Claire Chitham: Return to Shortland Street, return to Waverley
Claire Chitham curls up on a couch in the cafeteria of South Pacific Pictures, her slippered feet tucked up under a plush red dressing gown. She's feels at home here, even though it's been a while.
This is a brief homecoming, just two days, while she reprises her role as the kooky, warm-hearted Waverley Harrison for Shortland Street's 25th anniversary. Two days is probably long enough, she confesses, to co-exist with the "exhausting" Waverley again.
As soon as Chitham walked on to the west Auckland set, after an absence of 13 years, she was engulfed by a wave of nostalgia, and a sense she was meant to be there. "There's a funny full circle thing about this," she says.
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She was 16 when she first turned up on the hospital's reception desk, and here she is now, 38, and admitting she's more like a carefree, reckless teenager today than she was back then.
"I feel like I've lived my life in reverse," she says.
"I spent my 20s working full-time, married and being a responsible adult. And I've spent most of my 30s being as irresponsible as possible, and trying not to get caught up in adult tropes. How about that for an enigmatic statement?"
Laughing, and raking a hand through her long black hair, Chitham won't elaborate on just how irresponsible she's been these last few years.
Chitham's life has certainly changed since she left Shorty in 2005. Back then, she was about to marry radio DJ and musician Mikey Havoc, buy a house in Auckland and become the loved and lamented bikie chick Aurora Bay in Outrageous Fortune.
But when her marriage dissolved after just three years in 2009, and her major television roles in New Zealand came to an end, Chitham says she just wanted to "get out". She moved first to Australia, then the United States.
"I didn't run off to find myself, because I wasn't lost. But I guess I didn't realise just how much I needed to get out of Dodge, live out of two suitcases, with no fixed abode," she says.
Today, Chitham is still part-nomad, splitting her time between Auckland, Australia and LA. But things may be changing slightly. She's just signed a lease on a house in Auckland, her first "commitment" in New Zealand for eight years.
"It's nice to feel I'm planting roots in Auckland again. I've been back two years, and I'm still not eye-rolling yet."
ON BEING WAVERLEY
The invitation came as a "funny slap in the face": a call from Chitham's agent, asking if she would be interested in returning as Waverley for the feature-length anniversary episode of Shortland Street.
"My first reaction was, I can't believe it's been 25 years… that means, shock-horror, I started there 23 years ago. No one wants to be reminded of starting anything 23 years ago," she says.
Chitham is frequently asked, by both friends and fans, if she would ever return to Ferndale. Until now, she hadn't wanted to; she'd decided she never wanted to be Waverley again.
She had played the role for eight years – what began as a five-week guest appearance became a major character role that put her at the centre of many dramatic storylines: fated relationships, numerous marriages, breast cancer, miscarriage and home invasion. As Chitham points out, she "crossed through all of the characters".
"There was nothing about Waverley that I wanted to revisit. To be honest, she's not someone I want to hang out with for a long time. She's exhausting."
Maxine Fleming – who began her scriptwriting career when Shortland Street first went to air, and is now the show's producer – reminded Chitham that Waverley was always "high energy; with pages and pages of dialogue because she was the chatty one.
"And obviously," say Chitham, "I'm also a chatty one, so it wasn't that difficult for me!"
Having key crew members on set who were there in Waverley's time helped Chitham overcome her trepidation of returning to New Zealand's most enduring soap.
"Shortland Street is still such an important training ground in our television industry, and there are obviously a lot of new people in the cast.
But if I'd walked in here and not known anyone except for [onscreen husband] Karl Burnett – he's a hilarious human being – I might have felt a lot more awkward and not as selfishly nostalgic."
Re-engaging with Waverley wasn't so effortless. "Most people told me it would be just like riding a bike. Well, it's more like being asked to have sex with an ex. It's an ex that you don't hate, that you still think is a nice person, but you aren't sexually attracted to them any more.
"But you have to get in bed and have fun," she says. "I was apprehensive about getting back into bed with her, putting her skin on and not feeling like an idiot. Because we really want to honour these characters.
"We want you to see Nick and Waverley and feel that hit of nostalgia all these years later and think, 'Oh yeah, that's why I thought they were funny.'"
Chitham has come to peace with the fact that Waverley will probably never leave her. She still gets asked in bars for photographs as her Shorty alter-ego.
