LA Kiwis aim for the stars

Last updated 11:01 18/11/2012

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I was having breakfast with two friends on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was 24 degrees and cloudless outside, the year-round LA-usual.

One of my companions was a sound editor, the other a director and producer. Both were Masters- educated, junior in their professions, looking for a start. We settled into our bottomless cups of coffee and they fell into a little shoptalk, heavy on filmmaking jargon.

Sensing movie talk, our young waiter came alive.

"This is LA. Everyone's off to an audition after they've finished serving you coffee," my friend - a Los Angeles local - said.

Joining in this rush to make it in Hollywood is a growing number of New Zealanders, giving it everything, trying to build a living acting in the city, brick-by-brick.

The ranks of Kiwi actors who have successfully translated local successes into a life in Hollywood are swelling. Anna Paquin and Melanie Lynskey are established examples. The actresses rode early successes in The Piano and Heavenly Creatures to parts in blockbuster movies and eventually starring roles in the hit TV series True Blood and Two and a Half Men respectively. Shortland Street and Go Girls- star Anna Hutchison crossed the Pacific this year, finding acclaim in the cult-horror smash The Cabin in the Woods. Karl Urban, Martin Henderson and Cliff Curtis have achieved American leading man status in the past decade.

But there are many more New Zealand actors in Los Angeles than just this most visible tier. They're getting by in one of the largest cities on earth, coping with a unique set of obstacles that the movie industry throws up, motivated by a dream of success on the world's largest stage.

Because this attraction to move to LA is simple: if you are going to prove yourself as an actor anywhere on Earth, why not Hollywood?

? Stephanie Paul lives in San Clemente, between LA and San Diego. She was born in Auckland and has been in America for more than 13 years, after moving to New York initially when she was 25. She's been in LA fulltime for seven years, after the city's industry pull lured her down from San Francisco.

It is good to live out of LA, Paul says over Thai food. You have to drive so much in the city anyway that it is no hassle to live an hour away. Paul, most recognisable to New Zealand audiences as one of the leads from hit Separation City, has had a banner year. She started modelling when she was 18, and in her early 20s moved to acting and film production. She's starred in films and television in New Zealand and the United States and acted in commercials for everything from corn chips to bourbon. She's been a stand-up comedian, motivational speaker and acting coach.

But none of that has much on the recent success of her new film, Iron Sky, a partially self-funded Finnish- German-Australian science fiction movie about Nazis who live on the Moon invading earth in 2018. The movie has been distributed into 60 countries, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, and she's just returned from shooting scenes for the movie's video game in Germany.

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Somewhat emotionally for Paul, this break for her came the same day she earned her American citizenship. Her character in the movie is also, very coincidentally, the president of the United States of America.

Her New Zealand accent has survived more than a decade abroad, but some of its edges have been sanded off.

If she developed anything from modelling, Paul says, it was a thick skin. It's something she has put to good use in LA, where casting agents can be blunt.

"I think after you've been told that you're too tall, you're too short, you're too skinny, you're too fat, you're too ugly, you're too pretty, you realise that somehow you'll make it work," she laughs.

After her first year in and around Hollywood, Paul says it was obvious how saturated the market for actors is. But there's also a lot of corresponding naivety that comes with that, which helps her stave off any intimidation. "A lot of them show up to Los Angeles from a small town with a headshot, get a waiting job and do nothing."

Generally speaking, many more women than men show up in LA looking to make it as an actor, Paul says. She's taught acting as a day job in the past, and her classes always skew significantly toward women. Men tend to gravitate toward the direct-action jobs in the film industry such as directing, or production.

Not all aspiring Kiwi actors, however, get to LA like Paul did, after years of establishing themselves in other major American cities. Most arrive with little experience in the States.

Auckland's Amanda La Trobe and Napier's Megan Franich are two such examples. La Trobe was fresh out of South Seas Film and Television School when she moved early last year. She didn't wait around for local validation before trying to ply her trade offshore.

Franich started working in post- production in Wellington before she got the acting bug. She turned a small role in the Chronicles of Narnia into a much larger role in the New Zealand-filmed horror movie 30 Days of Night. She first came to Hollywood for the premiere of that film, and since moving here has appeared alongside Heather Graham in a movie, and is filming an independent horror movie for release next year.

The first consideration before moving is how to get a visa. Franich moved with her scientist husband, who works at the University of California in LA, and had to get individual working visas tied to each new role.

La Trobe considered trying to get in on an extraordinary talent visa, but ended up taking advantage of a 12-month working holiday option, offered by the US Government to recent graduates. She had to move from LA to Vancouver when her visa expired early this year. Luckily, both actresses ended up winning permanent residency in the United States' yearly, randomised Green Card lottery.

LA is a huge city and it can be tough to find your feet. La Trobe struggled when she first arrived, trying to navigate the vast expanses without a car, before realising it was fruitless. Franich didn't have any network in place or help, and battled loneliness at first.

Both La Trobe and Franich choose to see the crush to succeed as a positive. La Trobe joined a group of filmmakers after a chance meeting at a bank. Franich draws comfort from the camaraderie of being surrounded by large numbers of people doing the same thing.

Each actress separately speaks of the need for guidance in the city. Franich's transition was smoothed over by a helpful promotional agent. La Trobe called on industry guide books and a local agent took her under his wing.

There's also the small matter of trying to get work playing Americans, as foreigners. La Trobe says when she arrives at an audition in LA, she buries her accent until the end of the audition because she doesn't want casting agents to be concentrating on the fact that she's putting on an accent.

Paul went one step better. She was working at a teaching job keeping up an American accent even in her interactions with co- workers.

At a company Christmas party, she dropped the American lilt and her co-workers were speechless.

Much like La Trobe and Franich, Paul also doesn't foresee living in New Zealand again for a long time. With the bright lights of Hollywood in all their sights, it's hard to look anywhere else.

- Sunday News

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