Sophie Henderson: A woman's role

WANTING MORE: "I've played so many objectified female characters and cardboard cut-out wives and girlfriends. That's the reality of being an actress," Sophie Henderson says.
WANTING MORE: "I've played so many objectified female characters and cardboard cut-out wives and girlfriends. That's the reality of being an actress," Sophie Henderson says.

For a slight woman - all delicate limbs and fine blonde hair - Sophie Henderson knows how to fill a room.

Her eyes are electric, her laugh a machine-gun giggle and her stories both strange ("I played a hologram once") and surprising ("My favourite role ever was playing a Jersey cow called Betsy Kettle"). But it is her work ethic that really strikes you.

For the past few years she has worked days, nights and weekends to fit in TV roles on Outrageous Fortune and Auckland Daze, written and starred in her own award-winning film, trod the boards in a string of stage productions and worked on the management team of Auckland's Basement Theatre. 

Her idea of a slower pace? Acting six nights a week in the upcoming psychological thriller, Belleville, for Auckland's Silo Theatre.

"I'm looking forward to it. I'm just going to do nothing else except this play," she says, relief relaxing her face. "I know I have to give my whole self to this play."

She is not exaggerating. Not only will she slip into the skin of a deeply unhappy, obsessive woman in an unravelling marriage, she will also appear completely nude.

"I saw the lighting designer the other day. I said, 'It's going to be dark, right? It's going to be really dark?'"

That machine-gun giggle, then she is serious again. "It's not gratuitous, it's not sexual, it's essential to the play and it's very brief. The play was too good not to do."

Henderson is breaking her own no-nudity rule. Already infuriated by the endless demands from television shows for bikini shots, underwear scenes and nudity, she vowed never to disrobe again after winding up naked save for modesty dots on her nipples and half a g-string glued to her pelvis while facing a male actor wearing nothing but a sock... and it wasn't on his foot. 

"It was my first day on this TV show. My very first scene was a sex scene and it was with someone I'd never met. I thought that I was wearing a robe and then I got to wardrobe and they said, 'Oh no, you're not wearing any clothes.'

"I remember having a cry in this wardrobe truck and thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' I felt like a prostitute. I thought, 'This is not why I wanted to be an actor'."

Her electric-blue eyes turn furious. "I've played so many objectified female characters and cardboard cut-out wives and girlfriends. That's the reality of being an actress."

Wavering between anger and resignation, she points me to miserable statistics.

In the 100 top-grossing films of 2012, 31 per cent of women were shown in sexy attire or naked, compared to 4 per cent of men. And middle-aged men made up 36.4 per cent of roles, compared to 23 per cent for females.

"And I bet you 50 per cent of the audience were women. It just makes me sick."

Sick and motivated. Tired of being offered awful roles, in 2011 Henderson wrote herself a decent one. A screenwriting novice, she penned Fantail, a funny, dark and tense film about a white girl who thinks she's Maori and must come to terms with herself and her unravelling family.

Beating a host of experienced movie makers for Film Commission funding, Henderson made the movie on a scant budget and at breakneck speed. She churned out three versions of the script in three months and then, with her first-time-director husband, shot the whole thing in 20 days, filming through the night.

"Everything became about the film," she says. "That's all we talked about for so long. We were just colleagues living together."

In the midst of it they held down paying jobs - and tied the knot. "I was a terrible wedding planner, the worst bride! The detail went out the window until the last second. The invitations were so late to people. I was like, 'whaddya mean I need eight dress fittings! That's too many!'"

Their dedication paid off. Fantail has received outstanding reviews, was shown at a host of international film festivals and garnered eight New Zealand Film Award nominations. The success is everything to them. Literally.

"I was supposed to be paid but we could get two more days filming with the money so I chose not to be paid, although we do have points in the film [a percentage of profit or revenue]. I signed a contract - one dollar for the writing, one dollar for the acting. 

"But I actually got double what Curtis got - I got two dollars, he only got one dollar."

Henderson has always been this driven. Growing up on Auckland's North Shore, she was drama-obsessed, in every school play, and a staunch young member of the Torbay Dramatic Society.

"I went on holiday in standard three and it meant I couldn't be in the school production and I was devastated," she says.

She studied acting at Unitec and, with her foot heavy on the accelerator as per usual, she landed both a professional role and met future husband Curtis one day after finishing the degree.

The project was an ambitious duo of theatre productions devised to develop promising young actors, with directors Michael Hurst and Oliver Driver in charge.

"It was like New Zealand Idol," Henderson recalls. "Out of 250 people, Curtis and I happened to be auditioning on the first afternoon. Oliver told us 'Walk around the room, now stop and find a partner' and he [Curtis] turned and said, 'You want to be my partner?' It was a coincidence that we happened to be standing next to each other."

The work has kept coming but it's no way to pay the mortgage.

"Acting is so difficult to control. There is no clear career path - it's such a passive existence. You're just waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for a part that suits you, waiting for a role you like."

Plenty of her thespian friends have given up and got 'real jobs' but she can't; she is far too enamoured with acting. Instead she has worked in shops, hanging clothes and manning the till, to keep going.

"Even when I was on Outrageous Fortune for seven months and had a great, solid wage, I still worked every Sunday in this shop because I knew it wasn't forever and that I had to hang on to a job."

Customers would mosey into North Beach Surf & Skate and find Bailey from Outrageous Fortune behind the counter. "That was awkward because it looks like you're a failure," she says.

"They'd talk to me about the role and the show but I could sense the judgement... or maybe it was just me [projecting]?" she says before changing her mind. "No, they were judging me. I would judge me!"

That laugh again.

Henderson finally ditched retail; these days she works for Basement Theatre, selecting plays and helping performers to stage them. Her ambition is to write full-time and act on the side. She's trying to block out the pressure of following up such a successful first film and is currently penning her second, Manhunt.

"It's an ode to single women. It's about a lady who always falls for the wrong men so she decides to make her own boyfriends out of household objects. She folds one, knits one, sculpts one and grows one."

Even if it brings big success, Henderson will probably stick with the intense schedule, the epic juggling.

"It annoys me about myself. I'm always, 'what else? What's next? What can I do now?' I just pile it on. I wish that I wasn't like that, that I could just be satisfied, but I never am and I don't think I ever will be."

Sunday Magazine