Amanda Billing on life after Shortland Street and turning 40

Years ago, the actress set herself the challenge of being creative every day for 100 days and the drive has stayed with her.

Sitting cross-legged on her couch, Amanda Billing is just telling me how laughable it is that she turned 40 last year when her cellphone lets out a ‘pop’. It’s a notification from the app Snapchat – mostly loved by 20-somethings and tweens, where you add strange filters to your face and share pictures with friends.

“I have this theory that Snapchat is good for your psychological health,” Billing says. “It makes me laugh. I just love it.”

As interview moments go, it’s pretty epic timing and proof that somewhere along the way, Billing has started taking life less seriously. Maybe it’s being free from Dr Sarah Potts, the Shortland Street role that made her a household name. Maybe it’s the big birthday that’s come and gone, or maybe it’s the fact Snapchat really is what the non-doctor ordered. But whatever it is, you can imagine it’s a helpful attitude when you’re a working actress, never sure where your next gig is coming from.

It’s been two years since Billing hung up her surgical scrubs and left Shortland Street, and recently returned to our screens as the host of Sensing Murder, a phenomenally popular show where psychics try to solve cold cases.

At its peak, when the last new series screened back in 2010, Sensing Murder was reaching more than a million viewers. In television numbers, that’s big. In New Zealand television numbers, that’s huge. One of the only other TV shows to pull those kind of ratings is, well, Shortland Street. Billing doesn’t do things by halves.

Considering Shortland Street was her first ever full-time acting gig, after years of being a high school teacher, she really knocked it out of the park. She settled in for a decade and became a crowd favourite: there were year-long contracts, plotlines that were known weeks, if not months, in advance. There was, as Billing puts it, no risk. And then it all changed.

Without the safety harness of Shortland Street wrapped around her – a security blanket at best, a straitjacket at worst – Billing became a free agent. That’s how she refers to herself throughout our interview: freelance. She took on well-received stage roles, and became fully immersed into other creative outlets: designing a jewellery line, making T-shirts, becoming an avid photographer and playing the ukulele.

Years ago, Billing set herself the challenge of being creative every day for 100 days and the drive has stayed with her.

She stayed present on the small screen with roles on shows like Māori TV’s Find Me a Māori Bride and Prime’s Brokenwood Mysteries but then she came back in a big way, taking on the mantle of one of TV2’s other most popular shows. And who foresaw that coming? Not her, she laughs.

“People would ask ‘what are you doing next?’ and when I would say, ‘Sensing Murder’, it would almost feel like it wasn’t real,” she says. “Like I was going, ‘….Really? How did that happen? How did I get here?’ This is so weird! Even weirder than being on New Zealand’s favourite soap opera!”

Whether or not you are a true believer – and even Billing says she wouldn’t describe herself in that sense – the show is captivating. A team of Australasian psychic detectives – try and say that without adding quotation marks – attempt to solve cold cases using items left behind by the deceased. Yes, it sounds ridiculous – but based on the numbers, you’ve probably watched the show and even in spite of yourself, maybe found you loved it.

It may be the furthest of far-fetched concepts, but it is damn good television. As host, part of Billing’s job involved recording the voice-overs for some of the show’s more dramatic scenes and she says more than once she was so enthralled, she forgot to come in and start speaking at the right time.

“It’s not really a describable, definable thing,” she says of the show’s appeal. “It’s like magic. I think a long time ago, everyone used to believe in magic and spirits and the other side. Science means those sort of beliefs can now seem primitive or backwards, as if ‘because you can’t prove it, it can’t be true.’”

Billing finishes this statement with an eye roll at me, as if to say ‘come on now’.

On the list of things Billing also finds a bit ridiculous is her age. She turned 41 this year, a number that means less and less to her every day.

“Most of the time I think the fact I’m 41 is hilarious. Because… I’m not a grown-up!”

Last year, in the lead-up to turning 40, Billing had the classic freak-out that comes before A Big Birthday. There was, she says, a “schism” between how she felt as a human being and all the things that are associated with being 40.

“I’m sure that feeling will only get more and more absurd, as my body changes. Because at the moment I think I look like a young 41. But over time that will change! I mean, maybe I’ll look like a young 50, a young 60, a young 70, and that would be great! But one day I’ll be old. And it’ll still be weird. I’ll turn 80 – if I get the chance – and I’ll look at my cake and go, ‘How did that happen?’”

But for now 40-something is nothing: “It’s like a sound, it’s just a noise. It’s not really relevant to me. When I turn 45 I’ll be eligible for mammograms, and that’ll be the only reason 45 will make sense.”

Forty isn’t what it used to be. And 40 no longer looks the way it once did, either. I can confirm – and so can the screeds of New Zealanders who watched Dr Sarah Potts every night – that Billing does look like a young 40-something.

It’s a few hours after her NEXT shoot wrapped and she has exchanged the bohemian gowns for jeans, a black singlet and bare feet, one of the necklaces she made dangling around her neck.

