When actress Antonia Prebble walks into the room, people stare. It’s only natural after being on our screens for six years in her best-known role – sulky-teen turned brothel owner Loretta West on Outrageous Fortune. However it could also be because of her newly coloured hair. It’s bright cherry red, certainly not the chocolate brown we’re used to.
“It’s a total mistake,” laughs Prebble, by way of warning as she sits down at a central Auckland café. “It’s not supposed to be this colour. The only thing we can think is the dye was labelled wrong.”
It’s a very un-diva like attitude for an actress who’s been in the limelight since she was 12 and is likely used to people pandering to her needs. But instead of kicking up a fuss, she’s nonchalant – finding a (possibly hard to reach) silver-lining.
“I would never dye my hair this colour... so now I know what it’s like to have red hair,” she laughs.
Playing a grown-up
Everything about 31-year-old Prebble is proper – she sits up straight, is extremely well-spoken, and looks well put together.
Today she’s wearing brown brogues, floral loose-fitting trousers and a blouse with buttons done right up to her neck. Her skin, even without a stitch of makeup, looks flawless and her cheekbones give off an air of aristocracy. She looks so self-assured it’s difficult to think there might have been a time when she didn’t entirely trust herself – but there was.
In her 20s Prebble was managing everything just fine, but admits there was ‘this internal shaky sense of self’. It probably had a lot to do with the fact she was often the youngest – both at school, and on set, as if she was already living in an adult world before she was quite there. Perhaps that was the reason growing up remained such a mystery.
“I had this strong sense that there was this secret of the world that [older people] knew and I didn’t. And I felt if only I knew the secret, I’d be okay, “So I’d ask people ‘when do you feel like a grown-up’, and they inevitably said ‘Never: you just change the way you look but you feel the same’. But I never believed them. I thought surely there must be a time where you click over.”
Now in her 30s, she’s much more comfortable in her own skin – and realises that the secret is ‘there is no secret’.
“I do think there is a shift [to being a grown-up] but it’s a more gradual one. Now I’m starting to feel like an adult. And I don’t mean adult in any type of boring, conservative sense. I mean feeling like a valid person who is able to make decisions. I suppose it’s about trusting myself.”
A twist in fortune
Currently Prebble splits her time between Los Angeles and New Zealand – spending the lion’s share in Auckland where she lives with long-term partner and actor/film-maker Gareth Williams.
Earlier this year, she was among the international contingent of actors who seasonally flock to America in search of work from the infamous pilot season. She didn’t land any work, but instead of calling it quits she decided to go back and give it another go, judging each month away as it comes.
We’re talking now as she’s home in New Zealand for a friend’s wedding which happily coincided with some press for her latest work in television show Westside – the prequel to Outrageous Fortune.
For those who didn’t catch it, Prebble played Rita, wife of safe-cracking career crim Ted West, in the series which is now available on DVD. In what Prebble calls ‘luck’ she was asked to reprise the role of Rita, grandmother to her original character, who she once played in a flashback scene in Outrageous.
“I didn’t audition for this role because I’d already played Rita... so they had no choice,” she laughs.
How the West was won
Of course, there’s always a choice. And in the fickle world of television the writers could have easily picked someone else to play this clever but fierce character, particularly due to the time lapse between the shows. But they wanted Prebble to be the lead, the matriarch not only of the West family, but of the whole show. It’s a role that puts Prebble in a similar position to fellow actress Robyn Malcolm when she started in Outrageous Fortune. And because of that she was number one on the cast list, a position that always demonstrates importance but one she’s keen to downplay.
“I was [the first on the cast list] but the story was really about Rita and Ted,” she says modestly. “TV is constructed from lots of scenes so it never feels like you’re the lead of anything when you’re shooting it, because we’re all just in it together. Each character thinks they’re the lead in their own life, just as we do in real life. So I definitely didn’t see myself in any different light to the rest of the core cast.”
That said, Prebble admits she did feel a new sense of duty with this role that she’d never experienced before. “I definitely felt the weight of responsibility because New Zealand has such a vested interest in Outrageous and they were wanting it to be really good. And I wanted it to be really good. It’s always a bit daunting when you’re the lead of the show but I felt privileged I was in a position to have that weight of responsibility.”
The responsibility may be new, but the world of Westside wasn’t too unfamiliar to Prebble. The creators/writers were the same, as were some of the directors and crew. It was even shot at the same brick house framed with a blue-glassed balustrade in Auckland’s Te Atatu South. Still, in some ways it was totally different. “I was playing a new character and I was working with an entirely different cast and script,” says Prebble. “But it was exciting and challenging so it really felt like this great sort of synthesis of old and new.”
For Prebble, the role of Rita was a challenge because it was what she calls her first role as a ‘grown woman’. Sure she’s played adults before, and even been a mother on screen a couple of times, but there was something different about this role.
“This is the first time I’ve played a woman who is really comfortable in her own skin and that was a challenge, particularly in the beginning when I was figuring out my own place in this new world. It took me a while to find that voice – it was deeper and more measured – but I feel really solid and confident in her shoes and her body. With other characters, as soon as I read the script, I’m like, ‘Boom. I know these characters,’ but Rita wasn’t like that. It was a stretch and I had to find her sort of out there but also in here,” she says, pressing her chest. “I think that’s why I was so excited when I read the script, because I knew it would be a challenge but one I was ready to embark on. It was a big shift… but a nice shift.”
