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Career

Amanda Billing on her quest to have less drama and more honesty in her life

''In the past I have wanted the conventional things in life – financial security, a partner, children but it always ends in tears. Maybe I haven't quite wanted the right things at the right time. '

By Judy Bailey
"I wish I could look out into the world and find a place that I fit."
Amanda Billing pauses wistfully for a moment and then smiles her beautiful broad smile and says, "I think it probably exists and I'm in it!"
These thoughts are, as she would say, "classic Amanda Billing".
She is one of our most successful actors. A teacher and former star of the long-running TV soap, Shortland Street, she has also held lead roles in heavyweight theatrical productions like Lysistrata and Macbeth.
She finds herself now at a crossroads, in between gigs.
"I feel like I'm at a place I've been before. What happens next? It's forcing me to be more creative and think what I really want to do in a deep way."
We meet in her tiny central city apartment which happily overlooks an equally tiny but beautiful, leafy park.
It feels like an oasis from the bustle outside. It's a steamy Auckland day and she's sporting one of her own clothing designs… a tank with the words "Force Majeure" emblazoned on the front.
It is, she tells me, one of her dad's favourite sayings, perhaps because, in so many ways, it sums up his courageous, independent, free-thinking daughter.
She is, as one of the dictionary definitions of force majeure goes, a person of irresistible compulsion and superior strength.
Her T-shirts, all bearing sharp slogans with multiple meanings, have become sought-after items. New Zealand's newest acting sensation, Thomasin McKenzie, rocked one on the red carpet at the Sundance Festival for the premiere of the movie Leave No Trace late last year – a simple white T-shirt with black lettering that read, "Strong Female Character".
Her mother, acting legend Miranda Harcourt, thought it was perfect for Thomasin.
"To play a strong female character is what actresses aim for. Strong does not exclude being vulnerable or troubled, it just means that you lead the narrative and that is something women are aiming for in drama as well as politics."
Actor Thomasin McKenzie wore one of Amanda's T-shirts at the Sundance Festival.
Amanda, the youngest of the three Billing children, credits her parents, Dennis and Lynne, with helping her become her own strong female character.
"I'm so blessed to have the parents I have. They are both really good people who give a shit. They taught their children about the good and right things to do.
"I grew up in a household where personal responsibility was taught. Why and how you do things and how they impact on others. We're not a particularly chilled family. We all have big feelings and big ideas… I'm quite proud of that. We're all quite different."
Her brother Andy, five years older, is a banker in New York; her sister, Kate, seven years older, teaches personal growth and leadership skills to business people in Auckland.
After school Amanda had no idea what she wanted to do but set off for Canterbury University, because "Canterbury felt like an adventure."
She would graduate with honours in geography and then go on to train as a teacher. It turns out her former geography teacher at school had told her she'd be a good teacher.
There's a pause.
"Oh, and also, my boyfriend at the time was studying engineering at Canterbury. Ha ha… there it is!" she laughs, throwing her arms in the air.
As happens for so many of us, there was one particular teacher who made a real impact on Amanda in her senior years at school.
The young Anne Spensley arrived at St Matthew's in Masterton with her funky peroxide blonde hair and a zest for living.
"She was very hip. She didn't have a small town view of life," says Amanda.
Spensley introduced great musical theatre and a blues band to the school but best of all, Amanda remembers, she didn't make you feel like a child.
"We were collaborators. It was my first experience of making something together. It's very important for teenagers to have that with an adult."
That thought ran counter to what she was taught at the College of Education in Christchurch.
"One of my tutors told us, 'Don't smile till Easter'. Amanda was appalled.
"I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'it's not the army mate, a bit of humour goes a long way.'"
Amanda took that experience with her into teaching. Firstly, at St Margaret's in Christchurch and later at Rangitoto College in Auckland.
But she quickly became disillusioned with the education system.
"I love learning and I love teenagers but I don't like achievement standards. Education has become so compartmentalised, it frustrates me."
Her students, unsurprisingly, loved her.
It was a chance meeting in an Auckland bar that led to her very first acting audition.
Heath Jones had just graduated from Unitec and was about to direct a restoration comedy at the Silo Theatre. Amanda mentioned she loved acting at school and he suggested she audition for the show.
