Step Dave actor Sia Trokenheim's career comes full circle
"I did feel very lonely for a long time," reflects the actor Sia Trokenheim with the composure of someone who has their life wholly together. "I think I ended up in a dark place … I thought 'I should just go home, what's the point? I am just torturing myself, I am unhappy, misunderstood, I find it hard to express myself, I just want to give up'."
She was 21 and alone in a strange country, studying drama (and paying overseas student fees that left her with debts she's still repaying) in her second language and finding life difficult. She thinks about it for a moment, and suspects she may have had a nervous breakdown. "But I remember thinking if I give up, I can never look at a map and look at New Zealand again … I wouldn't let myself leave until I've won the game," she concludes. "I'm really pleased that as a 22 year old, I was able to think in those wide terms and not just give it up. I would have resented myself for it."
15 later, after plenty of walk-on parts, burger advertisements, bar-tending and even fire-breathing, Trokenheim's star is finally rising. Lead roles in theatre (the Auckland Theatre Company's Lysistrata) film (the forthcoming Beyond the Known World) and television (TV2's Step Dave) have all arrived at once. As the second season opens of Step Dave – in which Trokenheim plays a single mother of three embroiled in romance with a flighty 24-year-old – she's entitled to feel pleased with the resolve of her 21 year old self.
Peter Jackson has undoubtedly drawn many Scandinavians to New Zealand; the government tells us so. And it was Jackson's work that brought Trokenheim from her native Sweden to New Zealand, although it wasn't the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the considerably darker Heavenly Creatures that offered the inspiration.
Trokenheim's elder brother wanted to travel, and returned from an expo one day with a fistful of brochures and what she calls a "strange love relationship with New Zealand", prompted by Jackson's tale of two teenage Christchurch murderers. His sister, 21, freshly-graduated and not sure what to do next, wanted to tag along. Three weeks before departure, her brother met the love of his life, and while he still came, he didn't stay long. He left Trokenheim behind, enrolled on a Unitec drama course, very unhappy and putting on 13kg in weight thanks to an energy-drinks habit.
She had assumed she was well-prepared. She had an expanded world view, thanks to Polish grandparents who had emigrated after the war (her grandfather was Jewish); she spoke three languages fluently; she had acted since she was eight, had just finished a musical theatre degree and had Swedish TV and theatre credits already on her CV. She'd always, she says, been good at everything: languages, study, sport, particularly sprinting and long jumping. "Suddenly, I wasn't great at everything. It was a lot more difficult than I had ever imagined."
What she hadn't considered was how functional English wasn't quite enough in acting. Friends – much later – would tell her she sounded like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. "I thought I knew how to speak English. I did, but it wasn't my emotional language. It still happens: I would hear expressions almost daily by Kiwis and I didn't know what they meant." She thought the guy in class who always said 'sweet as' was talking about people's bottoms. She struggled in a posture class because she had no idea what the word pelvis meant, beyond that it sounded like Elvis. "I had to ask a girl in my class what does the word c-*-*-* mean because I hadn't heard it before. It was just a sound."
She felt misunderstood, but things now she probably wasn't. "I can see why people thought I was being negative because Swedes are very happy to confront and be honest. If someone says to you 'hey, how you going?' Kiwis will say 'good as gold'. I would say 'thank you for asking, but I am not very good, I'm not feeling well emotionally and I am a bit stressed'…. People would lift their eyebrows and look confused."
"I feel a bit sorry for that girl," she says now. "I think she was really hard on herself. She tried so hard, she was so ambitious, but she didn't allow herself to relax and smell the flowers and let mistakes just be mistakes."
(DC) WHEN Step Dave launched in 2013, Trokenheim was widely described, along with the male lead Jono Kenyon, as an unknown, a fresh new face. It was, initially, irritating. She was anything but.