Although she started out young, Prebble doesn’t come from acting stock. In fact if she’d gone into the family business she’d likely be a lawyer. Her dad John is a professor of Law at Wellington’s Victoria University, where her mum Nicky works as a senior teacher in linguistics, while her older sister and younger brother are both working lawyers.
Even Prebble – who happens to be the niece of polarising former politician Richard Prebble – did first year law before changing paths and starting a Bachelor of Arts in English, fitting lectures and essays in between acting gigs for most of her 20s. She completed the degree just before she turned 30.
Prebble says she knew she wanted to be an actor from an early age – it was either that or a checkout operator. “I was given a cash register for a birthday, pushed a few buttons, zip zapped a few credit cards and I was done. Got that out of my system.”
Officially Prebble has been acting since she was 12 when she starred in a slew of programmes – A Twist in the Tale where she worked alongside Star Trek’s William Shatner and then the immensely popular post-apocalyptic TV series The Tribe which ran for five seasons. And unlike so many of her American counterparts, Prebble is the epitome of child star made good – landing sought-after acting gigs and not getting dizzy with the fame and fortune. Did we mention she was a prefect at school?
At 20 she was cast as Loretta West, a role that saw her nominated twice and eventually win best supporting actress at the NZ Film and Television Awards. And even after regular work slowed, Prebble flourished – working on stage and on screen in New Zealand and overseas. More recently she’s starred in NZ film White Lies (an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s novel Medicine Woman), Australia’s ANZAC Girls and upcoming mystery/thriller Winter. But although it seems like her star is rising, her biggest goal is to ‘make it’ in America, and in her early 30s it’s only getting tougher.
“For the past two years I’ve spent two months there a year. And I’m going back again because now is kind of the time for me. By American standards I’m about 75 years old... I’m nearing the end of my career. It’s really now or never – so it’s now,” she says.
How to make it in America
It seems crazy to think Prebble would be excluded from roles because of her age... but in the make or break world of Hollywood she very well could be.
One of New Zealand’s most established screenwriters Rachel Lang, who wrote Outrageous Fortune and Westside, agrees with her cut-throat industry view. “The cruel thing about overseas work is that it’s very prejudiced against women who are over 30. You have to go and play old mothers at that point.”
But Lang, who describes Prebble as “beautiful, accomplished and swotty”, thinks the actress will always have a bright future. “Toni is hard-working, very dedicated, professional and without ego. I think she’ll have a good career and do more great things. She’s a restless mind and she always wants to challenge herself.”
When Robyn Malcom was cast in Outrageous as the head of the West family Cheryl West, she was 39 years old. It’s a fact that once she’s reminded of, surprises Prebble.
“What? Was she? That seems so young! I feel like it sounds close to my age. Like, 40 seems really young now. Not that she ever felt old but I guess I felt like she was that much older than me at the time. She seemed incredible and I put her on a pedestal, and now I’m like, ‘she was only in her 30s?’ Oh okay, that makes her even more impressive.”
A place to call home
But being there means leaving her family and friends in New Zealand – and the older she gets, the less she likes to do it. Her dream is to be able to have the best of both worlds.
“I want to work over there. But I love living in New Zealand. My parents are getting older and I have a nephew growing up and I want to be around for that. The ideal situation would be live here and work there [in LA]. But that’s probably everyone’s dream.”
Perhaps. But if anyone can make it work, Prebble can. With an actress like her inspiring some of our best local work, it won’t be long before the film industry in America sits up and takes notice. Maybe all it takes is a little new thinking.
While Prebble has to go through the stressful and rigorous auditioning process overseas, when she’s in New Zealand it’s not uncommon for a role to be created for her specifically.
The TV3 series The Blue Rose was written for her and fellow cast member Siobhan Marshall by the writers of Outrageous, and earned her a nomination for best actress at the Seoul International Drama Awards. White Lies, where she played a wealthy early European settler, is another example. The director already had her in mind for the role and she went on to win an award for that one too, taking out best actress at the Women’s Institute of Film and Television Showcase in America. But she’s quick to set the record straight, saying not everything is handed to her.
“There are still things I have to audition for,” she says. “There is something about when you audition for a role and you get the job based on the audition – it somehow feels more legitimate. Like I’ve earned it and that’s why they’re choosing me.”
When she’s in LA, Prebble sublets an apartment in West Hollywood, close to her other Kiwi friends who are also there searching for acting work. They’ll have cups of tea and pot luck dinners when she’s not auditioning, which can take almost the whole day by the time she finds where she’s going. In her spare time she’s working on her craft, fitting in acting classes around auditions.
“My MO for going to LA is that I get something out of it. And it’s one of those things... To get a job would be excellent but that’s something I can’t control. So I need to get something out of it that I can control and that is getting better at acting. I do these classes which are just so inspiring that it makes it totally worthwhile being there.”
Words by: Sarah Murray
Photos: Mike Rooke, Getty Images and Supplied
Art Direction by: Louise Thomson
Styling by: Sonia Greeenslade