Nov 10, 2014 Film & TV
Sunshine and bright lights, heartache and hope. It’s tough being a Kiwi actor in LA.
On Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood is an apartment in an elegant 1920s stucco building with a turret and a turquoise swimming pool out back that’s become known as the unofficial New Zealand embassy.
It’s home to actress Fleur Saville, former home of Rose McIver and Gin Wigmore and emergency housing, support office and function venue for New Zealand actors and filmmakers touching down at LAX on a wave of confidence.
Saville meets me at the door, petite and blonde with those familiar pretty pointy features that always get her on casting lists for an English elf. There’s a suitcase in the hallway belonging to an Auckland director, in town briefly and staying on the couch. A life-sized photograph of Humphrey Bogart hovers above the stairway.
“Marilyn Monroe supposedly used to write here,” says Saville as we step into her office.
“I didn’t know Marilyn Monroe wrote,” I say. “Exactly,” she replies.
Whether it’s true or not, it’s a great rumour, and the dark-panelled room has a convincing old-Hollywood vibe.
It’s new Hollywood that Saville is focused on. New Zealand is not great at producing A-list movie stars. The closest we’ve come is Kiwi-denier Russell Crowe. While there are New Zealand actors successfully working in Hollywood, they have nothing like the clout and visibility of the Australian “gum-leaf Mafia”. Where’s our Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth or Hugh Jackman? “We don’t have a star system,” says Saville. “We apologise for being great or talented. It’s time for it to be known that we’re good at what we do. I feel I’m on a personal rampage to stop the tall poppy syndrome.”
Saville, who has been in New Zealand television shows since her teens, came to Hollywood with a plan. “I thought I could just roll up, get an audition and get it sponsored and get a big show and I’d be fine. It’s a great plan. But there is so much more to it than that, more than you could imagine,” she says. “I got the rude awakening that you had to have a visa to be able to work.”
Friends enlisted her to produce an independent horror film, which sorted out the visa issues, and for the past two years West Hollywood has been home. While she’s still pursuing acting (one recent gig was voicing the elf in video game The Elder Scrolls), she has discovered a love for producing and is working on a grand vision with government agency Film New Zealand to promote New Zealand as a destination for US productions.
All the New Zealand actors Metro spoke to in Los Angeles would love to work at home. But once you’ve racked up Shortland Street and tele-dramas, acting opportunities are limited. Hollywood is synonymous with the entertainment industry: it’s where dreams are made and broken and it’s a simultaneously gruelling and dazzling place to be an actor.
Like Saville, Los Angeles transplants Keisha Castle-Hughes, Anna Hutchison, Ari Boyland and Zoë Bell have learned a thing or two about surviving in Tinseltown.
Remember you’re one in a million [actors looking for a gig]
“It’s bloody difficult over here. When we were working on Rodeo Drive on Thursday, this girl was handing out flyers and as we were filming she goes, ‘Do you need an actress?’ I was like, ‘Babe, if there is one thing LA doesn’t need any more of it’s actresses. Stick to your day job, even if it’s handing out flyers.’ The competition is ridiculously fierce.”
I arrange to meet Anna Hutchison on a Sunday afternoon at the pool at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood. “Make sure you wear high heels with your bikini and don’t skimp on the bling — oh god, seriously!!” she emails back enthusiastically. Everything the 28-year-old does is punctuated with an enthusiastic bounce.
We never actually get to try out our strut at the pool. Hutchison spends Sunday afternoon working with a dialect coach in preparation for playing the lead role in a Hallmark channel telemovie.
She ends that job on a high, driving a red Corvette and sashaying in and out of designer stores on Rodeo Drive, the ritziest shopping street in Los Angeles. “It was mind blowing,” she says. “It was such a Pretty Woman moment.”
Yet she’s not about to get complacent. Mid-shoot, with a film in Canada lined up and another episode of her recurring role on Charlie Sheen’s television vehicle Anger Management scheduled after that, Hutchison still spent her one afternoon off doing three auditions. “It’s hustle, hustle, hustle the whole time.”
In the past two years, she’s heard enough noes to know the yeses are hard won. “In LA, it’s kind of like being a gambler in a casino. You can be down to your last five dollars, then you get a hit and you win. You can have, ‘No, no, no,’ from 50 auditions and then you get one — even if it’s a tiny part in something. It’s such a fabulous thing to be working as an actor.”
It’s always darkest before the Dorne
“I was on my way to the airport at LA to come back to New Zealand, really excited to come home, and my manager rang and said, ‘Have you left?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just pulling into LAX now.’ ‘Don’t get on the plane,’ she said. ‘You can’t get on the plane. You have to meet [Game of Thrones creators] David Benioff and Dan Weiss this week.’ I was like, ‘Oh, for crying out loud.’ I really got myself mentally and emotionally ready to go home and see [my daughter] Felicity and [husband] Jonathan. I’ve just sublet my apartment out. I’ve rented my car off another actor friend and he’s coming back. I don’t have a car. I don’t have anywhere to live.”