Having completed her degree and conquered both English and homesickness, Trokenheim's first gig was a Burger King commercial; she got walk-ons and adverts, although never the Shortland St part she coveted: it took her a while to realise that perhaps it was because she had learned to speak 'Received Pronunciation' English at drama school, and nobody in New Zealand, certainly not in Ferndale, spoke that way.
For two years, she went to Sydney and got perhaps the most remarkable resting-actor's job ever: having worked, of course, behind a bar, she developed into a "free-style flair bartender", mixing flash cocktails with a few tricks, then added fire-breathing to the repertoire, and worked for a company running flash launch events: Ferrari took her to Shanghai, Cartier to Hong Kong.
But on coming home for a brief visit, her agent told her the Auckland Theatre Company were auditioning next day for the musical Sweet Charity. At audition, in front of Colin McColl and Shona McCullough, Trokenheim twice forgot her lyrics and finished the song singing 'la la la'. Afterwards, she says: "I bawled my eyes out. I thought it was career suicide". They called and offered the part. Lysistrata is the sixth ATC play she's been in since.
We talk one morning near her West Auckland home; she's on stage that evening. This is the busiest stage of her career: she also has a major role in the film Beyond the Known World, a Kiwi-Indian co-production scheduled for a late year release. Trokenheim plays a mother (her on-screen husband is the experienced Australian, David Wenham) searching the Himalayas for her missing daughter. She left her family behind for the eight week shoot at altitude in Ladakh, northern Indian, with a cast including the venerable French actor Emmanuelle Beart. On Beart's last day, Trokenheim told her how she would miss Beart, who had suffered from altitude sickness. "You know, Sia, I am very honest," came the response. "I'm not going to miss you." She understood; eight weeks of scratching your own toilet hole in desert landscape was tiring.
Sweet Charity did not bring her back to New Zealand her permanently. She returned to Sydney, and only came back for an 18 month stint with Christchurch's Court Theatre. Then she finally got a proper Shortland Street gig, a four-month role playing opposite Coronation St alumnus Adam Rickitt. "It felt like things were starting to come my way," she says, although there were still the inevitable retail jobs, and she even completed a fitness degree and worked as a gym instructor.
StepDave was the real breakthrough. She hadn't expected to win the lead role – she says she was up against someone very experienced – and was both terrified and delighted. She realised then it could be life-changing. Carefully, she says, "I was aware Step Dave could be good and bad, personally – if people hate the show, they would certainly let me know…I was aware of that as I signed."
She was worried the public would hate that they didn't recognise her and Kenyon. To her "utter surprise", there were no complaints. She thinks that because the concept has some resonance: she should know, as a step-parent herself, to nine year old Bruno. "I certainly felt I had insight into what it would be like to enter that situation; and it is so common these days. And also the lifestyle of juggling family versus career versus love life."
She watched the first episode alone at home – her then one-year-old son, Terenzo (husband Andre, who manages a Nike store, is half-Italian and they couldn't find a Swedish name they both liked), was asleep, and Andre was at Starship with Bruno, who has cystic fibrosis. The next morning, she nervously ventured to the mall, where the first punter to comment was a thirty-something man in a homeware store. He loved it.
In contrast, she isn't worried about season two, but visibly excited and talks about her pride in their work, the sharpness of the writing. Filming wrapped two months ago. "I am extremely proud," she says. "I understand it now, I understand Cara and what was going on and I went in with confidence."
These days, she says, she doesn't feel so Swedish. She's more relaxed, not always completely punctual. She talks about a more laidback, positive approach to her work. "The more forgiving I am to myself," she considers, "in my good moods, my bad moods and my weak moods, the more comes my way."
They recently invited her back to Unitec to lecture students on that same course she studied 15 years ago. She relayed some of her anecdotes. Afterwards a student came up her. Thanks, she said, you've really allayed my anxiety and uncertainty.
The second season of StepDave starts September 1, 8.30pm on TV2. The Auckland Theatre Company production of Lysistrata runs until August 29 at the Maidment Theatre, Auckland. Beyond the Known World releases later this year.
- Sunday Star Times