A regular job and steady income might sound like a dream come true for most Kiwi actors, but Shortland Street star Grace Palmer has done the unthinkable and walked away from the show that made her famous.
After three unforgettable years playing lovable nurse Lucy Karim – who died on screen last week after giving birth – the 22-year-old made the agonising decision to spread her wings and finally act on that little voice inside her head.
“I’d known for about the last year that Shorty wasn’t a forever thing,” Grace tells Woman’s Day, opening up about her emotional exit from the TVNZ 2 show.
“I got to the point where I’d find myself watching a series on Netflix that I’d be hugely motivated by – it would really ignite a fire in me – and I’d sit there thinking, ‘That right there, that’s what I want to do.’
“Lucy was the girl I always wanted to be. She saw the best in everybody and was so content with her lot in life – she loved being a nurse and a wife, and was so excited to start a family. By the time I was done with her, she’d created a sex tape, been held hostage, got married and had a bubba, and I felt really content.”
But letting go of Lucy and walking out on a job she cherished, and a cast and crew she considered family, was one of the toughest calls Grace has ever had to make.
“I questioned my decision about 100 times. I’d think, ‘Maybe I should stay, save some more money and put a deposit on a house.’ But I knew there would always be a reason to need more cash or to stay for just that little bit longer, so I had to follow my heart.
“It’s very hard to let go of a character that you’ve loved and nurtured for so long – it does feel like a little piece of my heart will always be with Lucy. But at the same time, there’s something really exciting about being able to audition again and find something new to sink my teeth into.”
That something new came sooner than expected for the Christchurch-born star, who has begun filming alongside McLeod’s Daughters actress Lisa Chappell on Maori Television’s comedy series Tongue Tied. It was a pleasant but welcome surprise for Grace, who feared it would be tough to find work in New Zealand after playing Lucy for such a long time.
“When you leave Shorty, there’s that stigma that you’ve been on TV five nights a week and that people – and directors – might find it hard to separate you from that,” she explains.
“I expected not to play another character for at least six months, but then this job popped up. To be doing something in this genre feels like a dream – comedy is the stuff that really fills my soul.”
A self-confessed troublemaker behind the scenes, the playful star – who dates Step Dave hunk Rawiri Jobe, 30 – was well known for her hilarious antics on set, but Grace’s final day in the Shortland Street studio was no laughing matter.
As her lifeless character took her final breaths after haemorrhaging during childbirth, Grace’s loved ones were there in support. Gathered behind the camera were dad Tony Palmer, mum Janine Morrell-Gunn, stepdad Jason Gunn, brother Louis, 14, and Rawiri – all fighting back tears.
Grace recalls, “My mum found it really tough – it’s just not natural to watch your daughter die, even if it is only acting! There was a scene where Ngahuia Piripi [Esther Samuels] and Kerry-Lee Dewing [Kylie Brown] came to say their farewells. These girls are some of my best friends in real life and hearing them made me so upset – I was trying not to cry as I was meant to be playing dead, but my eyes were flittering and tears were rolling down my cheeks.
“I was crying for the girls too. It wasn’t just Lucy who was coming to an end – it was our final scenes together as well. It sounds so silly because it’s only acting, but it’s also been my home for three years. I went in as a teenager and came out an adult – that show has shaped who I am as a woman.”
While it would be the last Shorty episode Grace would ever appear in, funnily enough it was the first Rawiri ever watched. Since they met in 2015, the brunette beauty can’t recall a single time they’ve sat in front of the box to check each other out in action.
“It’s not that we don’t appreciate each other, but that feels like work for us and we try to keep it separate if we can,” she tells. “He did get very emotional watching my final scene, though, which is a biggie for him because he never cries. He found it quite bizarre to watch his girlfriend slowly die and have another man comfort her.”
Grace remembers the first time she set eyes on Rawiri – she was 20 and his smiling face was blown up on a giant promotional poster in the Step Dave make-up room.
“I pointed to his face and said to the make-up girl, ‘Who is that? He is really good looking!’ The next time we saw each other was so awkward as I think she made him google me, but I definitely have a lot to thank her for.
“Ra’s hilarious – we are both a little weird – so it’s kind of awesome that we found each other. People in the industry naturally gravitate towards each other because ours can sometimes be an odd life to understand. It’s really cool when you find that someone who just gets it.”
“Long-distance is the bane of my life, but Ra understands how important my work is to me and vice-versa, and we’d never want to hold each other back,” says Grace.
“Obviously every actor’s dream would be to work on a big American blockbuster, but I’m not on the next flight out to LA – I’ll go where the work goes, whether that’s the States, Australia or New Zealand. The truth is, NZ will always be home, but the world is getting smaller and smaller – these days, you can send in an audition tape from anywhere in the world.”
While the uncertainty of the future might worry some actors, Grace couldn’t be more excited about what lies ahead.
“It’s quite final when your character dies because you know you can’t go back, but it’s probably good because now there’s no plan B,” she smiles.
“Shorty has taught me everything I know and I’ll always be proud of my time on that show, but that door is closed now and I’m ready to dive into the next chapter – whatever and wherever that may be.”
While the lovebirds – who live together in central Auckland – are happier than ever, things haven’t always been easy. In their two years together, a work opportunity for Rawiri in London meant the pair were forced to try long-distance for a time and later, the couple separated for several months. But things are different now and the prospect of Grace pursuing her acting career abroad doesn’t faze the rock-steady couple.