Dirty Laundry's Jennifer Ward-Lealand on playing a money-laundering matriarch
Move over, Cheryl West. There's a new Kiwi matriarch on the block – and this one is a real crim.
That said, while Dirty Laundry's Donna Rafferty (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) might look like the typical suburban mum, her reputation is shot to pieces when the cops turn up to arrest her for money laundering just as she prepares to dish up the family dinner.
Cheryl and Donna do have similarities, possibly because Dirty Laundry co-writer Rachel Lang also created Outrageous Fortune. Both mums would do anything to protect their kids.
"She's not like a kingpin-type person," Ward-Lealand says of Donna.
*First look at TVNZ's new show Dirty Laundry
*Jennifer Ward-Lealand, matriarch of Kiwi stage and screen
*Actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand talks Taranaki ties and The Book of Everything
*Before she was famous: Jennifer Ward-Lealand in Gone Up North for a While
"She has a husband who disappeared two years ago and, as far as she is concerned, he's dead but, even before that, she was the one holding things together."
Until her arrest, the Rafferty children thought the only laundering their mum did involved sheets and towels. Her criminal activities come as a huge shock to her eldest daughter Kat (Tai Berdinner-Blades), who is a lawyer, teacher son Matt (Tim Carlsen), hairdresser Bianca (Victoria MacCulloch) and 14-year-old Leo (George Ferrier).
They are even more horrified when Donna asks them to take over the family business while she is in prison awaiting trial.
"The family has just taken it for granted that Mum's always been there and that Mum can always provide and look after them," Ward-Lealand says. "And she loves that. She's a wonderful mother. She'd do anything for her family.
"Having to ask them to help her really goes against the grain for someone who has been handling everything. You raise your children to be good, law-abiding citizens and now you're asking them to do something else."
Donna works with family friend 'Uncle' Trevor (Andy Anderson) to launder money for offshore interests and move money from successful businesses to struggling ones to avoid tax. She even has her own business, the Hanky Panky Health Club And Massage Parlour, where she keeps a kind and maternal eye on her 'girls'.
"She's really good with numbers," Ward-Lealand says.
"And, of course, you can imagine if she's running that kind of thing, when she gets put away, there's the problem of who is going to look after those people. She sees it as looking after the underdog."
Ward-Lealand, who has two sons with her actor husband Michael Hurst (Hercules), says while she understands Donna's motivations, she personally would never go to the lengths the character does.
"I'm a very law-abiding person. I see that she sees opportunities and she takes them and there is always a greater good. If you look around, it's not like she's accumulating boats or cars or anything. She doesn't have any outwards displays of personal wealth."
Ward-Lealand, too, knows a good opportunity when she sees one. Dirty Laundry is her first regular television role for many years.
The actress was still at school when she first appeared on TV, in Close To Home, in 1978.
In between stage roles, she was a regular on TV shows in the 80s and 90s, with stints on Shortland Street, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Australia's Full Frontal.
Then came many years on stage with the odd guest role until, in 2014, she returned to TV playing Wanda in Auckland Daze and had a guest role on Terry Teo.
"I've had a really, really wonderful career on the stage and will continue to do that," Ward-Lealand says.
"It's not like I felt I was missing out on anything, but then this beautiful role came along and how lucky am I to have something with a character who really goes on a journey. I'm not just popping in and out, being a bit player here and there. She's a great character."
Leading roles for mature actresses are a bit of a rarity on TV, she adds.
"We barely see any. When I look at American television, I think some of my favourite actresses are all over 40. I love the depth of character in their faces and I love seeing myself reflected from my screen and I think that's what we should be seeing – people like us."
Dirty Laundry, TVOne, starting Wednesday, September 21.
- TV Guide