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Transylvania to New Zealand: Brokenwood star’s home

A documentary inspired Cristina to move to Aotearoa.

When actress Cristina Ionda decided to pack up her life in Romania and head to New Zealand with her husband in tow, it wasn’t just the call of our green shores and the chance to create a better life that motivated her move – it was her affection for another man.

“Sir Peter Jackson had just done the first Lord of the Rings movie and I thought that they would need people with accents for the rest,” says the actress cheerfully, with her strong Eastern European inflection.

It was 13 years ago that Cristina, who doesn’t reveal her age for superstitious reasons, and her husband, George Tudor, were watching TV when inspiration for their new home hit.

The Brokenwood Mysteries star recalls, “We saw a documentary about New Zealand on the Discovery Channel and it looked like an amazing place – we just said, ‘Let’s go there!’ Personally, I didn’t think it would happen as it looked too good to be true.”

Indeed, after living in Transylvania, among the mountains, lush forests and plenty of Dracula references, the land at the bottom of the world seemed a million miles away. Growing up in Brasov, Cristina had a very active childhood.

“I used to go hiking a lot with my parents,” she smiles, “and Sundays we had picnics and went to puppet shows in church.”

With athletics and sports being a childhood passion, at the age of 16, Cristina found her true calling on stage. A year of auditions landed the energetic teen a small role in a theatre show before she went on to study acting at university, and complete a post-graduate degree in film and television.

In between productions, television presenting gigs and hosting a radio show, Cristina experienced her first film set when the US blockbuster Cold Mountain came to town to shoot for six months and they needed extras. Soon after the filming wrapped, she moved to Aotearoa.

“At the beginning, it was hard. I wasn’t depressed but I was low,” admits Cristina. “I didn’t speak the language and I was used to being busy back home and here, I wasn’t. But after a while you start making friends. My hubby would say to me, ‘Stop looking over your shoulder, you have to look forward.’

“Six months after moving to New Zealand, I called my now-agent and introduced myself and, of course, my accent was much thicker than it is now. I played her my show reel but she said I had to learn English and at that time I knew very little. “I thought, ‘I’m smart enough and I’ll learn it fast,’ but it was very hard at first. I’m a very open person with Latin blood. I’m not quiet but this made me quiet.”

The stubborn beauty took it upon herself to learn the language, buying grammar books, watching movies with English subtitles and asking friends to correct her if she mispronounced something.

Since then, along with a flurry of theatre gigs, Cristina has racked up roles on popular Kiwi dramas such as Nothing Trivial, Filthy Rich and The Brokenwood Mysteries. But it’s the latter that has made her a familiar face not only here but also abroad.

“I have friends in France and Canada who message every time the series screens on TV over there,” beams the actress. She may be getting more texts soon as The Brokenwood Mysteries also has a passionate following in the US and Italy.

“I’ve been to lots of auditions and every casting director has said they love me but it will take time for New Zealanders to accept my accent. But I say that accents live in New Zealand and, after my experience with Brokenwood, where people have stopped me on the street, I know they do accept it. It is so important for minorities to be represented, especially here.”

With the murder-mystery series on air again for its third run, Cristina says going back to set earlier this year was like going back home.

“I love working with such an amazing cast and crew, and when you don’t have family here, it’s very rewarding to feel embraced like that.”

Cristina, who plays Russian medical examiner Gina in the hit Prime show, may come from the land of Dracula but she admits to having an aversion to blood.

“I like fake blood, though, it’s very nice, actually,” she laughs, before clarifying. “The texture, that is. I haven’t tasted it – I’m not a vampire, you know!”

Words:Danielle Lagos

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