There's a strong sense of connectivity in Robyn Malcolm and Theresa Healey's relationship. The actresses first met as students, have worked together in various projects over the years and share the same talent agents.
This week, nearly 20 years since they worked together on Shortland Street, they will be reunited on screen once more in new comedy drama Agent Anna.
It is a muggy day a couple of weeks before Christmas when the three of us (plus publicist) meet at an inner-city Auckland cafe to talk about the new show. Both women are dressed in casual summer clothes, both wear jandals, but Malcolm kicks hers off as soon as she arrives and stays barefoot throughout our interview. Displaying genuine affection for each other, it is about 10 minutes before we can get started because the pair immediately engage in genial conversation. They have not seen each other since the Agent Anna wrap party and they have a lot to catch up on.
These are friends from way back.
"I remember meeting you when you were a first year at drama school and I was at Vic [Victoria University]," Malcolm tells Healey. "I got invited to a party. I was this little poppet - you were a little poppet too. . ."
"An older poppet," Healey interrupts, and they both erupt into laughter.
They laugh often, lightly touching each other's arms or knees when impressing a point, and intuitively finish each other's sentences.
"I just remember standing at this doorway, knocking on the door and being really nervous because I knew they were all drama students and they were going to be actors. They were the amazing people," Malcolm continues. "I knocked on the door and I heard this [mimics sound of high heels] down the stairs and the door flung open and there was this incredibly beautiful Scarlett O'Hara, smiley-faced woman in pink who went ‘Hellooooooooo! Come in!' I remember just gulping, going ‘Oh!' "
It is apt our interview takes place in Karangahape Rd's Theatre cafe - which was once the entrance foyer of the Mercury Theatre. Malcolm and Healey both have a long list of theatre credits on their resumes, Healey having performed many times at Mercury itself in the 1990s. They both talk fondly of their early days working in theatre, especially in Wellington.
"We all knew exactly where everybody was and we all lived really close," Healey says. "It was the best of days. They were my most favourite times. Downstage [Theatre]. We actually had a company of actors that worked together for the whole year doing play after play after play."
"It's where we learnt how to act, eh?" Malcolm agrees. "That's the weird thing about this industry and friendship, because we worked together for years. We're great friends. And then we haven't seen each other for about nine decades."
Friendship is something they both hold dear.
"I've noticed now, in my mid- to late-40s," Malcolm says, "the friendships you have that go back 20 years. . ."
"Have got so much. . . deeper," Healey concludes.
"It's got nothing to do with the acting profession," Malcolm says. "It's one of the great wonders of getting older. You start to have really significant history with these people and you've tracked each other in some way."
"And you know the histories that are good for you and the histories that aren't good for you," says Healey. "With families now, we're all so busy. We're so busy with children and husbands and other people and boyfriends and it's really hard. You actually don't have much time. You've got to make that time. Working together, it's like ‘Yes!' "
They first appeared together on screen in Shortland Street back in 1994, when Healey was playing Carmen Roberts and Malcolm won the role of Ellen Crozier. Now, almost two decades later, they are back on screen in Agent Anna. "It's a career where we go in different directions but we're always there, coming together at some stage for a part," Healey says.
The show itself was Malcolm's idea, and she was involved in the process, to some extent, from start to finish - development, casting and production. She also plays the title role of Anna, a woman who turns to a career in real estate after her husband runs off to Australia, leaving her high and dry.
"I'd always been interested in the relationship between the perception we have of real estate agents and what the reality is. Because of course they're one of the professions we love to hate," Malcolm explains. "The entire driver for the job is money, so if you put a woman who's a good little woman, a little Pollyanna, in the middle of that world, can she hold on to that perceived goodness? How does she cope? And what's interesting is that without even knowing it, she starts to play in that world. Because it's about the commission, which I think is quite an interesting conversation to have: if money is your sole driver in life, what does that turn you into?"
"It's interesting, seeing Anna who comes in so fresh-faced and she has to start playing their game - swimming with the sharks," says Healey, who plays established, successful, ruthless real estate agent, Sandi. "And I really don't know if you can be a good, valued, moralistic real estate agent. I just don't think it exists."
Working closely with writer/creator Maxine Fleming, producer/developer Rachel Gardner and writer/co-creator/director Vanessa Alexander, Malcolm had the opportunity to see the other side of the business - from the nuts and bolts of the development process, to sitting behind the casting table while her peers auditioned for roles she had helped create.
