Located three storeys up inside the iconic Museum Hotel, the Hippopotamus Restaurant & Bar is an ornate dining and drinking space if ever you saw one. Windowed walls to the left give way to an expansive view of the Wellington waterfront, while to the right is a decadently stacked bar with tasteful chandeliers hanging overhead. Down the middle of the room sit marble-topped dining tables, throne chairs and plush vintage couches.
I’m here with photographer Mark Tantrum, who is setting up for a photo-shoot and interview with a group of women dubbed the ‘dwarf wives’, all of whom are partners of actors playing dwarves in The Hobbit film trilogy. After all, if their partners get to dress up in chain mail and cloaks, wear extravagant beards, and wield impressive medieval weapons, why shouldn’t the ladies act up a little too?
While Tantrum positions his equipment and takes lighting test shots, Nicole Chesterman Kircher, Gwen Isaac, Yolande Brophy and Aileen Davidson – respective partners of William ‘Bifur’ Kircher, Graham ‘Dwalin’ McTavish, Jed ‘Nori’ Brophy and Peter ‘Glóin’ Hambleton – arrive. As those with an interest in fashion may care to note, they’re dressed in Sophie Voon, Vintage Heaven, Kate Sylvester and Wild Pair.
Settling in for a signature Hippopotamus high tea, we take our seats as the French maître d’ brings out a selection of amuse-bouches, mini-sandwiches and mignardises on a tiered tray before taking our drink orders – tea for most, and far too many long blacks for me.
When together socially, the dwarf wives have an easy and informal friendship, one that for Kircher, Brophy and Davidson dates back long before The Hobbit. “We met because our husbands acted together in theatre,” Brophy explains. “Originally we were first-night buddies.
“After the casting was announced, we got together and realised that some of the actors would be bringing wives, partners and family from the other side of the world for a year, and they wouldn’t know anyone,” Davidson continues. “So we had morning tea at my house and made a plan. I contacted the production office, asked for a van, and we went over to the Wairarapa for a winery lunch with some of them. Gwen had family in the Wairarapa, so they looked after the children. After that, we all started meeting regularly for cocktails, or lunch in each other’s homes, just to get a support network going. Our partners were working long, long hours.”
As they built up a collective friendship, so came a broader perspective of the impact having a significant other cast in a cinematic project like The Hobbit can have on a family’s life. The ripple of effects stretches from funny moments such as learning to deal with people making rude jokes about your partner on the Internet, to stranger situations such as walking through Hobbiton with a sari-attired Indian woman who speaks and reads fluent Elvish, and of course very close encounters of the celebrity kind.
“What we go through is quite a weird thing,” Kircher muses. “Not many people have to deal with the kind of experiences we have to deal with. Also, because our husbands work with famous people, we know those people, and they become very normal people. We don’t put them on pedestals. They are not ‘gods’, they are fathers.”
“They’re just old,” Isaac jokingly interjects, eliciting a moment of group laughter.
Speaking more seriously, rising to the surface is a genuine pride in seeing their partners excel as actors. With that – exhaustive long hours not withstanding – has come the ability to pay off financial debts, and in the case of most of these women, devote more of their time to work or projects they’re personally passionate about. “You cannot predict how life-changing something like this can be,” Isaac admits. “Those moments on the red carpet at the premiers are amazing, and the whole thing is such a machine, such an army. Thankfully, it’s one that generates jobs for talented people here. It’s been a privilege to be able to ride those coat-tails.”
“It’s been amazing being able to support my husband in what he loves doing,” Brophy enthuses. “He has worked in Wellington for a long time, and he has always been very committed to doing work in New Zealand, especially theatre work. It was wonderful to be able to give him a supportive focus as well, and really be the rock on the home front, because it has been hard work.”
“It’s given them the opportunity to work with some fantastic actors,” Davidson adds. “It’s been lovely watching my partner. He’s been acting for 30 years, and there is always more to learn. This has been an opportunity to look at his skills and extend them. He’s been really satisfied, and doing one job rather than three or four!”
With photographer Mark Tantrum now satisfied with his array of group and individual photographs, we wind things down, casually discussing celebrity paparazzi, the recent royal baby, alternative milk substitutes, and the generally polite and respectful manner of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fans. Time being the precious commodity it is, it’s time to say our goodbyes so that everyone can get to their next appointment. The wives will, not doubt, see each other again soon: “When I arrive at parties, I look around, and if I see a mini clutch of dwarf wives, I head over to see them first,” Davidson says. “Then I’ll do the room after catching up.”
The Dwarf Wives
National coordinator of professional development and the Travellers programme at Skylight
Partner of Peter Hambleton (Dwarf Glóin)
Aileen Davidson is one of those people you just feel comfortable around. Conversation comes easily to her. Chances are you find yourself opening up, and whatever she has to say back won’t be judgemental – her observations are thoughtful, considered and clear.
