PHOTO BY JULIAN APSE
I first visited New Zealand as kid, when my dad was there directing Willow. It’s funny to look back now, because it really was just like an ’80s fantasy film. I was 7, and I remember it being dark when we arrived and then waking up in a house with giant windows and looking at this landscape. I lived in Encino, California, and this was a different planet: Huge stretches of nature that went on forever; no people in sight, only birds and sheep. Just walking was like being in a dream sequence: “In a forest. Surrounded by redwoods. A place where magic lives…” Since then, I’ve been back a few times for work, but last Christmas, when my husband and I took our kids for a two-week vacation, was my first time there as a tourist. I’d always had amazing experiences in New Zealand, but this time I realized how instantly accepting everyone there is. You meet them and feel connected to them very, very quickly.
To a certain degree, I’d always known this was the case. A few years ago, I was shooting Pete’s Dragon, and on the plane from Auckland to Rotorua I met this awesome girl and started asking her about places to visit, where I should take my kids, what it’s like to live in New Zealand. She was so open and welcoming right away, like a friend. It turned out she was the manager of a rock band, Tones and I, who were also on the plane, finishing a tour. At Rotorua, my ride wasn’t there, and they were like, “Hey, we’ll drive you in the band van!” They didn’t know who I was or that I was working on a movie; they just let me jump into the van—which had clearly seen a lot of sleeping and not much showering—and we had so much fun during the ride that when my shoot moved to Wellington, the band came to the set and played for everyone.
That friendliness was even more apparent on this last trip. My family and I came all the way from New York, and we were instantly welcomed everywhere we went—and not just by people in the hotel or tourism industry. When you go there as a tourist, you’re embraced as if you have as much reason to be there as people who’ve been there for generations do. The relationships that we forged in a very short amount of time are genuine and faithful.
As a tourist, you’re embraces as if you have as much reason to be there as people who’ve been there for generations do.
We stayed at a house in this place called Craggy Range, which is in Hawke’s Bay. Our babysitter would take our kids into town, and they became obsessed with this one restaurant. One night my husband, Seth, and I finally went there for a date, and we started talking with a young waiter named Archie, who turned out to be a singer on the shows New Zealand’s Got Talent and X Factor. We were describing our kids to him, and he immediately knew who we were talking about. “Oh my gosh!” he said. “They’re our friends!”
Pretty soon after that, my husband and I started to have a surreal feeling about the place. Something there nourishes creativity in everyone you meet. And folks look happy. They look happy in their bodies, they’re happy with their hair, they’re happy with their clothes, they’re happy in themselves. And—strange as this sounds—everyone has really good taste. People don’t look or dress the same, but they share this sense of playfulness in how they live.
We were so sad when it was time to go. We had a five-hour layover in Auckland before our flight to New York, and as we were walking around the airport, Seth looked at his phone and said, “I just got a message from Lucy Lawless!” They’d acted together on Salem, and he had texted
that he was in Auckland. She told us to come on over, so we all took a taxi to Lucy’s house. We hung out with her son and her husband in this epic garden where our kids played and where they had grown the food for this awesome dinner they prepared.
Now, Lucy Lawless is iconic in New Zealand. There’s no comparison in the U.S. When Seth was working with her, he kept telling me, “Lucy is the most magical person. She is so welcoming and open and fun and curious—I’ve never met anyone like her.” But on the plane headed back, he said, “Now I understand—it’s not just Lucy. It’s New Zealand.”
Actress Bryce Dallas Howard costars in the Elton John biopic Rocketman, in theaters now.