Robyn Malcolm's new fortune
After five seasons of playing Cheryl West, Robyn Malcolm has found meeker, milder shoes to fill. She tells James Croot about her new show, Agent Anna.
Robyn Malcolm hopes her new show will change perceptions.
Perceptions about herself, about television for the over-40s and, most importantly, about real estate agents.
"Real estate agents always fascinated me for a number of reasons," Malcolm says of the inspiration for her six-part series, Agent Anna, which begins airing on TV One on Thursday.
"On the one hand, we're just obsessed with houses in New Zealand, but we're also obsessed with our own mistrust and hatred of agents. They inhabit this stereotype of the money-hungry shark more than any other profession,'' she says.
''The thing is, though, the average income per annum for them is about $17,000, according to a statistic I read.
"What's also fascinating is that so many have come from somewhere else first. Not many of them have just left school. Instead, it's a response to something else in their lives."
That is certainly the case with Malcolm's character, Anna Kingston. When her husband runs off to Australia, she is left facing a mountain of debt and taking care of two daughters.
"Her response is that she'll be able to sell houses just like that," Malcolm says.
"There's a perception that it is a very easy thing to do. But from what I've seen it's absolutely not. There's a fight to the finish line and a fight for each commission.
"I thought that was enormously fertile ground for a great little story. And what happens if you plonk a passive- aggressive, middle-class surrendered wife into that environment, who has completely failed with her life in every way and has no skill-set?"
Anna is far removed from Outrageous Fortune's Cheryl West, the leopard print-loving matriarch whose life and loves captured Kiwi audiences' imaginations in the noughties.
However, this change of tack was the 47-year-old actress's practical response to a tricky situation she found herself in - being a victim of her own success.
"I'd become so well known as Cheryl and I was aware that work might be a little bit tricky after that for a while. People have short memories. Despite the fact I have played over 50 characters now, if audiences, networks or producers have a strong relationship with one character it takes a bit of an effort to change that,'' she says.
"One answer was to go to Australia and get work, which I did and I had a great time over there. However, I want to work here. I want to tell stories about New Zealand people in New Zealand situations."
Describing herself as never being one to sit back, Malcolm decided to get proactive and, inspired by her own recent experiences in buying and selling homes, helped devise Agent Anna.
"Everyone I know has real estate stories to share and of course you can't throw a stone in Auckland without hitting a real estate sign."
That familiarity, Malcolm's reputation and sheer good fortune have also helped the show come together much quicker than most.
"It is literally only 18 months since I went to Great Southern Television with my little treatment and pieces of paper and said 'what do you reckon' and they went 'oh, we love it'. We got Maxine Fleming onboard to write it and then headed to TVNZ who told us they'd like to show it, if we'd like to make it. Then it was off to NZ on Air. They said 'can you make it for this'? We said: 'We'll give it a go'."
That meant shooting Agent Anna in just five weeks last July.
"We were still writing it when we started shooting. It was done on the smell of an oily rag, but that became the wonderful thing about it. Everybody ended up doing two jobs and just mucked in - it was enormous fun."
Describing the show as a "tragi-comedy", tonally different to anything made here before - "it's like a little Mike Leigh movie" - Malcolm hopes the humanity of the show will hook people in.
"Its subject matter means it is not exactly an easy sell, but people when they are in pain can be terribly funny."
She particularly hopes it finds an audience among her own demographic.
"I know a lot of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who enjoy television and enjoy intelligent television that has some depth to it - stories they can relate to. America has only just discovered that this is one of the largest demographics and that's why shows like The Big C, Enlightened, Nurse Jackie and The Good Wife have cropped up.
"It's the generation who watched Sex and the City a decade ago and the execs have ignored them for a bit."
But of course a lot of the shows just mentioned have been poorly handled by the New Zealand networks, ending up in times where the audience can't find them or watch them.
That's something Malcolm is acutely aware of and delighted in this case to report that TVNZ has, "backed the show to the hilt".
"They've given it an awesome slot that people should be able to find really easily." And that includes real estate agents, who she hopes "will love it".
"I hope it reflects back on the industry in a way they can recognise - we haven't been deliberately unkind. We've tried to get to the reality of what it's like when commission is your driver, when everything about what you do in your day is focused towards that and your survival depends on that next sale."
Agent Anna, Thursdays, 8.30pm, TV One.