makes me very proud and it seems to be increasing."
An actress for over 25 years, you may recognise House from her role as Topaz in the Hollywood blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok , Gramma Tala in the heartwarming Disney animated film Moana, or Terry in the Golden Globe winning animated feature, Soul.
Not bad for a girl from a small town in New Zealand. House grew up in the township of Kamo, located near the tip of the country's North Island, and spent her days "going to the beach, bush walking, visiting Ngawha springs [hot mud pools north of Whangārei] and reading a ton of books." Now, as one of the country's most recognisable exports, House has her sights set on creating work that celebrates wāhine Māori [Māori women] and hopes more Māori stories are led by Māori, such as the upcoming adaptation of Cousins, co-directed by Ainsley Gardener and Briar Grace Smith. In the meantime, she's on a journey to learn more about her rich culture and infusing her own projects with that knowledge.
Below, House gives us insight into life as a local, shares her perspective on how attitudes towards New Zealand have evolved, and importantly, reveals the local Māori delicacy you really must jump on a plane bound for New Zealand to try, the minute travel restrictions lift.
What excites you about New Zealand?
"Right now, it's the resurgence of Mātauranga Māori [Indigenous knowledge] and using that to guide us in the ways we think and engage with the world, from climate to technology. It's vast and exciting and the more I'm learning, the more I understand how important it is. We need to value the environment on a deeper level and in doing so, protect our beautiful country."
What is it that makes New Zealand legendary, in your opinion?
"Well, it's lots of things. Māori culture which is unique to the rest of the world; our current leader; the future leaders coming through; our film industry and film-makers; our stories; our amazing fresh produce; our restaurants; our wine; our kina [sea urchin] and oysters - two of the loves of my life - the distinct changes of our beautiful landscape from one end of the country to the other; our ways – from our laidback style to our over-the-top humility and absolute determination.
"New Zealand is an eclectic mix of people with a ton of diversity. We are a Pacific Island and therefore a part of Te moana nui a Kiwa [the Pacific Ocean] and finally moving toward that as a sense of who we are.
"Young New Zealand actors, like Ana Scotney and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, are blazing through the world; they are staunchly proud of their culture and will make some brilliant changes in the industry as they branch out into creating work."
How proud are you of New Zealand produce? What sets it apart from other countries?
"I'm so proud of our produce... Monique Fiso, chef at Hiakai, and many others have been exploring indigenous ingredients. There are restaurants that are truly embracing quality produce which is amazing.
"And did I mention our kina? I mean... it's FANTASTIC! I've tried a few other sea urchins around the world including our cuzzies in the Pacific and nothing comes close."
Are there any common misconceptions you run into about New Zealand?
"I've come across a 'they're a bit behind because they're from a small country and we can pull the wool over their eyes' type of attitude. Speaking of wool, the old 'country of sheep' attitude is less of a thing but still lingers. There's a misconception we're unsophisticated which I reckon warrants a discussion around what sophistication means. For example, I think indigenous knowledge is very sophisticated so..."
If someone hasn’t experienced New Zealand, what would you say to them to entice them to?
"You're not going to believe how beautiful it is over here. Come and see for yourself. Up to you though."