Annie Whittle on her role in the heartwarming movie Bellbird

Annie’s still got the acting bug.

By Julie Jacobson
Annie Whittle is horrified at the thought of ever becoming a dame.
"God forbid," she cries as she settles into a chat with the Weekly.
The Kiwi actress, who even after umpteen years of not being on TV still occasionally gets recognised as Shortland Street's bubbly Barb Heywood, lets rip with her trademark shriek.
We've been discussing the plight of "older female actors", and the contradictory attitudes of the Brits, who value theirs (see dames Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith), and the Americans, whose pursuit of eternal youth involves botox and fillers once they hit 30.
And here?
"There are very few roles for older women, so actors of my age – and I'm nearly 73 – are all going for the same parts," says Annie, who's recently back from Menorca where she and husband Ian Scott have used their retirement nest egg to renovate a 13th-century home, or as she puts it "a pile of stones", on the Mediterranean island.
"Sometimes I have been called in to audition for parts for women who are 50 and I'm thinking, 'I can't look like that… I can't pretend I am something that I'm not.'
"It can be quite intimidating. Ageing is inevitable. We can't do anything to prevent it and pressuring people into feeling they need cosmetic surgery to conform to some beauty ideal is just wrong. It is not a reflection of who we [older women] are."
Though the role was short-lived, Beth is a character that very much reminded Annie of her own mum.
Annie − who's been working in the business for close to four decades, first winning TV fame in 1970s comedy classic A Week of It − has been reflecting on who we are thanks to her most recent and acclaimed role as Beth in the feature film Bellbird.
Written and directed by Hamish Bennett, Bellbird builds on the characters first seen in Ross & Beth, which won the Jury Prize for Best New Zealand Short Film at the 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival.
Set on a Northland dairy farm, just 10km from where Hamish grew up, Bellbird is the heart-warming story of a gruff but caring farmer (Marshall Napier), struggling to cope in the aftermath of his wife's sudden death, and the bond that develops with their adult son (Cohen Holloway).
"It speaks to how in New Zealand communities rally together to help those who face challenges," says Annie.
"We saw it on a monumental scale with the Pike River mining tragedy, and the Christchurch earthquakes and the mosque massacre. And you see it on a very personal scale in Bellbird. It is just simply a very human story about loss, recovery and how, sometimes, we are called on to shine a torch to help someone find their way out of a dark tunnel."
Annie briefly met the real Beth, the woman her character is based on, during the film's making. Sadly she died earlier this year.
She was, tells Annie, very much a woman of her era, and a woman not unlike her own beloved mum Margaret, who died in 2015, aged 92.
"In the character that was written I certainly recognised qualities of my own mum − she was a kind and compassionate woman, she was the glue that held our family together, she was resourceful and clever and, like Beth, always a champion of those less fortunate.
"Every day I miss my mum; we were incredibly close. It's that thing of when somebody you love dies, you don't realise what you had until they're gone and then you miss them so terribly. So yes, I felt I knew Beth although I had only ever met her fleetingly."
Annie says Bellbird "speaks to how in New Zealand communities rally together to help those who face challenges."
The film's pastoral setting on a working farm suited Annie.
A former vet nurse, she and Ian live on a lifestyle property in the Waitakere Ranges with two elderly ex-racehorses (one of which was sired by the legendary Sir Tristram) who were destined for the knackery; a black lab and a "colony" of wild birds she feeds daily.
Annie laughs, recalling the crew's amusement at her "communing" with the cows.
"There's only a few other people I know who talk to animals and birds the way I do. The cows each had a name, and they were literally at the back door and were calving, so every day there were new little bundles that you could fuss over and help to bottle feed. It was cute beyond words… I was like the pig in the proverbial!"
Still, there were some moments Annie could happily have done without − the painful knee that has since been fully replaced but at the time needed constant icing, for one. And then there was the brevity of her role, with Beth's death coming reasonably early.
"I so loved being there [on set] and suddenly I was gone and the film went on without me, which was an irony. I was quite keen to be an extra at my own funeral but wasn't allowed. And I wanted to go to the show day [which features midway through], but they thought that would be a bit much too."
Annie has no future roles lined up, though she'd quite like to do a costume drama along the lines of Olivia Colman's Queen Anne in The Favourite.
"But that's an actor's lot really," she says.
"There are things I would still like to do but, having said that, I have been very lucky with the roles I've had."

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