Sarah Peirse on how going grey helped her career

The talented star opens up about work, home, grandchildren and the intriguing contract the stipulated she wouldn't colour her hair

By Wendyl Nissen
Playing "snooty" is something successful Kiwi actress Sarah Peirse does very well. So the opportunity to portray a snooty winemaker in Central Otago for the new TVNZ series Under the Vines was too good a chance to turn down.
For a start, she got to work in her home country instead of overseas at the beginning of last year in one of New Zealand's most beautiful areas, plus she worked with a plethora of Kiwi actors and crew. It was a lot of fun.
"It's a charming show," she says. "It's funny, silly and also very sweet. There's a lightness to it that was very appealing."
Sarah, 63, says she has played haughty characters a lot in theatre, but not so much on screen.
"In my acting work, I seem to have a metronome that goes from snooty to undermined, vulnerable and potentially dead. That's the kind of range I seem to occupy," she laughs.
Her character Marissa in Under the Vines is one many people will recognise from small-town life in New Zealand. "She exists because she is one of a kind and there aren't a lot of people who challenge her," tells Sarah. "She would not function so well in a big city – she would be submerged by it all."
Sarah plays town terror Marissa in Under the Vines with John Bach, who plays, vineyard owner Don.
Sarah says that eventually a small army of people rise up to challenge Marissa in the show and it makes for good comedy.
To play Marissa, Sarah says she used an amalgam of different accents and mannerisms.
"I've certainly played characters like Marissa on stage and when it came to finding her, it was a matter of absorbing a great big flotsam and jetsam of available material, then selecting from that a soup of possibilities," she says. "When I'm playing her, it's a bit like wearing perfume – she sort of lingers."
When it comes to deciding which roles Sarah will or won't take, she says it all comes down to the writing and the creative team around the project.
"If I read it and I close my laptop thinking, 'No, I won't be proceeding with that,' then that's fine, but if I am absolutely engaged with the writing and it ignites something in me, then I'm there for that role."
Sarah liked what she saw when she read the scripts for Under the Vines, created by Australian director and producer Erin White, and as for the actors and crew, they were all Kiwis except for one British actor, Charles Edwards.
"Charles and I had worked together years ago when I was living in London, but we didn't recognise each other until we were doing a read-through on Zoom. Both of us sat there thinking, 'I know that person, they look familiar,' and then by the end of the Zoom, we had worked out that we did a stage play of Sherlock Holmes together in the UK."
Watching Under the Vines is a rewarding experience for any Kiwi viewer as it features an array of all our favourite actors over the years, including Rebecca Gibney in the lead role.
Sarah with Rebecca Gibney, in the lead role of city slicker Daisy.
Although they had both lived in Australia for many years, Sarah says they had never worked together before and loved the chance to do so. "It was a lot of fun to do. We had a few Covid scares, but in the main it was a pretty relaxed shoot."
Sarah says some of the Kiwi actors were playing people from other countries, but they had great range and did their accents very well.
Sarah has lived in the UK and Australia during her successful career, but has been back in New Zealand since 2002, something she says many people don't know.
She realised that wherever she lived, she was always working somewhere else.
"So in the end, I live in Auckland because my siblings are here, two of my children are here and my two granddaughters are here. Actually, my two granddaughters are a big draw. They are a tent peg that makes me want to stay here.
"They are highly entertaining and I adore them in the usual way grandparents respond to having grandchildren. You become completely besotted with them and it's wonderful."
Sarah has just returned from filming a new TV series, Love Me, a romantic drama featuring Hugo Weaving, in Melbourne. She was supposed to be there for two months, but ended up staying for four months as she tried to get home.
She has just got out of MIQ. "Doing the MIQ bit was fine – the adventurous part was trying to get a place in the lottery to get back in the country."
While in Australia, Sarah would read books to her eldest granddaughter over Zoom.
"She would snuggle down and I would read to her while her parents were busy getting her younger sister bathed and ready for bed. The fact that I can do that is so wonderful, to be able to maintain a relationship with her while I'm away working."
Sarah likes to work, even though she could be excused for wanting to slow down a bit after such a wonderful career.
"Going grey early weirdly helped my career. I think it may have opened the age range for me more."
"I'm not working flat out," she tells. "I have a nice, good amount of work, which keeps me engaged and interested, and as long as I can remember the lines, I'll be fine! The great catastrophe for actors is losing your memory, but I enjoy working and the challenge of it, but I'm careful with what I take on and I'm fortunate enough to be able to do that."
Sarah points out that throughout her career there has been a degree of timing and good fortune to many aspects of it. When her three children were small, she made the decision to give up theatre acting, which kept her away at nights.
"It became more logistically feasible to direct because it didn't require the same level of internal focus that performances as an actor might require, which is exclusive and a circumstance not necessarily very good for running alongside being a mum."
Sarah returned to acting in 2007 at the Melbourne Theatre Company, and has been busy working in theatre, film and television ever since.
She says her role in the New Zealand movie Rain, for which she won the Best Actress award at the Nokia New Zealand Film Awards in 2001, helped to kick-start her career on screen as it was very well received in Australia and made a big impact.
In Under the Vines, Sarah's character Marissa is a gorgeous, glamorous woman with a sheen of grey straight hair, cut into a long bob. And it is this head of hair that Sarah credits with getting her a lot of work.
"Going grey early weirdly helped my career. I think it may have opened the age range for me more."
Her decision to go grey came when she developed a grey stripe and spent a lot of time at her hairdresser's getting the other bits dyed to blend in. "Then my hairdresser pointed out that I really didn't need to keep doing that and it looked fine the way it was, so I said okay – it was a lot cheaper!
"After that, when I signed up for a role, the production team started saying they liked the grey and to leave it, and then they started instructing me not to touch the grey in my hair before I turned up," recalls Sarah. "It was in the contract – I couldn't dye my hair! There was no big plan to go grey, it just unfolded."
As a woman with curly hair, Sarah does point out that the immaculately straight bob she wears as Marissa is nothing like how she usually looks, especially in Auckland's humid summers.
"That really is far too much maintenance for me."
Sarah keeps in touch with her Heavenly Creatures co-stars Melanie Lynskey (centre) and Kate Winslet.
Sarah has been acting since the late '70s and winning awards for her work throughout her career, but is mostly remembered for her role in Heavenly Creatures, which was based on a notorious 1954 Christchurch murder. Directed by Sir Peter Jackson, Sarah won Best Supporting Actress at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1995. Sarah portrayed Honora Parker, who is murdered by her daughter Pauline (played by Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet).
It was a first feature film role for Kate and Melanie, and Sarah has stayed in touch with both actors for the past 26 years, particularly Kate.
"Haven't they both done amazingly?" she says, adding proudly, "I thought Mare of Easttown was a terrific piece of work from Kate."
In Covid times, the need for actors to move from location to location has become jeopardised, but Sarah says it is now feasible for actors such as herself and others like Sam Neill to base themselves in New Zealand and still perform offshore.
"When I first went to England in the late '80s as a young actor, the idea was that you got rid of your New Zealand accent and any sense of history. You removed all that in order to become English, to get work and make your way. If you disappeared back to New Zealand that was a bad move because you were gone off Planet Real, which was in the Northern Hemisphere.
"But all that started to change in the '90s when it really didn't matter where you were, and actors started to move in all sorts of directions for work."
Sarah has more projects lined up in Australia, but one thing is for sure – those grandchildren mean she won't be straying far from home for very long.
  • undefined: Wendyl Nissen