Accidental stardom

16:00, Nov 21 2009
Amanda Billing always loved acting but initially opted to be a teacher.

FOR someone who impulsively swapped teaching for working in a shop, before later becoming an actress and singer, Amanda Billing is remarkably indecisive.

Ask her about her goals and she's "not sure"; ask if she's a better singer or actor and she doesn't know; enquire which charity she supports and she's "still working it out"; question whether she believes in God and she hasn't decided.

So what prompted the decision in her late 20s to go on stage, find an agent and then score a core role on Shortland Street?

Amanda as Sarah and Ben Mitchell as TK.

"Probably working a lot with my sister Kate, she helps me set goals and go in interesting directions," Billing tells Sunday News.

"She helped me think about what I wanted to do, talk about it, process it and dream about it."

While Billing, 33, who plays Ferndale's Sarah Potts, appears to be living the dream – going from a regular day job into telly stardom – acting success hasn't always been on her agenda.


Growing up in the Wairarapa, she appeared in several school productions, but as a teen had no clear idea of where she wanted her life to go, and remembers "not being very comfortable in my skin".

At Canterbury University she studied humanities and, still unsure about her career direction, went on to spend a year at Christchurch College of Education because, "I'd been told I'd be good at teaching".

After two years at the front of the classroom, she was "exhausted", and so took a job working as a shop assistant for Karen Walker.

When she decided she wasn't suited to retail, she returned to teaching and it wasn't until she was 26 that she auditioned for The Country Wife at Auckland's Silo Theatre, which was being directed by her friend Heath Jones.

"It had been 10 years since I'd been on stage and I was sh***ing myself," she recalls. "Everyone else in the play had been to drama school, and I had no experience and felt like this upstart. I wanted to give it my all but I still didn't even know in myself if I wanted to be an actor."

The gamble paid off, and Billing was persuaded by her cast mates to get an agent.

While continuing to work as a relief teacher, she appeared in a few plays and several adverts. And less than two years after taking up acting, she landed a part in Shortland Street.

"My brother was living in New York at the time and I had just bought an around-the-world ticket when I got the call to say my audition had been successful," Billing grins. I had already tried out for Maia Jeffries and Avril Lucich but I think Sarah was enough like me that I didn't have to try too much, she's a regular kind of gal."

While very down to earth and philosophical about her achievements, Billing, who admits she is both "sensitive" and a "drama queen on the inside of my head", at first imagined Shortland Street would make her famous overnight.

"I was a bit disappointed initially, it took three to six months before people began recognising me," she jokes. "How I deal with it depends on how I'm feeling and what people are like.

"I remember going out and buying a really big pair of sunglasses in Newmarket one day because I was so self conscious."

When we meet at South Pacific Studios in West Auckland, the Masterton-born brunette is wearing a top she made herself. As well as sewing, she knits, does crafts and has learnt to speak French and Italian. But her big passion outside of acting is singing. She starred in Threepenny Opera last year and performs with gospel choir Jubilation.

"There's something very immediate and physical about singing," she explains. "I would actually love to sing all sorts of other different types of music."

In Shortland Street, Billing has long played one half of golden couple TK and Sarah, a marriage which is currently on a crash course to ruin.

"It has been very difficult to play, there are some days when I've thought she's just being a complete twit," Billing says.

She admits she's not entirely comfortable laying her personal life out for scrutiny.

But she adds: "If my story can encourage other people to follow a dream or shake themselves up a little bit, and reconnect with those things they once wanted to do, then it serves a purpose."

Sunday News