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Brokenwood star Fern’s fighting spirit

The actress explains why the past couple of years have been ‘painful but incredibly healing’
Pictures: Lizza Maryann

For someone who says she enjoys being comfortable, the kiwi actress has somehow found her life split between two confronting worlds. Fern Sutherland spends months training in Muay Thai boxing in humid Phuket, before plunging back into chilly Kiwi winters to film The Brokenwood Mysteries.

“Living my life in extremes seems to be something I like doing,” laughs the Taranaki-born actress. “It’s something I’ve noticed about myself. I like to put myself in really uncomfortable situations and really hate it at the same time.”

In Brokenwood with co-star Neill Rea.

Fern, 36, says that pain is where personal growth comes from, which she agrees absolutely sounds like the kind of inspirational poster that would be on the side of a Muay Thai gym. “Pain is good for you! Pain is your teacher!” she jokes. “They’re platitudes, but they’re clichés for a reason.”

Fern threw herself into Muay Thai in 2022 after a difficult few months that saw the end of her 14-year relationship and the deaths of two friends.

Her coping mechanisms weren’t so practical to begin with. At first, her healing practices were “drinking a bottle of wine and putting my head in the sand”.

But the continuity of The Brokenwood Mysteries helped. A constant presence in a sea of change, the popular show’s 10th season is coming soon to TVNZ 1 and there’s an 11th series already in the works too.

“It was a tricky time,” reflects Fern. “I was so lucky that I had acting work and people on set who realised I was having a bit of a moment. They showed up for me in a way that was really beautiful.”

Getting her kicks from Muay Thai boxing.

She’s speaking to Woman’s Day from Phuket, where she’s been for six months – the longest stretch she’s done so far. It’s finally provided her enough mental space to start unpacking all of those losses, start grieving and managing her anxiety.

“With the training, I’ve been able to work through that stuff in a way that feels like there’s a bit more distance,” Fern says. “I’ve found the past couple of years to be incredibly painful but incredibly healing as well.”

Part of the recovery from such a long-term relationship ending was feeling out of place in the world, Fern says. “There’s a sense of questioning who you are without that person – which, to be honest, I’m still in.”

While that was “utterly terrifying” to begin with, finding a new community, a new home away from home and an intense training regime has helped immensely.

“Two hours of Muay Thai training is some sort of alchemy where whatever yucky feeling you had before is transformed into something completely different – you’re either feeling much more energised or you’re so exhausted that none of that stuff you were thinking about before matters any more!”

Thailand is Fern’s second home.

One of Fern’s key learnings from her training? That the kind of fighter you are in the ring is the kind of person you are outside it. An ideal fighter, she says, is someone who is slow, considered and measured in their responses.

“I am not that person, but I’d like to be,” she laughs. “I’ve learned very quickly that the ‘act now, think later’ approach doesn’t work. It results in extreme frustration, pain and losing!”

Being based in Thailand for long stints is also beneficial because it seems to be one of the rare corners of the globe where Brokenwood doesn’t have a strong fan following… yet.

As one of Aotearoa’s longest-running shows, it’s obviously a juggernaut here. What local fans might not realise is just how huge the series is overseas. Now screening in 150 nations, Fern says the extraordinary longevity and global popularity of the show has been “an absolute gift”.

She adds, “It’s wild how many people from different cultures have gotten into it. I’m certainly not looking a gift horse in the mouth. It’s a really great job, the people are amazing and it shows no signs of stopping either. We could be having this interview in another 10 years and it’ll still be there.”

Having a stable gig is a real treasure for any actor, but Brokenwood isn’t the only Kiwi project that Fern has worked on recently. She also stars in new film The Mountain. It’s the directorial debut of Kiwi acting legend Rachel House, which follows three children who go on a spiritual journey up Mt Taranaki.

Back in New Plymouth filming The Mountain.

Being part of the movie meant returning to New Plymouth. It also marked the first time that Fern has played a mother.

“I have officially crossed that threshold,” she laughs. “I was initially like, ‘Oh, I’m not the person for this,’ even though the whole point of acting is to play someone you haven’t had any experience being in real life!

“For some reason, the mum thing hits different. But, the opportunity to work in my hometown and film up the mountain, with a really cool crew, was a no-brainer.”

Fern plays the mother of the lead character Sam, played by young talent Elizabeth Atkinson. It was a joyful experience, Fern says, because child actors are so much fun to work with.

“They’ve got this incredible sense of play and that belief that anything is possible,” she tells. “Rachel did such a good job of directing them because she’s got quite a childlike curiosity and fun energy.”

A lot of the film was shot up in the wilderness of the maunga itself. Literally off the beaten track, they had to be helicoptered up there. Filming was an extraordinary experience, says Fern, especially when it came to the film’s recognition of te ao Māori.

“It was a really nice way to start the day with a karakia [prayer], acknowledging the mountain as a living ancestor. It was an amazing opportunity to learn more, and it was such a welcoming and encouraging environment to learn in.”

Fern feels fortunate to have a foot in both lush, green Aotearoa and hot, tropical Thailand. It’s not an easy path she’s chosen – she has had to make sacrifices to make it work.

“But it’s a choice to live the way that I live just as much as it’s a choice to buy a car, have a child, pay a mortgage or pursue a corporate job.”

Her decision to devote a large chunk of her thirties to a martial art has surprised people, adds Fern. But one of the benefits of time spent overseas is that the expectations of marriage, mortgage and motherhood are quieter.

“I do feel lucky that I’ve been able to have this experience and have those realisations for myself. Otherwise I’d still be pursuing those metrics of success. I do find it challenging. But, it’s also deeply rewarding and I’m really proud of the way I live my life.”

The Mountain opens in cinemas on Thursday.

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