"I think Waverley is remembered as lovely, kooky and quirky, even though she could be really f...... annoying back then. People recall her as endearing, and they still let me know that," she says.
"I'm really lucky that both her and Aurora were loved by people. And I'm grateful for those characters, proud of them, and feel a sense of – not love – but companionship with them."
Although she's not an avid viewer of the show today, Shortland Street still means a lot to Chitham. "Back in the day Shorty got a lot of sh... It's still looked down upon in some circles, but it is what it is. It has endured.
"There's a whole new legion of fans who have no idea who Nick and I are, or Marj and Stuart. But I hope this episode gives them a little taste of who we were."
ON BEING CLAIRE
When Aurora's life was cut short – colliding with a double decker party bus while riding a motorcycle and carrying a backpack full of marijuana – it shocked and upset Outrageous Fortune fans. Chitham took it as a sign that it was time to look offshore for new roles.
"I was aware I wouldn't get cast again here in a hurry, so I started pushing doors open in Australia," she says. She appeared in Neighbours, and short-lived drama Canal Road. When her marriage ended amicably, she set up house across the Tasman.
In 2012, she put her name in a hat and beat 15 million other candidates around the world to grab one of 50,000 US green cards.
"It really was the golden ticket for me. I jumped on the US rollercoaster – what started off as a six-month ride ended up as two years."
Although she didn't score any on-screen roles, she valued the experience of the cut-throat US pilot auditions, and absorbed all she could in acting classes and courses in Los Angeles and New York. She also taught Pilates.
Her American dream is not over. She returns to California three or four times a year, finding work and visiting friends, such as Kiwi stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell.
"It's the ideal situation. I love it up there, but family stuff brought me back to New Zealand a couple of years ago and that's kept me closer to home, which is really important to me," she says.
Chitham's learning continues in New Zealand, where she has crossed to the other side – working as crew on the sets of television and movie productions, including Mahana, Evil Dead and Chinese-Kiwi fantasy adventure The Wonder 3D.
"I realise I love it as much as acting, so I'm trying to do as much writing, creating, directing and making stuff on the other side of the camera as I can," she says.
"A friend and I are working on developing a TV show, and I'd love to make it here."
She reveals it's a drama, but as it is with many things, coaxing further information from her is like squeezing blood from a stone.
"I'd love to see New Zealand make high-quality drama that is representative of our country.
"The creatives in the film and television industry here definitely have the ability to make it; they just don't have the financial support. But I want to be part of changing that."
She's also "picked up the acting stick" again, and has a recurring role as an eccentric school teacher in Power Rangers, the kids' action TV show that's been filmed in New Zealand for the last decade.
And she's returned to her first love, theatre; her latest performance in the award-winning one-woman play Grounded at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre.
Chitham played a US fighter pilot who's grounded when she becomes pregnant, and is then consigned to operating drones over war zones.
It was a physically and mentally demanding role, but one she relished. "The play is incredibly current, relevant and politically and socially important. It's theatre really doing its job," she says.
"And it's so far removed from Waverley!"
ON KEEPING WELL
Keeping physically and mentally fit has become a significant part of the actress' life. Now that she has conquered Crohn's – the painful bowel disease, which struck at the age of 12 and hospitalised her at 20 – she's taking what she learned from her "health and healing journey" and trying to help others.
With an old friend, journalist Kylie Bailey, she has created the Good For You website ("a wellness hub of health and happiness"), which champions healthy living, espousing the virtues of such things as turmeric, yoga and flotation tanks.
Chitham is aware she isn't a health expert – although she's been a Pilates teacher for 10 years. "But I've had exposure to many different people, experiences and modalities in the healing and wellness world.
"And I am geekily obsessed with it."
For her own health and happiness, she does Pilates, yoga and runs, and she's also learning to accept imperfection and infallibility.
"I'm constantly having to battle myself on perfectionism and patience, that's my personal jam," she laughs.
"I really feel like I'm in one of the sweetest places I've been for a long time. There was something wonderful about leaving the 'village' that is New Zealand, and expanding my horizons; coming home with a new skillset and wanting to apply that to our industry here at home. "It feels like all those pieces of me have finally come together and landed in a place where I'm really happy."