I loved growing up in Wellington, it’s a great small city for a child. Everything is quite compact so you can go to the beach, go BMX biking, or go for a bush walk all within close proximity and it’s very safe.
Weirdly, I’ve wanted to do acting my whole life. I didn’t come from an acting background at all, neither of my parents were into performing arts, but from my earliest memories I just had this strong knowing, even as a toddler, that I wanted to act. But if it wasn’t going to be acting, it was a checkout operator or a secretary.
I remember being so disappointed that my primary school didn’t do a production. I think my school was too small and logistically it was just too difficult, and I’d get so jealous hearing about the productions they’d do at bigger schools, thinking they sounded like the absolute best things ever. I’d spend my time looking in the newspaper for auditions for local repertory theatre productions and acting classes, which my eight year old self would spend the holidays going to.
The first time I was ever on stage was when I was about nine years old in a repertory theatre company production of an original work titled The Magical Kingdom of Thingy-Ma-Jig. I played a thingy-me and I think my name was, ‘Um.’ We all had names like, Um, Ah, Oh, Er and Hm and wore brightly coloured costumes. To be honest, I can’t really remember much of the plot, but that was my theatre debut!
When I was eleven years old my best friend’s neighbour was an acting agent and without having any idea what that was, I knew I wanted one, so my parents agreed on the condition that I organised it myself. So I rung up the agent and said, Hi I’m Antonia, I’m eleven years old, can you be my agent? I went on to do a screen test followed by a couple of auditions and then I officially had an agent and it kind of rolled on from there.
Just recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of my parents support, because it was very quiet and gentle. They were almost surprised that I took acting so seriously, but also pleased that I had an interest in something and that I got a lot of enjoyment out of it. They supported me in practical ways like driving me to auditions and picking me up from rehearsals, but they never pushed me into anything I didn’t want to do. What they never did, which I’m now realising had a subtle yet significant impact, was tell me that I couldn’t be an actress. They never told me that it wasn’t a real job, or that I should have a back up plan. They never patronised or diminished acting as a choice, so as a result, I never had any internal conflict about whether it was a worthy career to pursue and I’m really grateful for that.
When I started my first screen acting job at age twelve, my parents wanted to make sure that I was getting enough time to focus on school work, because I had to leave my high school for six months. We had a class room on set and there were legal requirements as to how much time I had to spend there, so they made sure that those requirements were being upheld.
I’ve definitely done more screen work than I have theatre work, but I like them both for different reasons. I prefer the pace of television and film because you’re never doing the same thing twice. Whilst it’s amazing with theatre because you really get to drill down and perfect something, I can often be very ready to move onto something else by the end of a season, which I guess also comes down to my own natural rhythm.
I love the immediacy of the response that you get with theatre. On set you’re not completely acting into a vacuum as there are other actors around you, but performing in front of a live audience is a very different feeling and you have a different relationship with your own performance because the reaction is right there in front of you. Theatre is amazing because you can just feel if the audience is with you or not. When they are, it’s amazing, and when they’re not, it’s terrifying! There’s certainly a lot more adrenaline with theatre because it’s all happening now, so if there’s a mistake, you just have to go with it.
Before getting cast in Outrageous Fortune I was going through a pretty hard time. I started acting when I was twelve and because in New Zealand there’s not a particularly big pool of child actors, I got every part I auditioned for and so I thought that’s what acting was. You went along, auditioned, and then got given a role. Then when I turned eighteen and clicked over into the young adult category that pool became so much wider, suddenly I was competing with drama school students and graduates and it was a completely different kettle of fish. I stopped getting parts for two years. I got one little part on Power Rangers and then just missed out on getting the lead in the next season so I was absolutely devastated. I remember at the time thinking that I was never going to get another part again and because acting is what made me happy, I was sacred that I would never be happy again. Of course it sounds dramatic now, but at the time it was very real.
When Outrageous came along, it was just another audition to me. I first auditioned for Pascal and did what I thought was a terrible job, but they clearly saw something and asked me to come back and audition for Loretta. Then I got the part, so to say that I was absolutely over the moon and delighted is an understatement. I hadn’t given up on acting at all, but I really had been thinking, I don’t know if this is going to work for me anymore.
There were a lot of challenges and a lot of learning that came with that role for me, including the fact that I had to get used to being recognised when I was out and about. All through my teen years the shows that I had been involved in weren’t huge hits in New Zealand, so I never had to deal with that to the same extreme that I did with Outrageous. Robyn Malcolm was very helpful to me during Outrageous and taught me a lot about acting.
