Celebrity News

Amanda Billing tells all on her photography passion projects

The actor’s side hustle is putting women firmly in the picture
Amanda Billing sitting in a chairPictures: Katie Fell, Amanda Billing, Alison Brewer

Amanda Billing may have spent 10 years acting in our most popular soap Shortland Street, but underneath there was always a photographer lurking.

“The first time I remember taking pictures consciously was at the end of Form Two, when I had a little Kodak Instamatic,” she explains. “At the end of the year, I tried to take photos of my favourite teachers.”

The results were disappointing as it was a cloudy day in December, but there was one of Mr Smart.

“He had quite thick glasses and wore walk shorts with walk socks,” she recalls. “This was when you could smoke on the school grounds. So I got a picture of him in the staffroom sitting on one of those classic wire seats with the blue fabric and wooden handles. He’s basically just sitting there, one hand holding a Arcorac glass mug of tea and the other his cigarette. It was really very artistic for a 12-year-old!”

Amanda Billing sitting in front of a grey backdrop
Amanda clicked with photography as a child and it led to an exciting 100-day project.

Amanda, 48, grew up in Masterton, but she and her family would often visit her grandparents in Browns Bay in Auckland. While there, she immersed herself in every copy of Life magazine she could find in their home.

“At quite a young age, I was looking through those magazines and they’ve got some really intense pictures, like World War II stuff. I decided to find the photographs that really had an impact on me, that made me want to take photographs.

“There was one of a young French woman who’d had a baby with a German soldier. They’d shaved her head and were marching her out of the village while she held the child. I’ve never forgotten that photo.”

Amanda also remembers a photo of a mother who is holding her daughter in a bath in Japan.

“It shows the impact of mercury poisoning in Minamata in Japan. It’s a heartbreaking image. This is what photos do – they can go straight to your heart. A lot of the women started having children with developmental delays intellectually and physically, and there’s this beautiful photograph.”

Amanda Billing on set of Shortland Street with a toddler
On Shorty with TV daughter Tillie.

Amanda’s childhood passion eventually culminated in her working on a 100-day project.

“In 2015, I decided I was going to take black and white photos on a proper SLR camera every day for 100 days. Initially, they were going to be me calling up my friends and doing portraits. But half way through, I had a part on [Kiwi TV series] The Brokenwood Mysteries. It ended up becoming more about taking pictures of people doing anything.”

Amanda went to the Battle of the Bands and dance festivals in an effort to fulfil her 100-day challenge. She still has those images and producing them had a huge impact on the work she does today.

She is much in demand as a headshot photographer for business people, actors or someone who just needs a decent shot for their social media.

“I have a lot of women in their fifties who come in and their hair is now a beautiful silver. The last time they had any pictures taken was 10 years ago,” says Amanda. “They’re either coming in and feeling a bit weird about that, or they’re coming in and they want to integrate their new look.”

With the Kid Sister crew
Amanda says playing Keren in Kid Sister has been a career high.

Some of Amanda’s customers don’t like their company photos.

“Having a headshot taken in a corporate environment is very much ‘wham bam’,” she tells. “You can feel like, ‘What just happened to me?’ Corporate women realise that you need to have a personal brand even within the company and they want to look like an executive rather than just an employee.”

Amanda suggests her clients get their hair and make-up done by her friend Alison Brewer, and then tries to make the experience enjoyable.

“That means relaxing – not rushing – and having fun. I’m constantly cracking jokes and coming up with some kind of patter all the time, and flattering people. It’s constant improv comedy, which I find really entertaining personally.

“These days, your picture lives forever out there on Google, Teams or internal comms. Getting a photo which accurately reflects you and that you are happy to put out there is quite a big deal.”

When Amanda left Shorty in 2014, after a decade playing Dr Sarah Potts, she realised that as an actor, she was going to need a side hustle. So she sold t-shirts with logos like “strong female character” on them and also created beautiful paintings, drawings and monoprints.

Amanda Billing holding a light sheet with makeup and a camera lens on the table in front of her
Lights, make-up, camera, action! Amanda’s life behind the lens is so fulfilling.

“My portrait business has grown out of a need to have a side hustle because I like being an actor,” she says. “But acting is notoriously unreliable as a source of income and you have to have another job. I don’t want to be poor.”

She recalls listening to Hollywood star Alec Baldwin on his podcast interviewing Edie Falco of The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie fame.

“They both agreed that they will get close to the end of a job and they’ll start getting nervous because they don’t know where the next job is coming from. I’ve never forgotten that because if it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. Of course it’s going to happen to an actor in little old New Zealand!”

Which is why photography is so important to Amanda, who particularly likes working with women in mid-life.

“As we age, I think people become a different kind of beautiful,” she enthuses. “I love wrinkles and I love facial topography.”

But while Amanda is busy with her photography, she is still acting as often as possible.

Side by side of Amanda photographing Fiona Samuel, and the edited and finished photo
Giving Kiwi writer/ actor/director Fiona Samuel the star treatment.

She’s currently starring in the popular TVNZ comedy Kid Sister. On the show, she plays glamorous South African-Jewish mother Keren, who wafts around in Zambesi outfits and says cringe-worthy things. Written by Simone Nathan, the comedy follows Lulu, a young woman navigating big issues in Auckland, where more people identify as Jedi than Jewish.

“I love playing Keren because it’s fun to just inhabit a character who has absolutely no filter – it’s glorious. She behaves in a way we all want to behave.”

Amanda says Kid Sister is one of her most enjoyable on-screen experiences.

“If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I can honestly say that playing Keren trumps all of the other jobs I’ve had!”

The actor also has a part in TVNZ’s comedy drama Under the Vines, which is shot in beautiful Central Otago. She was introduced in the second series as local cop Yvonne and continues her role in the third series due out later in the year.

“Yvonne has more to do in season three, which was really gratifying for me because I got to visit Queenstown. Just working in that part of the country on a regular basis is wonderful. And then there’s working with Charlie and Rebecca – and that’s even better.”

Rebecca Gibney and UK actor Charles Edwards play the main roles in the series. By all accounts, the programme is a delight to be involved in.

Meanwhile, Amanda continues to take portraits most mornings and paints in the afternoon. She also has a group exhibition coming up featuring her art in Wellington in August, then a solo show in Auckland in October.

Amanda in a police costume, leaning on a police motorbike on set of Under The Vines
As Yvonne in Under the Vines.

But at the moment, it’s photography that pays the bills and also keeps her creative talents satisfied. She’s hoping people might consider getting some photos taken of themselves just for the hell of it.

“I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but people don’t consider it important to just have a nice photo taken,” she reflects. “There was that era in the ’90s of body shots, where people would pose in boudoir settings. And going back even further, there would be street photographers who would take pictures of women in their best outfits.

“It was also quite normal for a family to visit a studio and have portraits done of the children and the family.

“I just wish that having your photo taken wasn’t always for work or for a special occasion,” she adds. “Why not have them taken because you exist, and your life is happening and this is how you look?”

Amanda says a recent client asked her to take pictures of her because she was going through a hard time.

“She told me, ‘I want you to take photographs of me right now. I want to look back at this and appreciate and know that I got through it,’” says Amanda. “That’s when photography can be such a gift.”

Kid Sister is available now to stream on TVNZ+. For info about Amanda’s head shots, see amandabillingphotography.co.nz

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