Keisha Castle-Hughes endured the worst type of noes this pilot season — the encouraging type. She did 40 auditions and consistently got positive feedback but failed to land a job. “I sometimes prefer they come back and say, ‘She’s really not right for the role.’ All of them were — ‘She’s a really great actress, we’d love to see her in the role but we’ve decided to go this way this time.’”
Resigned to another bout of unemployment, she packed up for home with no idea she had already been earmarked for the most fiercely loved show on television.
As a fan of Game of Thrones, she had read the books it is based on, and set her sights on the role over 18 months ago. “I started talking to my manager about Dorne — where my character is from. I said, ‘It’s coming soon and they’ll obviously want some brown actors and it’s my favourite show so we need to stay on it.’” Three weeks before she was due to fly out, they sent off an audition tape.
Castle-Hughes didn’t get on the plane. Her manager even got her an audition for The Walking Dead on the morning of her meeting with Benioff and Weiss. It was a day worth sticking around for. She got the part in The Walking Dead and flew to Georgia the following week. While on set, she got the call confirming she had the role of Obara Sand in Game of Thrones. “That’s the nature of it,” says Castle-Hughes. “It never rains, it pours. It’s always when you think you cannot take another second of this bizarre lifestyle choice.”
Go out of your mind
“The initial brief was for a 40-year-old Latino character. I went in there and thought there is no point. This is fun. So I went in there, had an absolute blast, acted so hard I gave myself a headache but had the most amazing feeling afterwards. I called the manager and said, ‘Thanks dude, so much, because I think it went well. I’m not going to get it but I had such a good time and I’ve got to go take a Panadol.’ He called back about three minutes later and said, ‘They love you. What did you do in there?’ That role went to another girl but five days later they called back to say can we have her for this other role. [My character] started off as a prostitute. She’s not anymore.”
That’s how Anna Hutchison found herself sitting on a couch next to Charlie Sheen wondering how the hell she was going to memorise the six new pages of script she had just been handed. In fast-turnaround sitcoms, teams of writers are on the spot gauging the reaction of the live audiences. If a joke falls flat, it gets rewritten.
The first time she was handed extra pages, she turned to Sheen and panicked. The actor, who has become more famous for his bizarre “tiger blood” outburst, cocaine abuse and bust-ups with his colleagues and ex-wives than his expansive career, was graciously relaxed, telling her not to worry and that if she stuffed up they’d just do another take.
“He’s laughing away,” says Hutchison. “He’s a fabulous man. I don’t know how I landed such an incredible teacher. I honestly don’t care about the other stuff. For me, he is completely professional and it’s a fabulous opportunity.”
Roll with the punches
“I was at this hall and getting ready to go in, in a red-and-white polka-dot onesie, big shoes, a hat, a red nose — looking and acting like a complete dick. This whole line of cars comes in and I go, ‘Awesome. Just in time.’ As they got out, the guy said, ‘Are you going to keep us company today?’ I’m like, ‘Yeee-hah, I’ll do magic and balloons and facepaint.’ I was walking down, then I thought, ‘Hang on a second, there are no kids in this group. They’re all adults and they’re all looking fairly sad.’ I look up and there is a dude at the door greeting everybody, looking really down. It was one of those moments when it’s super- slow motion and I’m thinking, ‘Is this what I think it is?’ It’s a funeral. And I was dressed as a clown.”
Like Castle-Hughes, Hutchison and Saville, Ari Boyland had the good, and bad, fortune of tasting acting success early, joining the cast of children’s drama The Tribe when he was just 11. Power Rangers, Go Girls and Shortland Street followed.
“I have no choice now. I can’t go and get a job in a call centre. I need to do this,” he says. That charmed run has stuttered since he arrived in Los Angeles, where most of his acting work in the past two years has been on low-budget horror films, a common entry point for aspiring actors in the US.
“I came over forcing myself to be very grounded about the whole process,” says Boyland. “I knew the gravity of the step I was taking and how many people were doing the same thing.”
He had to give up living in the hipster neighbourhood Franklin Village under the Hollywood sign because he got too many parking tickets. Now, he shares a house with mates in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley (“porn capital of the world”, as he calls it) and earns a buck being a clown at parties for wealthy Angelenos. The other day, he did one where the cake was as big as a car.
Boyland’s jumped around representation since he arrived to find a suitable agent and manager. Initially, he signed with the same manager as Kevin Spacey, which sounds great, but if an A-lister is sapping all the attention, it’s hard to get on the radar. Boyland now gets about three auditions a week, often for the good-looking jock who got all the girls at high school.
While he’s yet to land a major role, Boyland feels he’s got time on his side. “The saying out here is, ‘For ladies, it’s a sprint, for guys, it’s a marathon.’ It really is. I’m still going out for [roles for] 18-year-olds. I’m 27.”