I was only in my early twenties when Outrageous started doing really well and it’s naive to think that you’re not going to get recognised when you’re on television. Of course you are, but it’s recognising that you have this persona where people think they know you, or have an impression about who you are, it was like being on display all of the time. I ended up making a conscious decision to not let it bother me and to just live my life. I understand it, I know how I feel when I see people who are on TV, there’s some kind of magic when you see someone that has been in your living room and they’re real! I just always thought it was bizarre that people would have that thought about silly old me, I’m just shuffling along trying to do my best.
We did six seasons of Outrageous in six years, so from age twenty through to twenty-six, which are some pretty formative years. I really grew up on that show. I didn’t really feel like an adult but I was thrust into this adult world so I kind of had to catch up with myself a little bit. My very first scene as Loretta was her losing her virginity, but weirdly, that explicit content didn’t bother me. Everyone was very conscious of what the situation was and it was a very supportive environment. I was also very clear about what I was and wasn’t prepared to do. In later seasons I had to draw a line and say, sorry, I don’t want to do this, but I’m happy to do this, so I got a reputation for being a total prude, but I was happy with that. The team were always very lovely about it too, because no one wants to put you in a position that makes you feel awkward.
Out of my characters in Outrageous Fortune, Westside and Sisters, I definitely relate to Edie in Sisters the most. I think our rhythm is quite similar in that we’re both ambitious and fast thinkers, we’re always a few steps ahead of ourselves thinking out possible scenarios and picking paths, navigating through life. I don’t relate to Rita and Loretta so much, but I totally understand them and would be terrified if I met them. They’re both not afraid of any level of confrontation whereas I prefer non-conflict. I’m getting better at sticking up for myself, but I still prefer to do it in a more gentle way.
In terms of playing strong women, those are definitely the kind of characters I want to play, but that doesn’t mean these women aren’t also complex and vulnerable. I think vulnerability is strength, but it’s about playing women that aren’t victims, because I don’t think that’s a good message to send out to the world, because women aren’t victims. By victim, I mean someone that just lets life happen to them and doesn’t go after what they want or play an active role in their own lives, so I’m uninterested in perpetuating a stereotype of passive, poor, little women.
For me, ‘success’ used to be purely career focused. When I was three years old through to age thirty, it meant being the best I could be in my chosen field as an actress and always moving forward and striving to be better. Being involved in productions that stimulate, challenge and fulfil me and would reaffirm that I was moving forwards and upwards. But just recently, in the last year or so, I feel like my definition of success has broadened to include family, relationships, life balance, health and happiness. I don’t feel quite as energised to be as pushy as I have been with creating opportunities for myself. I’ve been travelling to America a lot over the past three years and have spent a lot of time auditioning and studying acting over there, which has been so wonderful. I didn’t go this year because I couldn’t quite make it work with the Westside filming dates and I’m not sure about next year yet. I’m just going to see how the rest of this year plays out and go from there. Internally, I feel that I am at a different level, so while success still means moving forward to me, that means in my life and not just my job.
The confidence levels of New Zealand actors compared to those of American actors is just incomparable. They’re so confident, assertive and sure of themselves and sometimes I think that I would love to have a bit more of that. Their reset button is very different from ours. Personally, I have insecurities and uncertainties about what I’ve got to offer and how things are going to go and I think partly that’s just my personality, but also it is systemic in New Zealand. I’ve never had any external experiences with Tall Poppy Syndrome, but I have totally internalised it.
There’s not much difference between the Australian and New Zealand scenes. The culture is pretty similar, but everything in America is a lot more regimented and business like, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all. It makes sense because of the reach of that industry, everything has to be efficiently managed because the pool of people they’re working with is just enormous. I’ve only done one job over there, but I found the vibe on set very interesting as there seemed to be much more of a division between the cast and crew. But at the end of the day, you still have to say action and cut, so the process is the same.
I’m so proud to be a New Zealander. It’s so easy to get stuck in the negatives about a place, and of course this country has problems and issues that we urgently need to address, like anywhere, but having done a bit of travelling, it’s definitely the nicest place to live, by far. There’s an ease to life here which I don’t think other countries have. Because we are so small you’re not going to reach the levels of wealth, fame or success that you will in other countries, but with that I think comes a well-rounded focus on a more holistic happiness as opposed to just finely tuned ambition. I think people in general are more happy to be a part of a community as opposed to always being focused on themselves. Everywhere you go, you come together with other kiwis, because we just seem to get each other and that sensibility of taking things seriously but not getting too wrapped up in them.