Antonia Prebble: on fame, nudity and ugg boots

LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff.co.nz

Outrageous Fortune actor Antonia Prebble talks about the things she loves about Auckland.

At the time, it made sense. Surely 11-year-olds everywhere employ their own acting agents, and spend their spare time trawling through newspaper classifieds for audition notices?

Um, not really, Antonia Prebble. "Yeah...I never felt particularly headstrong, but looking back, I probably was," the actress admits.

"Someone asked me the other day who inspired me to be an actress, and the answer is: literally no-one. No-one, it sounds so weird and I guess it is, but from my earliest memories I have always known that I wanted to be an actress."

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Antonia Prebble and David De Lautour as Rita and Ted West in Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside.

Prebble first clambered into the limelight at aged three 3, when she joined her older sister on stage during a Clifton Terrace Model School talent quest. She didn't know the dance; a small detail.

Age 8 she attempted to re-write the plot of the school play around her self-styled character, a Russian diplomat.

"These actors had come in to help, and halfway through the rehearsal period one of the guys was like 'Antonia can I have a word?' and I was like 'Yeah, sure, he's probably going to tell me I'm amazing'," Prebble says.

"We went to the staffroom and sat down and he said: 'Now, we're just going to have to stop your ad-libbing so much because it's great, it's really good, but it's just taking a little too much time from the other kids.' I mean, I'd just go on and on and on."

It was a flair for the dramatic that paid off. At age 11, Prebble found out her friend's next-door neighbour was an agent, so called her to make an appointment. A year later she landed her first professional role, as the lead on teen time-travel drama Mirror Mirror.

Prebble's parents, Victoria University academics John Prebble and Nicky Riddiford, let their daughter make the choice; stay at Queen Margaret College, or leave to pursue acting.

"It sounds weird but it was quite an emotional decision to say yes, because it's that terrifying reality when your dreams might be coming true."

Antonia Prebble: "It is really nice getting to this stage and thinking 'Oh, maybe I do know a thing or two'."
Lawrence Smith

Antonia Prebble: "It is really nice getting to this stage and thinking 'Oh, maybe I do know a thing or two'."

'I WAS A CLICHE'

From precocious child to one of the country's most well-known actresses; it's happened right in front of our noses. Kids of a certain generation will remember Prebble from one of her first gigs after Mirror Mirror, as a presenter on What Now TV. ("It was the year after I finished school and I had braces .. .I knew I wouldn't be able to get any acting work," she says matter-of-factly.)

She also acted for five years on The Tribe, the British-New Zealand post-apocalyptic drama series that gained a huge fan base overseas and was a training ground for fellow actors Rose McIver, Fleur Saville, and The Dark Horse creators Tom Hern and James Napier Robertson.

But she didn't really gain national recognition until she landed the role of 14-year-old Loretta West on Outrageous Fortune,  the homegrown drama that attained a cult following between 2005 to 2010.

Prebble says she first auditioned for the role of Pascalle, Loretta's older sister. "I did that audition and it was terrible, I was just a cliche of a blonde bimbo whereas Siobhan [Marshall] brings so much authenticity to that role. They brought me back for Loretta though and I was so thrilled.".

At the time, Prebble was the baby of the cast. Now, a decade later, she's about to appear on our screens again as Rita West, Loretta's grandmother, in Outrageous prequel Westside.

For this interview, we meet Prebble at the summit of  Mt Eden, one of her favourite Auckland locations. The city has been her home since she moved into her first flat - in West Auckland, fittingly - at aged 20, to take up the role of Loretta.

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She's funny and easy to talk to; she affects accents to poke fun at herself, laughs at the futility of trying to walk on the grass in her sky-high heels, and laments the fact that, at 30, she's no longer part of the "going out," demographic. "I'm beyond what they want at clubs now," she says. "In LA terms, I'm like 75."

When you are stuck in a weird vortex of time that sees you playing your own previous character's grandmother, the best thing to do is embrace it. So to prepare for her latest incantation as Rita West, Prebble watched some of her performances in those early seasons of Outrageous Fortune.

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Prebble with the cast of The Tribe.

"I don't know why, I guess it's a bit weird to go 'I know what I feel like doing today, watching a bit of myself,' but I thought what better way to get into the zone again." Prebble says.

"I really enjoyed it, I think I was able to be a bit kinder to myself. I mean I don't know many actors who delight in their own performances, but I'm definitely one who doesn't.  

"But it feels like I've developed since then, it almost feels like a different person. It is really nice getting to this stage and thinking 'Oh, maybe I do know a thing or two."

COMPLEX AND DAMAGED

Originally a Wellingtonian, Prebble was one of an extraordinarily talented group of kids to emerge from Clifton Terrace Model School in the early 90s. The school, which is "modelled," on the classroom size and philosophy of smaller, country schools, is perched above the city in the suburb of Kelburn. Prebble's fellow classmates included musicians Bret McKenzie and Age Pryor, and actor Jeremy Randerson.

Prebble says it was "always kind of expected," that she would go to university. After The Tribe, she began an English Literature degree at Victoria University and wondered if her acting days were over.

"I got hardly any work and it was actually quite a worrying time. I remember lying in bed one night thinking 'Oh my god, I'm never going to get another job again, I was a child actor.'