We’re sitting in her lounge, a cheeseboard between us. The makeup from the shoot still frames her wild eyes, which act as a barometer for how the conversation is going. There is steady eye contact when she pushes back (“Why Sensing Murder?” “‘Why Sensing Murder?’ Is that your question?”) and then her eyes widen as she explains the exhilaration of filling a theatre when performing.

You can imagine she would have been an extraordinary teacher – her career of choice before a one-off audition changed the course of her life. She is warm and engaging one second, and all business the next. She would absolutely have been a student favourite, but also the teacher you wouldn’t want to get caught passing notes in front of.

She demands your attention – and you want to give it to her. Because whether she’s rushing around Ferndale, demonstrating the rawest of raw sex appeal as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, or standing among the hydrangeas on a NEXT shoot in Coatesville, she is spectacular to watch.

Billing, who replaced Rebecca Gibney as Sensing Murder host – “No pressure!” she faux hyperventilates – is both matter-of-fact and then enthusiastic about her new role. It’s hard to say exactly where on the woo-woo scale Billing sits; there are some crystals around the house and she enjoys the mythology behind what they can mean, but for her it comes down to curiosity more than the occult.

Director Michael Hurst, who helmed her performances in Cabaret, Chicago and Lysistrata, once told her “it was the job of actors to deepen the mystery”, and it’s the evidence of things not seen that spikes her interest.

“I’m attracted to the idea that what happens to us in our lives can’t be rationalised,” she says. “I like mystery. I think that probably helps with being a freelancer – that I don’t mind living in questions, and not knowing the answers.”

That inquisitive quality is what put her on the path to geography all those years ago. From studying the subject to then teaching it, Billing says it’s a realm that attracts a certain type of person who’s “not only curious about the natural world, but curious about the people in it.”

She can still remember what it was like teaching these grand concepts to her students and seeing the ideas take shape in their brains. Connecting with a room of people – be it a classroom, a theatre, or a lounge – seems to be second nature for Billing.

“It’s that magic, it’s that mystery. You have to reach into people.”

Billing is even entertaining when she discusses her wellbeing beliefs. In particular, when she compares the form of mindfulness she practises to the movie Fight Club, in what might be the first time that sentence has ever been uttered: “The first rule of The Presence Process is you don’t talk about The Presence Process. But I JUST DID.”

Considering wellness has become an extremely convoluted topic of conversation, and that actresses have to live under far more physical scrutiny than the rest of us, Billing is quite chilled out about the whole thing.

She doesn’t really drink, not because she’s teetotal, but because it makes her feel sick. Same with smoking. She’s “never been very good at it” – there’s a giant laugh when she realises how ridiculous that sounds – “because I’ve tried so hard!?”

Billing doesn’t diet, choosing instead to eat according to what feels good. Sometimes that’s green smoothies, sometimes that’s cheeseboards. Every other day she does moderate exercise, maybe a yoga class, or one of the many scenic and steep hikes around Auckland or even just walking to a local café.

“I use coffee as a destination,” she laughs. “I’ll walk to there, have a coffee, and walk back! It’s a good reward system.”

Billing says taking care of her health – particularly practising mindfulness – has been the key to helping her adjust to the space that came after Shortland Street.

Her long stint on the show was a surprise to her – Billing never had the burning desire to be an actor. Her big break was almost accidental and began when a friend was directing a play at Auckland’s prestigious Silo Theatre. She mentioned in passing she had done acting at school and he suggested she audition. She got the role, her cast members suggested she get an agent and she scored some commercials very quickly.

At the time Billing was 28 – quite late in the game to start acting, she says. When I tell her Meryl Streep scored her first on-screen role at the same age, she chortles loudly: “Yeyaaah!”

Before her unexpected career change, Billing was in the midst of preparing to do the Big OE. An open-ended round-the-world ticket was burning a hole in her pocket and she was planning to stay with her brother in New York, before heading to Italy to work in English-speaking children’s summer camps. Then along came Shortland Street.

“I had to call my brother and say ‘Hey, I got a job on TV.’ And then I stayed there for 10 years.”

When I ask how she has gone about picking her post-Shortland Street roles, those laser eyes focus in on me.

“I don’t pick roles,” she retorts. “I have to audition.”

But then a pause, and she elaborates.

“I look at stuff and I see if it’s something I haven’t done before, if it’s someone I haven’t ‘been’ before. I like things that are contradictory, I like things that ask a lot of questions and don’t have many answers. I like murky people – those are the kind of people we enjoy watching. We enjoy hating and loving someone at once.”

Quick fire round

I’d like my NEXT big holiday to be… Somewhere sunny and warm with palm trees and white sand and clear blue water.

After my phone and wallet, the NEXT thing I always have to have in my handbag is… my Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses and specs, otherwise I can’t see anything.

When I’m feeling stressed, my NEXT move is to… Stop and breathe.

By my NEXT birthday I’d like to achieve… Ugh, I have no idea. And I don’t care!

If I could take time out to study, what I would study NEXT is… Fine arts.

The NEXT thing I want to add to my winter wardrobe is… a pair of high-waisted wide-legged pants, like the Carlson ones from the shoot!

After drinking more water, the NEXT best advice I’ve ever received is… Don’t crowd your life.

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