Laura Hill exits stage right

Laura Hill: it took a dye job to finally kill off nurse Toni Thompson-Warner.
Laura Hill: it took a dye job to finally kill off nurse Toni Thompson-Warner.

A BRUNETTE walks out of a bar.

"Was that...?" the maitre d's voice trails off.

Laura Hill left Shortland Street three months ago but it has taken two-and-a-half hours at a hair salon to finally kill nurse Toni Thompson-Warner.

This Friday a newly minted Hill takes the title role in a Fortune Theatre production of Jane Eyre. The adaptation, first presented by English touring theatre company Shared Experience, has its New Zealand premiere as part of the Otago Festival of the Arts.

Hill will spend six weeks in Dunedin, working with seven other actors under the direction of David Lawrence, 2005 winner of the Chapman Tripp Award for best director.

"David was in my drama class at Victoria University," says the 33-year-old actress. "I don't know if he watched Shortland Street, but he hasn't really seen me do anything since I played Satan in our class show."

Jane Eyre is a "really big role", says Hill. "It's a classic role; it's going to be physically, vocally and technically demanding and I want to do a good job. I don't like doing things unless I do them well."

Hill cited health reasons when she took a break from the TV show last year. She returned, "but by the time things came to the crunch, I realised they weren't going to have too many options with the character".

Fans were furious at the unexpected demise of her character from a kidney failure that would eventually be linked to a dodgy drug scam, but Hill is philosophical.

"I had my bread buttered by them for quite a while, which I'm really grateful for. In a way, I'm glad I don't have a get-out clause... I wanted to do other things and if I thought Shortland Street was going to be my safety net, I may not have been as inspired or compelled to chase after these other things.

"I've always wavered between being realistic and pragmatic... and the more romantic philosophy of not having a Plan B, because then you're banking on Plan A not working."

It's two days before her shift south and she's slotted the Star-Times between the new haircut and an eyebrow tinting appointment. "Is SPQR too cliche?" She worries about being interviewed in a classic Ponsonby hangout. She'll have a wine, thanks. "I'm kind of a pinot gris girl at the moment. Have been for a while. I didn't just jump on the bandwagon."

Seven years of continuity blonde locks and five-day-a-week soap opera appearances and Hill is a woman on a mission to avoid pigeon holes.

"People recognise me and say `What are you doing now?' I'm like, `I'm doing what every other actor in the country is doing I'm looking for work!"'

Hill moved to New Zealand from Cornwall when she was five. "I spent the bulk of my life here, but because I was raised in New Zealand by English parents, it's not like I had the full-on Buzzy Bee, Hairy Maclary upbringing that normal Kiwi kids would have had. It is a weird kind of hybrid.

"They had a roving streak in them, my parents. The move was sort of for us they figured they could give us a better life here."

Motueka first ("We lived between two hippie communities my parents are outwardly normal with an inward bohemian streak"), then Warkworth, north of Auckland.

Hill spent her early secondary school years at Mahurangi College "Co-ed, down to earth and much more my speed" before moving to Auckland to board at prestigious Kings College.

"A whole other world. And, I didn't realise at the time, a whole other world from other Auckland schools. I hated it when I first went there, but at the end, you come out and you've achieved some things and made friends I'm still close to now. It was a mixed bag.

"People hear I've been there, and they get a look on their face and a tone in their voice sometimes, `Oh, so you're a Kings girl.' It's easy to put people from private schools in boxes and make assumptions that can be quite wrong. And I certainly resent those assumptions being made about me."

Hill left Kings and gained a first class honours degree in English literature from Victoria University. Useful, perhaps, for someone about to take to the stage as a Charlotte Bronte heroine?

"I went through a whole English degree without doing any novels, because there was too much reading involved. I did plays and films.

"Victorian novels? It was like, `oh come on'. But when I picked Jane Eyre up to read this year, I really enjoyed it."

The plot, says Hill, "is classic soap opera stuff". There's a class struggle, a horrible childhood at a boarding school, thwarted love and a mad woman in the attic, representing the repressed passion of Jane.

"Two sides of the same person. It's not necessarily a brand new idea, but in terms of the theatrical adaptation, it's a central conceit."

The play is Hill's second theatrical outing this year. She recently appeared in The Gods of Warm Beer at Palmerston North's Centrepoint.

"I had a lovely time hanging out being an actor... I just kind of felt I was getting my mojo back. Shortland Street puts some constraints on you and I guess I felt like I was losing those... in terms of having a profile, and how you behave when you're out, just all that kind of bullshit, and I kind of let go of that and it was really nice."

Sunday Star Times