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Actress Kerry Fox’s chilling new role

The screen veteran proves she is no angel in her new film, The Rehearsal.

Smiling through stained teeth, a glowing orange afro sprouting from her head, Kerry Fox caused quite a stir when she blazed onto the big screen as Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table. It’s safe to say that 26 years later, much has changed for this now British-based Kiwi actress.

She’s older, of course. She turned 50 this year and, not surprisingly, gone for good is the slightly naïve 24-year-old who director Jane Campion spotted in her final year at Wellington’s New Zealand Drama School (well before it was named Toi Whakaari) and chose her for the pivotal role as one of our most iconic writers.

In her place stands a more self-assured, at times frosty actress, mother-of-two and taker of roles some call brave and others call risky. Who can forget her in the 2001 movie Intimacy, in which some of the sex scenes were unsimulated?

No such controversy surrounds her latest gig as the formidable and manipulative drama school head teacher in the movie adaptation of Man Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal.

Chewing up and spitting out eager young drama students, her character has been deemed by critics to be ”bewitching” and “chilling”. But Kerry laughs at suggestions she channelled any of her own teachers for the role.

“Ours was a place of support and enrichment,” says Kerry. “I am very much against the idea of breaking people down.”

Not that everything smelled of roses during her three years learning her craft in the late ‘80s.

She laughs, “Back then, drama school was a complete s—hole. It was above an old snooker hall and we only had two rooms. The dance room had low ceilings, so we couldn’t do jumps or lifts. And the voice room was disgusting, with these acrylic carpets that we had to lie down on.”

And unlike her character, Kerry relished the company of younger cast members in the film, which included Boy and The Dark Horse actor James Rolleston, who she says is “self-contained and concentrated”.

She admits she was shocked in August when a car James (19) was travelling in crashed in Opotiki, landing him in intensive care. He is still recovering.

“It happened in the middle of the two of our screenings,” says Kerry. “I heard about it through a journalist who left a voicemail. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end.”

Married to British journalist Alexander Linklater, Kerry has two sons, Eric (15) and Hugh (11), not much younger than James.

With actor James Rolleston.

One, she says, has leanings towards a life in performing arts “and the other one hates it”. Raising her family in London, it isn’t always easy keeping the boys in tune with the Kiwi side.

“I have a good friend who has a cousin in the All Blacks,” says Kerry, “so when he was at primary school, my youngest son learned the haka online through him. Now he’s in secondary school and playing rugby for the first time. He came home one day and said, ‘I’m the only boy in my class who has never played rugby before!’ I felt terrible and said, ‘But did you tell them you could do the haka?’”

The Lower Hutt-born actress thanks her lucky stars that her job brings her home regularly.

“For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been back to Australia and New Zealand every year to work. It’s been fantastic.”

When home, she finds time to “take Dad for drives around the bays”, cycle up the Hutt River and drink good coffee – “you can find it in the UK, but you have to be focused,” she says.

With Michelle Ny on set of The Rehearsal.

One of her more memorable roles of late has been as the decidedly evil and machinating school mistress in last year’s Aussie revenge movie The Dressmaker, with Kate Winslet.

“We had a lot of laughs and we filmed in the most beautiful place in a nature reserve,” recalls Kerry. “I felt like I was taking one for the team, though, because everybody got great frocks apart from me.”

And seemingly just to prove that her 1990 role in An Angel will never be forgotten, a fan on set sought her out specifically for that early achievement.

“He was working as an extra on the day, but he was actually a writer and he told me he went into writing because of that film,” she tells. “He was living in a caravan – well, I can’t take responsibility for that – but he was pursuing his dream. It felt good to hear that. That’s why I do the work that I do.

“I choose roles that help people see they’re not alone in their fears and their desires. I’m happy if something I’ve done gives someone the confidence to be what they want to be.”

Words: Megan McChesney and Sebastian van der Zwan

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