Dirty Laundry stars Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tai Berdinner-Blades talk about their characters, the show

Tai Berdinner-Blades and Jennifer Ward-Lealand play a fraudster mum and her lawyer daughter in Dirty Laundry.
Bevan Read

Tai Berdinner-Blades and Jennifer Ward-Lealand play a fraudster mum and her lawyer daughter in Dirty Laundry.

It starts like any other family gathering. The family members come through the front door, they shake hands and hug and kiss cheeks. There's news to deliver: an engagement, a house has been bought.

Then the police arrive.

This is one of the first scenes of TV One's new drama, Dirty Laundry. It's also one of the earliest scenes the cast filmed.

Bianca (Victoria MacCulloch), Matt (Tim Carlsen), Donna (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and Kat (Tai Berdinner-Blades) in Dirty ...

Bianca (Victoria MacCulloch), Matt (Tim Carlsen), Donna (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and Kat (Tai Berdinner-Blades) in Dirty Laundry.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who plays the family matriarch, says it was also when she knew the show was going to work.

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She and the other cast members rehearsed the scene several times with the other cast members outside. Straight away she found there was a "lovely ease" to the group, and that flowed into the scene.


Local drama Dirty Laundry starts on TV One on Wednesday, September 21.

Their rehearsal was messy. People were reaching over each other and talking over each other. It was just like any other family gathering. "It was just so easy to wrap my arms around them, you know?" Ward-Lealand says. "We believe this is a family, we believe the dynamic."

The family is the Raffertys, and Ward-Lealand's character is Donna, the dedicated, protective mother of the clan. Donna's not what she initially appears to be, however. When the police show up, the Rafferty children are shocked to discover their comfortable middle-class lifestyle has been supported by their mother's money-laundering activities. Dirty Laundry traces the aftershocks of this revelation.

The show received $6.7 million of New Zealand On Air funding, and comes from the well-used pens of Outrageous Fortune creator Rachel Lang and Go Girls' Gavin Strawhan. The pair also worked together on TV2 soap Filthy Rich.

Ward-Lealand's co-star, Tai Berdinner-Blades, classes Dirty Laundry as a family drama, although it took her some time to figure that out.

"It was funny with this show because we were all trying to figure out along the way what the show was. And that was from the writers to the directors to the actors, everybody was kind of milling around in the dark trying to find the light switch, as it were, as to what this show was. I think by the end it's definitely more of a family drama."

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Berdinner-Blades plays Kat, one of Donna's adult children. A lot of the drama plays out through Kat's eyes. She's an ambitious commercial lawyer, but she's had a "bit of a dodgy past" and is prone to making snap decisions that don't always work out.

"You would say at first that personality-wise Donna and Kat are quite different, but in the end we find out they're much more similar than we thought," Ward-Lealand says.

Ward-Lealand's role was a demanding one for the veteran of 35 years on stage and screen. She was touring with a play at the time of filming, so had to cram her scenes - most of which were shot while her character was in prison - into spare days between performances.

The job wasn't done once she'd finished her scenes, either; Ward-Lealand then had more lines to learn. "The job doesn't finish once you've done a 12 hour shoot day or whatever, the job doesn't finish because as the actor you're going home and learning lines on top of that. Because you can't hold up anyone else," the 35-year veteran of stage and screen said.

So how does an actor cope with that workload? Ward-Lealand said it's all about discipline and time management. If time's limited you've got to use every spare gap you've got.

"Fear of not being prepared is a very good motivator," she says.

As the closest thing the show has to a main character, Berdinner-Blades' role was no walk in the park either. She too had plenty of lines, although she says learning them is like a muscle. 

Part of the reason Dirty Laundry heaped work on its cast was that it was shot very quickly. That's pretty much typical of any New Zealand drama; we work fast on our TV in this country. Berdinner-Blades says the key to dealing with her workload was working smart.

"I think especially with a show that is fast turnaround, which is predominantly what we make in New Zealand, you have to kind of work smart, rather than spending three months at a law office trying to be a lawyer. It's kind of that thing of what do I get for free, and what do I have to work on. That's kind of my philosophy around acting as well."

There was one element of the show where the cast did need something of an education, however: money laundering. The producers arranged for cast members to have a "money laundering 101" session to learn the fundamentals of the dodgy trade.

"It's important that you understand what you're talking about," Lealand-Ward says. The background helped her with one monologue in particular, where she had to "follow the money". It provided just enough information to make her speech convincing.

The money laundering course wasn't the only brush she had with the wrong side of the law to prepare for her role. Because her character spends most of her on-screen time incarcerated, Lealand-Ward had to get some idea of what that was like - an "interesting" experience. For example, she learned that in the visiting room, inmates have a special seat facing away from the door while the family sit on the other side.

Although Lealand-Ward is much more law abiding than the fraudster she plays, they do have lots in common. Both are multi-taskers, able to juggle "about ten balls in the air". And like Donna, Lealand-Ward is very protective of her family.

"The fact that [Donna has] done all this without the family knowing is testament to her protectiveness of her family, her dedication to her family being happy."

Berdinner-Blades says that although she's not that similar to the ruthless, ambitions Kat, she did find throughout the shoot that aspects of her character's personality bled into her own.

"I became a lot more organised, I don't know what it was but everyone thought I was older than I am, which Kat is," she says. "I guess it's just a state of mind. I spent more time as Kat than I did as Tai."

Berdinner-Blades says the complexity of the characters is what makes Dirty Laundry worth watching.

"I think one of the great things about the writing of this show is that everyone's very flawed. There's no saints or villains."

  • Dirty Laundry, Wednesdays 8.30pm, TV ONE.

 - Stuff

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