Celebrity News

Prebble with a cause

She’s graced our TV screens as not one, but two characters in the outrageous West family, but in her own life Antonia Prebble is driven by firmly held values that keep her grounded. Judy Bailey meets a woman of intelligence, serenity and ambition.

I don’t know about you but if someone accidentally dyed my hair bright red on the eve of an important photo shoot I might just lose the plot. But that’s exactly what happened to Kiwi actress Antonia Prebble – and she didn’t. Apparently she said, “Hmmm, interesting.” And embraced her new look.

Classically beautiful with her perfect peaches and cream complexion, doe eyes and naturally dark hair, she has an uncommon serenity about her for one so young. At just 28, where, I wonder, does that serenity come from?

When I meet her for this interview she’s just returned from a seven-day meditation retreat in Melbourne with her mother. “Seven days of no speaking. For an actor that was total relaxation,” she says delightedly.

“I’m interested in self-development and growth. My mother was into meditation when I was young, and I went with her. It was always part of my life. I never saw it as a hippy dippy thing. It was quite normal for me.”

There’s a stillness about Antonia that comes from knowing who she is, where she comes from and where she’s going. She’s grounded, intelligent and caring. Her first thought is for me, driving to our interview in a Kingsland café from my home on the North Shore in peak-hour traffic. “I do hope it wasn’t too awful for you,” she says. From all accounts that’s typical Antonia, always thinking of others.

She comes from a family of academics. Her father John is a professor of tax law at Victoria University. Her mother Nicola has a Masters in applied linguistics and teaches English to skilled migrants at Victoria. Her older sister and younger brother are both lawyers. Her grandfather, though, was an Anglican minister who became an actor at 75. A latent talent that skipped a generation and landed fair and square in Antonia’s genes.

She wanted to be an actor for as long as she can remember. “There was some spark in me that came alight when I performed, even as a four-year-old.” The pushy stage mother wasn’t a feature of Antonia’s early career – quite the reverse. At just nine years of age she would spend hours scanning the paper for auditions for local productions, and then would beg and cajole her mum into taking her. She got her first agent when she was 11. Her parents said it was okay, but on condition she organise it herself.

Hers is a close, loving family. She had a happy childhood with parents who wanted her to experience life in all its diversity. She was duly enrolled in a Jewish kindergarten, and went on to Wellington’s Clifton Terrace Model School, a small experimental school, rather like a country school in the city. Classes were in mixed year groups. “There were lots of difficult kids there, but hardly any bullying,” says Antonia. “There were no social hierarchies.” It was a shock for her then, when she went to high school at Queen Margaret’s, a prestigious private school in the capital. “I suddenly realised, ‘Wow, some kids are cooler than other kids.’ It was a blessing to have got to 12 without that pressure.”

Just weeks after she started at Queen Margaret’s, Antonia scored a role in the Australia/New Zealand co-production of the TV teen drama Mirror Mirror. It was a tough decision to forego the crucial settling-in period at a new school, but she was already completely focused on an acting career, and besides, as she says, “I tend to do things quite fast – I made friends fast. I was born fast, I shot out fast… sometimes I have to remind myself to slow down.” Early in her career there wasn’t a lot of competition for parts, and she was able to work pretty much continuously, juggling it with her schoolwork. Once she hit 18, though, all of a sudden there was a new pool of young adult actors, and she stopped getting work. “I lost confidence as I got older,” she admits. “I wondered if I’d ever work again, if I was ever going to be happy again.”

At this stage she was studying hard at university, and decided to return to her meditation, something she finds calming and centring. “I sensed I had shut off from opportunities, so I set myself a mantra about being open.” It seemed to work. Soon afterwards Antonia was cast in the first series of the iconic Kiwi drama, Outrageous Fortune. She hasn’t looked back. Not bad for someone who has never been to drama school.

The actress has, essentially, learned on the job. “I really enjoy the opportunity to express myself and find different parts of myself,” she says. “I feel like every character exists in us… we are all capable of everything.

“It’s fun. I’m curious about myself, about human nature and what makes us tick.”

Antonia as Rita West in Westside.

Antonia sets a high store by the values her parents taught her. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Be kind, behave well, be polite, have integrity. And she sets high standards for herself. “Integrity is a very useful decision-making tool. Ask yourself what’s the right thing? Suddenly the answer becomes clear – it makes life simpler.”

Off stage she keeps a low profile with her partner of seven years, Gareth Williams. “I don’t like being the centre of attention off stage – I’m easily embarrassed,” she says. “We’re so lucky in New Zealand there’re no paparazzi. I’ve made a conscious decision not to let [being a public figure] get to me – there’s no point.”

Antonia and Gareth met when she was performing in She Stoops to Conquer in Auckland. His flatmate was part of the cast. Gareth is also an actor and is the brains behind the comedy website haveasquiz.com, which promotes short-form comedy for established and up-and-coming Kiwi artists.

The pair live in a renovated workman’s cottage in the Auckland city suburb of Kingsland. Theirs is an easygoing partnership, with both of them giving the other space to pursue their dreams. Because of that they’re often separated for long stretches of time. “We’re good at long distance,” Antonia says with a smile. Gareth took a year out to work in Australia, while Antonia regularly spends up to three months at a time in Los Angeles for the pilot season, when American producers are on the lookout for new talent.

“The LA pilot season is such a crap-shoot, it’s complicated, arbitrary and out of your control,” she says ruefully. Many actors are discouraged by the cut and thrust of audition and rejection, but not Antonia. She always looks for the positive.

“I want to make sure I get something out of it. I call it my sabbatical and enrol in lots of classes. I want to keep learning my craft and work with lots of diverse people. It feels like I have a second life over there – I often stay with mates in their spare room or I book somewhere on Airbnb.”

Asked about the inequality between male and female actors in Hollywood, Antonia comments, “It’s such a shame women are in this position. Apparently, though, male leads sell lots more tickets than female leads.”

It’s easy to see she’s not a fan of Hollywood’s obsession with youth. “In LA they see me as auditioning for women in their late 30s; here I can still play women in their 20s.” As for the intensely lifted, filled and botoxed: “Imagine how difficult it is to get off that wheel,” she says. “I don’t envy those women.”

Blessed with a sharp intellect, Antonia is not a one-trick pony. Last year she completed her BA in linguistics. The degree took her 10 years because it had to fit around a punishing acting schedule, but she persevered and she’s glad she did. “Going to university was just something you did. It was a great thing to have when I wasn’t working.”

So what is next? Don’t be surprised if you see her in European productions – she’s aiming for an international career and the fluent French speaker has a hankering for a part in a French film. Chances are she’ll get one.

This year Antonia Prebble will appear in the second series of TV3’s drama Westside, the prequel of Outrageous Fortune. She will also star in a movie of Marian Keye’s book A Woman’s Right to Shoes, directed by New Zealander Robyn Grace

Get your favourite magazines home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories