Kiwi actor Kerry Fox is a woman in demand

KERRY FOX: Plays Sister Margaret Quayle in the BBC's World War I drama The Crimson Field.
TVNZ/Supplied

KERRY FOX: Plays Sister Margaret Quayle in the BBC's World War I drama The Crimson Field.

Kerry Fox is tired. 

The New Zealand actor has just finished filming three feature-length movies in as many months, relocating her family from her home in London to Australia and working long 15 hour days with "enormous amounts" of travel.

When we talk on the phone, the 48-year-old, known for wholeheartedly tackling challenging acting roles (think An Angel at My Table, Shallow Grave and Intimacy) is in Sydney. It's been five days since she stopped working and for the first few she was "hardly able to talk". She is, she says, "on the collapse".

"Am I talking about the right film?", she asks with a laugh. "Am I talking about the right character?"

She is. It's the stylish BBC mini-series The Crimson Field and her character is Sister Margaret Quayle – a capable, competent and slightly embittered older English nurse working at a frontline military hospital during World War One.

It shows the horrors and humanity of war from the perspective of medics, working to save lives in flimsy tents in a French field. 

Like ANZAC Girls, it portrays a distinctly female viewpoint, focusing on the nurses experience at a time of unprecedented change both socially and medically. Many scenes feature only female characters, tracking the relationships between the older nurses – Sister Quayle (Fox) and Matron Carter (Hermonie Norris) and young volunteers Kitty (Oona Chaplin), Flora (Alice St Clair) and Rosalie (Marianne Oldham).

This, along with the "rich and unexpected" dialogue from writer Sarah Phelps attracted Fox to the project.

"Obviously," she says, "it's very rare to get the opportunity to do fantastic scenes and have great storylines with women. You have to really acknowledge how uncommon it is."

Getting the opportunity to "work so intensely with women on great stuff – difficult relationships and difficult issues" was, she says, "just like a gem". And it was fun too.

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When we talk, it's the week before Christmas and Fox is getting ready to leave Sydney and come home to New Zealand for a short holiday with her sons aged 13 and nine, visiting family in the Hutt Valley. 

She's looking forward to driving along the coast, bike riding with her brother and visiting cafes along the capital's waterfront. But she's just heard the dreary weather forecast for Wellington: "I sent my raincoat back to London," she says, "I was thinking 'oh that was a mistake'."

Wellington is of course her old stomping ground. She went to drama school there and was spotted by director Jane Campion who put her in the lead role of Janet Frame in An Angel at my Table. She calls the 1990 film "magnificent". The role changed her life, opening up a career in acting she never foresaw as a student interested in theatre and New Zealand writing and poetry.

In Australia, while filming The Dressmaker (where she stars opposite Hugo Weaving and Kate Winslet) an extra told her An Angel at My Table changed his life – he'd watched it over 17 times and it inspired him to become a writer. "So it still has a very enormous impact on my very personal life," she says. "I mean you can't imagine what it's like sitting next to someone and them telling you that something that you've delivered has formed their life. I mean it's a great privilege really. I feel overwhelmed. I feel very, very, lucky to have had the opportunities that I've had."

Back to A Crimson Field. The six-part series, showing here as double-episodes over three consecutive nights, has, she says, been "really, really well received". She wants to come up with a sound bite – "what am I supposed to say that will make lots of people watch it?" – but she's too tired and it's too hard.

But even tired, Kerry Fox is articulate, clever and expressive.

"I think that the piece is a really complex revealing drama about the changing socio-political situation for women at that time and the difficulties that were faced and the social hierarchy that was starting to be dismantled," she says. "And also it does delve into the changing face of medicine which I find really interesting."

The Crimson Field From Sunday, 8.35pm, TV One

 - Stuff

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