New drama, After the Party is Robyn Malcolm's scariest role yet

Why this harrowing drama means everything to the star

By Wendyl Nissen
Actors don't usually get to create their own roles. Instead, as our very own Robyn Malcolm will tell you, they turn up and do their best to interpret someone else's vision for their character.
But all that has changed for Robyn now that she has co-created the tense drama After the Party, which is receiving rave reviews after its first episodes screened on TVNZ 1.
"I've never had an experience like this where you sit down with a friend and create something fresh together that I can portray," says Robyn. "We knew we wanted to put a woman in her fifties at the centre of it. And we knew we wanted to make sure she was somebody that we've not seen on screen before."
Robyn co-created the drama with her friend, screenwriter Dianne Taylor. The pair created the character of Penny, who is brave but wretched, strong but fallible and beautiful but wrinkled, and never seems to brush her hair. In other words, a realistic woman in her fifties.
With Life After the Party co-creator Dianne.
"When we were writing Penny, we knew what we wanted and then we decided to look around at our friends for inspiration," she laughs. "I'm not saying for a minute any of our friends are Penny, but I think older women are super-interesting, because they've got history. And we talked a lot about that and what happens if there's a bit in your past where the shame of it has completely driven the next bit of your life."
In Penny's case, she claims her ex-husband Phil did something so terrible, he should have been arrested, but no one really believes her. Especially when he returns from exile in Scotland and moves in with their daughter Grace and grandson Walt, charming and cajoling his way back into the community.
"At her age, women are supposed to be wise and sage, but often we're not," says Robyn. "I'm so pleased that note is striking a chord with so many women who are getting alongside the story."
Some parts of Penny's character loop back into Robyn's own life, including her work as a life drawing model, meaning Robyn is naked a lot in the drama while people sit around and sketch her.
"I used to do life modelling when I was at drama school because [Dame] Miranda Harcourt told me it was a good way to make money, which I badly needed. But I also did it because I had a really bad relationship with myself physically and I thought if I did life modelling, it would sort of change it up."
Scenes from the drama.
Robyn says the experience was something she's never forgotten and was glad to be able to use it for Penny.
"You're lying there and you're quite a roundy 19-year-old. You've got your clothes off in front of 20 strangers and you're listening to them saying things like, 'See that lovely shadow under her belly?' The way they talk about your body is completely different and that's always stuck with me.
"With Penny, we thought, 'What if she is feeling like many women in their fifties – invisible to the world – what if this is her way of subconsciously being seen?'"
As an actor, Robyn has never done nude scenes, but says she's always been happy to do them if required.
"I had to sign a nudity clause for a job when I was in my forties. I said to my agent as a joke, 'Can you write in that clause, Robyn says a hard yes and as some of the few people prepared to put a woman in her late forties naked on screen, she celebrates you. But there's a caveat. I need you to know that I am less Playboy and more National Geographic.'"
When Robyn turned up on set to do the scene, the producers had sourced a range of lingerie for her to wear, so no nudity for her after all.
Robyn says she read a quote from British actress Eileen Atkins about nudity, where she said, "I don't know why actors are so frightened of being naked on stage and screen. We're in the business of baring souls and that's far more terrifying."
"That levelled things for me because I realised that the baring of the soul bit is far more exposing than being naked," says Robyn. "My nana, who was an art teacher and a painter, always used to say, 'It's my observation that women are at their most beautiful with their clothes off. Men are the most attractive with their clothes on.'"
Exposing her 58-year-old body was something Robyn knew was a good thing to do for her character, but she says there are friends who are worried what might happen to those images by way of memes on social media.
"I hope people see it as showing the body having an emotional experience, so it doesn't become about the body. There will be stuff on social media if I look for it, which I won't be doing."
Because After the Party is something she co-created, Robyn says she has been wracked with nerves about how it would be received.
"When it's not your own work and you're just acting in it, if it's a flop, then that's not your problem. But when you did create it, then it's a lot scarier."
Robyn says she sat in the screening, which was held for crew and friends, holding Dianne's hand tight and not letting go.
"Half way through, she had to lean over and whisper in my ear to give her hand back because my palms were so sweaty," she laughs.
Robyn's co-stars in the show range from the highly acclaimed Scottish actor Peter Mullan, who plays Penny's ex-husband, to total newcomers such as Tara Canton who plays Grace, their daughter.
This was Tara's first role – she's in her last year at Toi Whakaari, New Zealand's drama school – and Robyn says she's outstanding.
"There was an emotional presence and bravery she brought to the role, which was amazing," tells Robyn. "I think she's going to be a total superstar."
She says that along with another Toi Whakaari student, Ian Blackburn, who plays Grace's friend Ollie, the young actors did a wonderful job of showing the impact people can have on the younger generations.
"Older people have history but their actions often create the pain and the carried trauma for the younger ones, and our wonderful young cast did such a great job of portraying that."
Peter was in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings TV series and so was available to work on After the Party. He and Robyn met when they worked together on Jane Campion's Top of the Lake in 2013, and have been good friends ever since.
"Acting with each other is our favourite thing," says Robyn. "He's the kind of actor I would crawl over cut glass to work with because we work in a similar way – we're not too prescriptive."
Robyn says when she worked with him on Top of the Lake, she was quite starstruck.
"I asked him if there was anything he needed from me in the scene we were about to do and he said he needed nothing because 'You're the light bulb, I'm the lampshade.'
"His whole approach to acting is like that – he's an incredibly generous actor."
Robyn has high praise for her co-stars (from left) Tara, Dean O'Gorman and Peter.
He's also fun to have on set, says Robyn, because he winds a lot of actors up.
"He'll tell stupid stories no matter how dark the scene is – some brilliant Glaswegian tale – and then two seconds later, they'll call action and he'll have tears rolling down his face. He can turn it off and on like I've never seen anyone manage to do, and that's why he's so lovely to have on a production because he keeps the energy on the set really light."
This year has been a busy one for Robyn, who recently also starred in the local TV drama Far North, as well as American shows Black Bird and Sweet Tooth. She's about to launch into another acting role but at the moment she has a few weeks off and has become ill.
She talks to the Weekly from her bed, where she is obviously running a fever and coughing frequently.
"I tell everyone I never get sick because I drink red wine and all the resveratrol is keeping me healthy," she laughs. "But my son Pete came down with it last week, so I inevitably got it too."
She's had three days in bed, but when she gets better, she has 60 dahlias to plant out in her garden, which is a bit of a family tradition.
"My nephew is an expert on dahlias and has been on the cover of a magazine and been interviewed on RNZ, so we've all learned from him and it's all become a bit competitive, which is why I need to get them in the garden now."
Then when she has some free time, she and Dianne are going to write another series. Not a follow up to After the Party, but something fresh.
"We both have a lot of ideas and we can't wait to get started," she enthuses.
Watch After the Party Sundays at 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ+.
  • undefined: Wendyl Nissen

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