“My background was acting,” she explains. “I taught clowning at Toi Whakaari, next I worked in the performing arts sector for a long time.” A lifelong Wellingtonian, when Davidson and her partner Peter Hambleton decided to start a family, she moved sideways career wise, cycling through international development and aid, then community development work. “It’s really difficult when you’re both actors and have a mortgage and children,” Davidson recalls. Raised around the theatre, their daughter Sophie is also an actor and their son Joseph works in the local film and TV industry.
With Hambleton having spent over 30 years acting, his entry into The Hobbit has been transformative for the family. “We only just stopped pinching ourselves this year,” Davidson enthuses. “I think most of the Kiwis [in the film] are like that.”
From her community development work, she became part of Skylight, an organisation that supports adults, young people and children going through difficult times. “Skylight keeps me grounded in the midst of this fantasy thing that is going on around us,” she admits. “Working with people who are dealing with trauma, loss and grief on a daily basis keeps you based in reality.”
Nicole Chesterman Kircher
Owner of Possum Talent Management, covers singer
Wife of William Kircher (Dwarf Bifur)
Nicole Chesterman Kircher has put together theatrical shows involving naked gold-painted men for the army, staged drag queen revues at the James Cabaret, hosted medieval and Victorian banquets, and held up a train in Featherston with bandits. Ask her to define herself, however, and this vibrant, spritely lady will give you an answer less ornate, but ultimately more important. “Firstly, I’m a mother of four,” she says proudly, before whispering, “I’m a grandmother as well.”
While the résumé of projects she’s been involved in is colourful, so is her early background. “I was born in Australia to New Zealand parents,” Kircher explains. “Then I was raised in the United States and Fiji. I graduated high school in the United States and have lived here in Wellington since.”
A former actor turned film and television agent by day (and sometimes night), she has been representing actors and extras since 2000 through her Possum Talent Management agency. When she isn’t handling paperwork, she also moonlights as a covers singer in four different bands: The California Dreamers, Rock Machine, Way Out West and The Hollywoods. “I’ve always been able to sing,” Kircher recalls. “I didn’t actually want to be an actress; I wanted to sing. I took my friend to an audition, and at the time I had a very strong American accent. The director asked me to come in and audition and I actually got the part my friend was going for. It all started there. That was when I was 19.”
Director and producer at Midnight Swim Productions
Wife of Graham McTavish (Dwarf Dwalin)
Gwen Isaac is a thoughtful observer, one who helps us understand other ways of life through documentary television and film. A freelance director and producer, she’s followed Sylvester ‘Rambo’ Stallone into the jungles of Thailand, unmasked the cast of cult contemporary TV series Heroes, and tailed Lindsay Lohan on her journey to India to investigate child trafficking. She’s also a wife, a mother of two, and a New Zealander.
“I’m from the Bay of Islands originally,” Isaac recalls. “I lived in London for ten years, and then we lived in Los Angeles to fulfil my husband’s dream of acting with the big boys.”
Three years ago, they moved back to New Zealand with their first daughter in tow, so that McTavish could act in The Hobbit. With this came the opportunity for Isaac to take a break from the commercial film and television work she had been engaged in for many years, and begin working on a special project.
“Where There is Life is an observational film about a woman with a terminal disease, who has a very unorthodox approach to dying,” she explains. “It’s a meditation on life.” Introduced to her subject at the gym, Isaac has been filming for two-and-a-half years and is now seeking funding to complete the project.
After spending over a decade overseas, Isaac has enjoyed reconnecting with her family and revisiting the cultural identity of New Zealand. “I never thought I’d be moving back, but it has been great,” she enthuses.
Organic gardening skills course coordinator at Te Rito Gardens, Porirua
Wife of Jed Brophy (Dwarf Nori)
Yolande Brophy is the outdoorswoman of the dwarf wives; their very own earth mother. “I want to live a life of substance, not convenience,” she enthuses. Born in Auckland, she moved down to Wellington with her husband Jed Brophy when they were 19. This year they celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, their eldest son’s 21st birthday and their youngest son’s 17th birthday.
Having completed a degree in theatre and film at Victoria University, Brophy also had a career in theatre, film and TV before focusing on motherhood after the birth of her eldest. In more recent years, however, she managed a café in Raumati until Jed was selected for The Hobbit. “I often say I haven’t focused on a career,” she says. “I’ve focused on a lifestyle which allows me to develop different skills.”
When Jed started on The Hobbit, Yolande took the opportunity to begin volunteering for different organisations. “I volunteered at the Rugby World Cup and the SPCA,” she recalls. “Currently I work with an organization in Porirua called Te Rito Gardens. I’m also going to be producing a show at BATS [theatre] in January with my husband in it.”
A weekly organic vegetable market and garden, Te Rito engages disadvantaged or disenfranchised youth to grow food, and in the process gives people a feeling of ownership. As part of her work there, Brophy coordinates organic gardening skills courses. “It’s a ten-week course,” she says. “Two-hour sessions, once a week. The next one starts in spring.”