"I found it kind of incredibly humbling and amazing," she says. "I was watching my mates, people I'd trained with, coming in and putting themselves on the line, the way we do every time we audition for a show. And I just developed this new respect and love for actors, watching my friends coming in and working their tits off to be in this little show."
"People would do it, because of you," Healey tells Malcolm with admiration. "It's respect. You do get respect. If you've done good work, other people will come and play with you. And it is about playing. It's ‘yeah, I want to come and play with you!' "
'SHE'S MY MEANEST SIDE'
As soon as she saw the script, Healey says she fell in love with the character of Sandi.
"I love her! I went to my Australian nephew ‘Oh my god, this is it. This is me!"' she says, eliciting a roar of laughter from Malcolm. "She's naughty, she's mean - She's not my nice side. . . She's definitely my meanest side . . . She's just naughty and she wears crazy real estate clothes and she's a good salesperson. She uses her sexuality. She just doesn't care, she'll just go out there and she wants to make money."
Anna, on the other hand, is "an apologetic little Kiwi woman," Malcolm says, with a laugh. She's been a wife and mother for many years, with no career of her own to speak of, playing the good little homemaker, living the middle-class Kiwi dream.
But with her husband up and leaving her with two teenage daughters and massive debts, she has to reinvent herself and start her life all over again.
"It was something I used to think a lot about when we were doing Outrageous Fortune, or just watching any television - particularly American television. We're obsessed with the hero, you know, the person who is slightly greater than your average person," Malcolm says. "I'm really interested in the average person. I'm really interested in the stuff that makes us very human, which tends to be the failings and fallibilities and the moments when the speed wobbles in life and you fall off your bike."
"I think there are so many women who have started life, they've worked in their 20s, good jobs, good money, then all of a sudden they get in a situation where they just don't take as much interest," Healey says. "Their husband is off doing something and they just don't know. I met this woman at a party last week and her husband had run away with someone, just left her with nothing. Nothing! She was this amazing woman. She's now 60 and she said ‘It's taken me 10 years to get back'. She said it was hell, absolute hell."
Malcolm was equally interested in exploring a character type you do not often see on television these days - a woman over the age of 45 who "is starting to become invisible".
"When you go an audition for a lot of shows now, if the lead character is an older woman, she tends to be attractive, mid to late 30s," she says, to which she and Healey again erupt into laughter. "And there are so many women out there who are in their 40s and their 50s and their 60s who want stories told about their lives and what's relevant to them."
"It happens really quickly," Healey agrees. "You go from [playing] the mother of children to nobody really fast. It's that real in-between - we're not quite grandmothers yet. It's a really weird place; 45 to 55 is a very strange age."
"But it's such an interesting time too, don't you think," Malcolm muses. "That middle period of life - the second act as Tolstoy would call it - when you're having to let go of the youthful stuff and you're having to look at the possibility of your own mortality. It's such rich stuff because it starts to become quite profound. And yet. . . it's quite gnarly. It's how am I going to buy groceries next week? What does my life mean? What has my life amounted to? I'm in the middle of my life and what have I done?"
There are of course some parallels to Malcolm's much-loved character Cheryl West. But where Cheryl was a "lioness", she says Anna is "some kind of terrified marsupial" and she hopes viewers will finally be able to move on from the Wests.
"We were playing the episodes to cast and crew, and this lovely wardrobe lady came up to me, gave me a hug and said ‘Cheryl West is well and truly dead' and I went ‘Yessssssss!' because I haven't been paid to be that bitch for two years," Malcolm laughs. "I'm quite happy for her to be forgotten. It was a good job, I loved her and I was very proud of her - and I'm joking about the bitch thing, that's what she would have called herself too - but in an actor's life you have to be emotionally peripatetic. You have to be able to let go of something that you had a massive love affair with, incredibly quickly, and go jump 150 per cent into something else."
Healey can wholeheartedly empathise, saying people often still refer to her as Carmen, 20 years on from Shortland Street. "You can't deny it," she says. "We are imprinted on their brain."
While both women are thankful for the genuine love and affection people have for their most famous roles, they have had to learn to be brutal, leaving their most-loved characters behind and moving on to the next.
"We knew way back in the day when we were doing theatre, you play this character for two months and you love them and then you have to go ‘bye bye'," Malcolm says. "You can't pay the mortgage sitting around on past glories. You can't sit around going ‘Oh that was such a great job.' "
"Or ‘They should give me this because I was in that'," Healey agrees. "You're only as good as your last shot of your last job. You've just got to move on and get better."
Agent Anna, Thursday, 8.30pm, TV One
- Sunday Star Times