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Amanda Billing’s acting secret

The drama queen shares her fears
Amanda Billing

After a decade on Shortland Street, Amanda Billing is one of the most recognisable and popular stars in New Zealand, but despite more than 10 years in the business, the brunette beauty confesses that acting terrifies her.

Recalling her first acting job in an Auckland production of The Country Wife, she admits, “I was a relief teacher from Masterton and I had no idea what I was doing. My voice wasn’t loud enough, my posture was s***ty and I was petrified. Every night we did the show, it was like jumping off a cliff – like, why did I decide to do this crazy thing? That feeling never goes away. There’s a part of me that still feels self-conscious.”

It was Amanda’s Country Wife co-stars who convinced her that despite her fears, she should leave teaching to become a full-time actress. “They encouraged me to get an agent, but I sat on it for a while because I wasn’t sure I was good enough,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to be rejected.” There were rejections, but Amanda – who turns 40 this year – eventually found an agent, who scored her more theatre work, as well as auditions for Shortland Street.

She didn’t secure the role of murderous nurse Maia Jeffries, but then came the part that made her a household name, Dr Sarah Potts. “That one was me,” smiles Amanda. “Sarah was soft, sensitive and sometimes naïve, but she was bolshie and always in other people’s faces. It just made sense and it felt right, although I found the confrontation difficult.

“I remember the first time Sarah got really angry, yelling at the CEO. I started to forget my lines, my heart was beating fast, I was getting hot and my voice was shaky. I usually shy away from confrontation, so my body didn’t react well.

“My brain was like, ‘We don’t do this! Why did you put yourself in this scary situation?’ I’m better at dealing with it now, but if you’re properly playing someone under stress, it gets exhausting. You really have to take care of yourself physically and emotionally.”

There was a nationwide outpouring of grief when Sarah suddenly died of a virus in August 2014, but no-one was more heartbroken than Amanda, whose contract wasn’t renewed just as she approached her 10-year anniversary on the hit TV2 soap. “No-one likes losing their job, especially publicly,” she tells. “Technically, I didn’t get fired, but that view changed depending on what side of the bed I got up on. It was uncomfortable, but I’m fine now. I look back on my time at Shorty and I’m enormously grateful for it. I loved it and treasured it.”

Joking, Amanda adds, “I should come back as a ghost and haunt TK!” Although she still has the odd person yelling “Sarah!” at her on the street, the actress has gone on to star in the series Find Me a Maori Bride and will soon be seen in the upcoming children’s sci-fi show The Cul de Sac.

Centre stage again! Self-consciousness aside, Amanda says her new role in The Book of Everything “just feels right”.

New chapter

But it’s her latest role in the play The Book of Everything – which is now touring New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Napier and Hamilton after a successful run in Auckland – that she’s most excited about. Coincidentally, the family-friendly show is put on by Silo Theatre, which also gave Amanda her first role in The Country Wife in 2003.

“I’ve come full circle,” she smiles. “I’d seen the show before and I was bawling my eyes out at the end. It touched something deep within me and I felt so envious of the people in it. When I found out they were holding auditions, I felt it was meant to be.

“There are roles that just feel right and this was one of them, like Sarah Potts. But this character is so sweet and I’ve never played a sweet person before. My heart still thumps before the lights come up, but it’s been exciting.”

In The Book of Everything, Amanda plays the mother of lead character Thomas, an imaginative Dutch schoolboy who learns how to solve his troubled family’s problems via a neighbour who is rumoured to be a witch.

It’s a mentoring relationship that Amanda was lucky to have with her co-stars in The Country Wife, as well as with one of the teachers at her Masterton high school. She recalls, “She was glamorous and arty, and she didn’t fit in in the countryside, but she made me feel like I could be myself. She didn’t treat me like a private schoolgirl.

“She’s one of the special people in my life who enabled me to become an actor. I’d love to be that for a child – an adult who is a bit different, who opens their eyes to another way of looking at the world and never judges others.” Laughing at the suggestion she might be feeling clucky, Amanda adds, “Well, I’d also like to play a witch, but all in good time!”

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