It’s not always about now
“There were producers telling me then, ‘If you don’t take this opportunity now, when you’re 12, your life is over. This will be the end of your career.’ I believed them, of course. My parents were like, ‘That’s too bad because you live in New Zealand and your brother’s got rugby practice next week and it’s not all about you.’”
Castle-Hughes, 24, has been visiting Los Angeles since her success in Whale Rider catapulted her onto the red carpet 12 years ago. Under the warm glow of an Oscar nomination and pressure from industry insiders, she was desperate to move there immediately, and she returned frequently during her teenage years to chase the work.
She would stay in Venice Beach with American director Catherine Hardwicke. They bonded when Castle-Hughes was doing the Academy Awards rounds and Hardwicke was on the circuit with her teenage girl drama Thirteen.
Starting at the top of the acting profession was a privileged but hugely intimidating place to be. “Thank god I had Catherine when I first went to LA,” says Castle-Hughes. “She was a strong, stable person I could stay with. I used to get so incredibly homesick during those years. I would cry and cry.”
Today, Los Angeles feels like a second home. She has an apartment in West Hollywood — not that she’s had the opportunity to be there much this year, with Game of Thrones filming sending her to Ireland, Croatia and Spain. I catch up with her during a break in her schedule at Auckland’s Alleluya Cafe, the only place she’s worked outside the film industry. She’s feeling homesick for the Californian sunshine. “I feel the best version of myself when I’m in Los Angeles because you can be anything you want to be.”
Kick against the pricks
“About five minutes before I walked down the red carpet, I went into the bathroom for a final nervous pee and it wasn’t until I was walking out that I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I think you can see my undies.’ I walked out and was like, ‘Hey ladies, is this see-through?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah. But it’s clutty [classy and slutty] see-through.’ I thought, ‘I’ve got two options. I can either be insecure about it and be trying to hide my bum on a big red carpet or I can pretend I meant to do it like that and play the Hollywood game. So that’s what I did.”
Zoë Bell has a dilemma. She’s on the guest list for The Expendables 3 premiere, sharing the red carpet with a muscled all-star line-up of action stars from the last 30 years — Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford.
That’s not the problem — these are her type of people. After getting her start in Hollywood as stunt double for Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, she’s built a career in fearsome, shit-kicking roles. Tarantino is such a fan he wrote a movie for her (Death Proof) and now casts her in every one of his films.
Yet, while blockbuster action flicks are exactly her bag, you only need to see the marketing for The Expendables 3 to understand the challenge of being an action heroine. The poster has 15 men and one woman.
So Bell is taking charge. In 2013, she co-produced and starred in Raze, about 50 women forced to fight to the death with their bare hands. “I feel like there’s a brewing wave of bad-asses in conjunction with women in film and I’d love to be a part of that,” she says. “I feel I’m a part of a groundswell. There’s excited chatter and I want to plug into it as much I can.”
Mingling with action superstars is important business. She’s been on a red-carpet regime — no booze, lots of exercise — and has the sexy dress picked out. What she doesn’t have is a date.
Should she take her friend visiting from home, an industry colleague to network, or a paparazzi bait date? How to play an event is one of the many unwritten Hollywood rules.
“It used to pain me that I should take a representation person rather than my best friend.” Bell takes her manager and has a fantastic time on the red carpet.
“Once I’m on there I’m fine. It’s like a cold swim — once you’re in, it’s fine.”
Kill your darlings
“One of the worst ones was an improv audition and I had to be a Beverly Hills housewife. I came in, in character, and pretended I’d just run over a chihuahua. They were just like, ‘Is the dog okay?’ They didn’t get it. I thought I’d nailed it. Then my agent said, ‘It was terrible because they thought you actually killed a dog.’ Isn’t that genius! I thought it was.”
Fleur Saville may have had some trouble communicating in the auditions but she’s become an expert at connecting Kiwis with American industry players outside the casting room. She’s charmed friends who own a mansion on Mulholland Drive and, in cahoots with Film New Zealand, used it to host events promoting Kiwis in film and New Zealand as a destination.
“My passion is to bridge the gap between Hollywood and New Zealand because New Zealand is not that far away and once you get there, it’s phenomenal,” she says.
One of the attendees at her get-togethers was Lee Aronsohn, an American writer who has worked on some of the most popular shows in television history, from The Love Boat to Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Last month, Saville accompanied Aronsohn to Auckland for the Big Screen Symposium and to research a screenplay set here during World War II. This is what she dreams of — big, well-funded international productions filmed here employing New Zealand talent who will get their chance at stardom.
Saville recently turned 30, which can be a tricky milestone in the youth-obsessed world of entertainment. She celebrated with a party on Mulholland Drive and a sail on a friend’s yacht and realised 30 wasn’t so terrifying after all.
Above the desk in her West Hollywood office sits a present from a friend. Inside a white frame, LEDs light up an upbeat play on her nickname Floza. It reads: “Stay Flostive.”
More from our Kiwis in Hollywood special – Bewitched: David Farrier On Kiwi Actress Rose McIver