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Actress Jen Van Epps ‘New Zealand made me a movie star!’

How moving from California to Kiwiland turned Jen Van Epps into an in-demand actress
Pictures: Aimee Glucina Photography

Actress Jen Van Epps spent years in Hollywood struggling to make her dreams of movie stardom a reality.

But it wasn’t until she moved halfway across the world, to Auckland, that the 42-year-old finally got her chance – and now she’s a US box-office hit, appearing opposite Girls star Allison Williams in the Kiwi- shot horror movie M3gan.

After growing up in California, Jen moved to Aotearoa with her husband and daughter in 2018, at an emotional and career low point. “Acting had taken a backseat,” recalls the One Lane Bridge, Cowboy Bebop and Power Rangers star. “I felt strangely unmotivated, even though acting was what I really wanted to do. I know now a lot of that was actually fear and self-loathing.

“My anxiety got so bad, I started having panic attacks and night terrors. Going to auditions, I was terrified. It was like I had marbles in my mouth. I couldn’t calm down.”

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, it was the final straw for Jen and her family. “Given Trump’s attitude towards women and people of colour, it was pretty eye-opening when he won,” she recalls. “Then there was a spate of mass shootings. We felt like, ‘What is happening?'”

A friend of Jen’s husband, a fellow doctor, had moved to New Zealand a few years previously and offered to help find him a job if the family was considering a move.

Jen tells, “My acting career was in the doldrums, I felt like I’d lost my joy and we were all feeling frayed. There was nothing to lose, so in 2018, we hopped on a plane to New Zealand, sight unseen. Five years later, we’re still here!”

Auckland quickly started to feel like home and Jen loved the Kiwi childhood she was able to offer her daughter Rosalyn, now eight, with family trips all around Aotearoa. But even better than a scenic helicopter flight over Milford Sound or racing each other on Rotorua’s famous luge was the fact Jen could breathe easier about Rosalyn’s safety.

“She has such a sweet and more free childhood,” says Jen. “I’m not worrying about there being shootings at her school or if I take her to a concert.”

Rosalyn, who has inherited her mother’s talent for theatre, is thriving here – and even calls Jen “Mum” instead of “Mom”! The actress laughs, “She’s definitely a Kiwi. Sometimes I feel like a bad American – she doesn’t know the US national anthem, but she can sing the New Zealand one in English and te reo!”

Daughter Rosalyn is growing up Kiwi!

Once settled in Aotearoa, Jen worked hard not only on honing her acting craft, but also on healing her anxiety and self-worth issues with therapy and reiki. “The kindness I was shown here really invigorated me – it gave me a lot of self-confidence,” tells Jen, whose career started gathering momentum in 2021, when US screen productions flocked to our shores to take advantage of filming in a COVID-free country.

“There weren’t really any other actresses like me in Auckland. I’m biracial – Black and Chinese – with an American accent, which are things people were looking for to make their production feel more American. Of course, I work really hard, but I also feel incredibly lucky I was in the right place at the right time.”

Nonetheless, Jen didn’t think she had any chance of starring in M3gan. “I totally thought I had biffed the audition,” she says, explaining she found out mid-audition that she’d prepared the wrong script.

“I totally let it go, then a couple of weeks later, I got a call from my agent saying, ‘How would you like to work with Allison Williams?’ I was just elated.”

For Jen, working with Allison, as well as Crazy Rich Asians star Ronnie Chieng and Will & Grace’s Brian Jordan Alvarez, only made making the film about a killer doll even more of a dream job.

In M3gan with Allison and Brian.

“Allison’s such a generous actor and human,” she tells. “In a lot of ways, she took me under her wing. This is my first major film and she led by example with how you function on set.”

Attending M3gan’s star-studded LA premiere was another “pinch-me” moment. “I had no idea how to pose for a million cameras!” chuckles Jen. “It was an incredible feeling. Five years ago, if you’d told me I would be starring in a worldwide hit, I’d have thought you were crazy.

Sheer delight: Stunning on the red carpet in LA wearing Kiwi designer Cecelia Kang.

“Moving to New Zealand has meant everything to me and my family. Not just career-wise, but emotionally too. Since we came here, we’ve all grown… heaps!”

Images: Aimee Glucina Photography

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