She did, and in his garage in Mt Eden a new career was launched.
Although she says she loves both television and theatre, you get the feeling that being among a live audience is what really satisfies her.
"I find it quite nerve-racking, the exposure and exhilaration that comes from connecting with an audience. My theatrical experiences have all been wonderful. They've all been set where the action takes place almost amongst the audience, either where the audience is seated around or to either side of the stage, really close. I love the sense that we're all in it together. When you can see the audience, it's really exciting."
She's not a fan of the word "creative".
"Creative is a word I like using less and less. It's so 'beige'. It's not about sticking a bit of parsley on something, you really have to put yourself out there. To give the audience their money's worth it has to cost you as a performer, physically and emotionally.
"That's the funny thing about acting. [As humans] we usually experience grief, anger and shame in private moments. If actors are doing it properly, we become incredibly vulnerable on stage, but in return we get a sense of appreciation from the audience. Theatre is my favourite challenge. The more you're committed to being exposed the better it is."
Viewers grieved when Dr Sarah Potts died, but so did Amanda, who had spent a decade on Shortland Street.
For a decade Amanda was one of Shortland Street's most beloved characters, Dr Sarah Potts.
"I realise now it was grief. I grieved mostly about leaving that character behind. It was an extraordinary experience playing her."
Sarah Potts's story was, as Amanda says, "classic Shorty Street".
She was very good at her job, slightly unconventional, can't cook, burns the baked beans, wonderful with patients but with a hopeless love life.
Was she, I ventured, a little bit like Amanda?
"Yep, she was tailor-made for me," she laughs.
"I'd originally auditioned for the part of a hot lesbian nurse," she remembers. She ended up playing the slightly kooky, chaotic heterosexual.
The Shortland Street gig would last 10 years, a lifetime in soap terms.
"It's called 'golden handcuffs' when you get a gig like that," she explains.
She was completely invested in her character. "I lived my life at work." And then, the inevitable happened.
"There are always storylines floating around. We're not supposed to read those… but we do. They (the story writers) gave Dr Potts multiple sclerosis. I remember feeling anxious about it, how was this going to end? I got to the stage where I didn't want to know."
And then, Sarah Potts died.
"It was horrible. It helps to see it as grief because it was a massive life change. I had to pretend I still worked at Shorty until the episode went to air. But I'd filled the boxes from my dressing room and cleared out. And that was that.
"I sought out people who could support me through. I called my brother-in-law, who'd been through a redundancy. My sister, Kate, was wonderful and my friend, [radio and TV producer] Gemma Gracewood, asked me to join a tour to China and Japan with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra."
Dr Potts was no more, but Amanda's life was to take another direction.
At the time of our interview she's back teaching, at the Pop-up Globe. Three classes of children, teenagers and adults are doing Shakespeare's King Lear. Amanda is directing the show.
It's the first time she's helped kids to put on a show and she's relishing it.
"This is how Anne (her former teacher) must have felt. I get to watch them live their dream, it's so cool. It's a formative experience for any human being."
She muses, "This might be a direction my life will go, helping other people express themselves artistically."
She tells her students: "You're not at acting class to become rich and famous. You're there to become more self-aware, more flexible, more connected to others and resilient. You're there to change, and you change through being uncomfortable.
"I think about my life and the way to live a lot… every day. My life is full of things I'm curious about. I'm curious about how to approach my own personal challenges… classic 40-something behaviour," she laughs wryly.
"In the past I have wanted the conventional things in life – financial security, a partner, children but it always ends in tears. But maybe I haven't quite wanted the right things at the right time. I have had the courage to leap into the abyss, then I often think, 'what the hell did I do that for?' Sometimes I would love to land in the soft lap of full-time work but then I'd get bored and would chafe against it in the end because I want to be autonomous.
"I often find I'm needing change, not knowing what to do but things always work out. Being single is a pain but it's also awesome. I would love to have a husband and children but I have to be philosophical about it. Getting your heart broken a bunch of times makes you wary and a bit tired. [Now] I'm going for less drama, more honesty and courage."
Amanda's T-shirts are available through instagram.com/mandybeetees

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