The Brokenwood Mysteries' stars surprised by international success

Fern Sutherland as Detective Kristin Sims in The Brokenwood Mysteries

Fern Sutherland as Detective Kristin Sims in The Brokenwood Mysteries

The success or failure of a local television show is usually measured in ratings. If it pulls in an impressive number of Kiwi viewers, TV executives are happy and so are the advertisers.  

But what if your show is an unexpected hit on the other side of the world? 

For Fern Sutherland and Neill Rea, who play Detectives Kristin Sims and Mike Shepherd on The Brokenwood Mysteries, discovering their crime drama was averaging more than three million viewers an episode in France was proof the show was a winner.

Nic Sampson (Breen), Fern Sutherland (Kristin Sims) and Neill Rea (Mike Shepherd) star in The Brokenwood Mysteries

Nic Sampson (Breen), Fern Sutherland (Kristin Sims) and Neill Rea (Mike Shepherd) star in The Brokenwood Mysteries

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"I was very surprised," says Rea. "Not because I didn't think what we were doing was good but you don't know if it's translatable." 

"But also," adds Sutherland, "they make their own really great television. 'Why would they need any more?' was my reaction.

"But in a lot of ways I think the French are weirdly similar to New Zealanders in that a lot of them live provincially and rurally and they are an independent, proud kind of people."

In a bid to accommodate its French audience, the Kiwi voices of the Brokenwood characters are dubbed into the local language, which amuses and flatters Rea and Sutherland.

"There was a tiny YouTube clip of us," says Rea.

"It was hilarious. I sounded so sexy. I had a really deep voice. It was like I'd had two bottles of scotch and half a packet of cigarettes."

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Sutherland is similarly impressed with the French voice assigned to Kristin.

"I want to meet these people. They must be attractive people for sure," she says.

But for short promotional video clips created for French television, Sutherland and Rea have to speak the language.

"You get given these scripts – a couple of days beforehand – of us having a full-on French convo," says Sutherland. 

"I ended up enlisting the help of Rachel Blampied (Shortland Street, Nancy Wake: The White Mouse), who speaks fluent French. 

"She helped me out the last time I had to do it. She records herself saying it and then emails it to me so then Neill and I get up and do our best and hope to God they can understand some semblance of what we're saying."

The Brokenwood Mysteries is set in a fictional, and picturesque, small New Zealand town where murder cases keep Detectives Sims and Shepherd on their toes. 

The show's regulars include Nic Sampson, who plays Constable Breen, Pana Hema-Taylor, who appears as local man Jared, and Cristina Ionda, who plays pathologist Dr Gina Kandinsky. 

Because it's a TV show, some of the ways in which people are killed are inventive and often gruesome. 

"I had a go at writing an episode just as a writing exercise," says Rea.

"The murder was based around a circus and the murder weapon I chose was an elephant. I haven't run it by anyone yet."

When he is not acting, Rea runs his own business, casting actors for television commercials and productions such as 800 Words, Dirty Laundry and Cul De Sac

He also starred in a short film called Every Little Thing with Emmett Skilton (from The Almighty Johnsons).

Sutherland, who spent time in Sydney working in hospitality and checking out the city's acting opportunities in between filming seasons two and three of Brokenwood, says she is in awe of Rea's skills.

"Neill always amazes me because his workload is bigger than mine," she says.

"But he's really sharp in that he takes in all the details and has a really good understanding of the murder and knows when something doesn't quite make sense so he's always on to it which I find amazing. 

"But then not only that, he has a really good technical awareness so he will know when it comes to my shot, where he needs to be and where I need to be. He pushes me into my light or says 'Fern, the light is over there'."

One of the show's strengths is the on-screen relationship between Mike and Kristin.

"It's quite an interesting dynamic in that it's a man and a woman working together who don't want to have sex with each other," says Sutherland.

"They have a mutual respect for each other's talents."

Just don't expect the young detective to have a love interest this season.

"She doesn't have time for any of that kind of malarkey," says Sutherland.

"There are too many people dropping dead." 

The Brokenwood Mysteries, Prime, Sunday from October 30

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