"Up until then I thought the acting process was that you just went to an audition and got the job. But the odds are in your favour as a kid, and then suddenly as a young adult you're in a different world."

She needn't have worried; the degree she began in 2002 would take her another 10 years to finish, with the role of Loretta and several other productions taking her away from her studies. In 2014, she graduated with both a Bachelor of Arts and a long list of film and television credits. "I said that I wanted to finish before I was 30, and I got there just in time," Prebble says.

"I am glad that I did it, I definitely didn't do it as a fallback plan, I did it purely for the substance of the degree as opposed to the result."

She also studied French, a language she aspires to act in one day.

Fellow actor Beth Allen, who met Prebble when they were teenagers working together on The Tribe, says her friend has a quiet, determined way of achieving her goals.

"When I first met Antonia I remember her being quite calm, she wasn't like the other kids who were quite pushy and hyped up. She just kind of sat back, and was very gentle and considered," Allen says.

"She always worked really, really hard, and she will never compromise. I think it's quite easy as an actor to sit back on your laurels, whereas she not only keeps working but continues to try and learn as much as she can about her craft."

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As Rebecca Wickers in White Lies.

An example: Allen read the script for character Rebecca Wickers, who Prebble played in 2013 film White Lies, and remembers thinking it would be a massive challenge. "But she didn't shy away from that, she took the risk."

The role is one that Prebble remains the most proud of. (The movie, adapted from Witi Ihimaera novel Medicine Woman was New Zealand's entry for best foreign language film at the 2014 Academy Awards, but didn't get nominated.) During filming, Prebble tried an experiment where she didn't let herself sleep, to try and capture the "extreme" nature of her character, a wealthy and arrogant European settler.

"She was incredibly complex, incredibly damaged and she had a very difficult life. I had to go to some pretty dark places and sit in them for the duration of the filming, so I felt quite bruised at the end of it," Prebble says.

"There was nudity involved and that was a big step for me to do that, I almost said no to the job because I have always been very anti-nudity but after a lot of thinking I realised nudity  around birth and breastfeeding is completely different to sexual nudity, they are two different worlds."

Is there anything she would not do for a role?

"I'm really drawn to complexity, when there's darkness to a character, when there's more going on. If it was gratuitous nudity or something I would be less keen, but never say never because you know if it was in Game of Thrones it would be harder to say no to."

(Quirky fact: Prebble has so far given birth on screen five times. "My first one was when I was 14, on The Tribe, I was a teenage mum, and then I just kept going," she says. "There was Outrageous, a short film, White Lies, and then a play when I was playing Mary, I gave birth to Jesus. The Tribe was a tough one, no adults around to help, just a bunch of kids roaming the world. Probably the easiest was Mary; Jesus just popped out. He came out and we all sang a song.")

Breaking into America  is her ultimate goal. For the past three years, Prebble has travelled to the United States for auditions. Last year she scored a guest part on drama Salem; this year she didn't get anything.

"I managed to stay in pretty good spirits about it, because it's super competitive," she says.

"And Salem was fun, I got to be hanged which was a new experience and all the stunties had worked on Django, so I was like 'What's Quentin Tarentino like? Tell me everything.' I love hearing stories about famous people. I find them fascinating, I get star-struck very easily."

WORLD FAMOUS IN NZ

But doesn't she qualify as famous herself, at least in New Zealand? What has that been like?

"New Zealanders are very low key about things so it's never really an issue.  The extent of it really is people will wander up to me in the supermarket and say 'Oh hey I really like Outrageous Fortune'," she says.

"It's only awkward when I'm stuck somewhere and I can't get away, like on a plane when an air hostess says something and all the passengers are looking at me I get a bit embarrassed, or if someone's drunk it can be a little bit difficult."

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Antonia Prebble, when she was cast as Loretta in Outrageous Fortune in 2005.

Prebble lives with her boyfriend in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland, where she bought a house a few years ago "before things went absolutely mental". She's into fashion, being a regular attendee at Fashion Week - today she's wearing a fawn Liam jumpsuit and Sportsgirl heels - but says when its her downtime she's just as likely to be found schlepping around in a pair of ugg boots. It's a change from her most recent on-screen stint as Rita, the West matriarch of the 1970s.

"A lot of myself was augmented - I had a wig and I had big boobs and I had fake eyelashes and fake nails and high heels, so everything was increased which was really fun, it definitely felt like quite a transformation," Prebble says.

"I love that era, I love the clothes, I love the furniture, I love the whole aesthetic. It's really fun and Rita was a creation from the ground-up because we were all figuring out who she was together."

With filming over she's heading back to LA soon, to search for work. Antonia Prebble, still hunting down parts. What would her 11-year-old self think?

"I feel like I'm on track, yeah. I would like to be further on than I am, but I know I have a fast rhythm, I like things to happen quickly, and I try to make things happen faster sometimes than they naturally should unfold.

"As I get older my definition of success has broadened. I was always pretty finely-pointed that success meant 'professionally', and that's still really important but so are my relationships, and spending time with my family, and nurturing myself beyond what I do."

Westside screens on Sunday, May 31 at 8.30pm on TV3.

 - Your Weekend

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