Claire Chitham on her back-to-front life and the heartbreaking family news that brought her home

Married with a mortgage in her 20s, going on her OE at 40 and finding her confidence in between Claire Chitham, talks about her back-to-front life.
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Claire Chitham would love to tell you what she’s doing in 2019 but the trouble is, she’s not quite sure yet.

She is in the familiar holding pattern of waiting to hear if her latest audition is going to be successful.

“Circumstantially, right now, I might have a job,” she grins.

Her last job was Fresh Eggs – which was pulled following the March 15 attacks in Christchurch because of its “extensive gun violence” – but will return to TVNZ 2 on May 5, with the two remaining episodes running back to back.

Claire is unsure about whether a second series will follow, and says living with that level of uncertainty is very much a part of the acting industry.

That’s not to say for a minute that Claire isn’t very grateful and still very much in love with her day job – and even some of the dress-up parts that come with it.

At one point during her Australian Women’s Weekly shoot, Claire is running along the beach in a designer gown, joking, “This is like The Piano, 2019.”

It’s also a reunion between Claire and the team working behind the scenes, all of whom she knows from her South Pacific Pictures days, where for seven years she played Waverley on Shortland Street and spent two years as Aurora on Outrageous Fortune.

In Fresh Eggs, she plays Penny – one half of a city couple who move to the country in search of a simpler, more peaceful life and find, well, completely the opposite.

Considering she’s one of our most recognisable actresses – a fact that has counted both for and against her at various times over the past 20 years – it’s surprising to hear how long it took her to feel comfortable calling herself one.

“I remember having this conversation with Danielle Cormack – who is a friend, as well as being in Fresh Eggs – about validating yourself as an actress. It took both of us until we were in our mid-30s to do so. The rest of the country, theoretically, validated me at the age of 18, when everyone would recognise me as Waverley and say, ‘Oh, you’re that actress on that show.’ But I didn’t actually claim ‘I’m an actress’ until I was 32, flying between Melbourne and New Zealand a lot, [when I] kept having to write ‘actress’ on my immigration card.”

Best known as Waverley on Shortland Street, Claire took on a very different persona for the tole of Aurora on Outrageous Fortune

Claire is living something of a reverse adulthood, she says.

Her 20s were largely spent in a long-term relationship, then marriage, with broadcaster Mikey Havoc, buying a house, paying off a mortgage, and enjoying a stable job.

Then at the age of 30, it all changed swiftly. The relationship ended, the job finished, the house was sold and suddenly the options were endless.

Claire stepped up her time over the ditch, moving between Melbourne and Sydney for a couple of years before booking a three-month trip to America, to both LA and New York, to do acting courses and meet with casting directors.

“It was the first time I had actually shaken with nerves since I was a teenager,” Claire recalls of one specific meeting. “I had to sit on my hands to try and stop them from moving.”

A few months later, Claire decided to head back to LA to have her first try at “pilot season”, when actors audition for all the new projects in Hollywood.

“It was incredibly unsuccessful,” Claire laughs.

“That first pilot season I got almost no auditions but I had a really great time just learning how to live in LA, and I made some beautiful friends.”

She headed back to Australia, but put her name in the US Green Card Lottery, just in case. Against the odds, she got it.

“I actually remember collapsing in tears when I got the email because I was like, ‘I know I’m going to have to move to LA, and that is exhausting and I don’t want to, but I know that I have to say yes to this door opening in the universe,'” she laughs.

In January 2013, Claire made the move to LA and would end up staying for two years.

She loved the hustle of it, how it challenged her as an actor, and also the way of life that came with it, experiencing the California lifestyle, living close to Venice Beach. It’s a place she still visits regularly.

But in hindsight, she says, she wishes she had made the move with more certainty.

“I don’t do regrets often, but I wish someone had said to me, ‘Just go, go for a year and see what happens.’ Because otherwise I sort of move through life with this ‘everything is temporary’ vibe. I think I would have had more fun with it, because [I beat] myself up a lot. ‘Have I made the right choice, should I be at home?'”

Why Claire returned to New Zealand permanently

It was Christmas 2014 when she came back to New Zealand to see her family and ended up staying, for two reasons.

Firstly, she was given a job working on a shoot chaperoning a young actor who needed a mate on set and some acting lessons.

Immediately, she was back in amongst her favourite people, in a world she herself had grown up in.

And secondly, it had become increasingly clear that something was wrong with her dad Bryan.

His words were off – he kept saying odd things, and getting his nouns confused. Eventually, Bryan was diagnosed with

that affects speech, language and comprehension.

For the year that followed, Claire was in a kind of limbo where she was still paying rent on her apartment in LA, but her home life and work were keeping her busy in New Zealand.

One behind-the-scenes role led to another, with Claire starting to work in script supervising.

“You get to sit next to the director the whole time and be part of the intricacies of all the conversations going around, and be an integral part of that creative process. I came out the other end thinking, ‘I want to direct.'”

Working behind the camera gave her a break from the pressure of being a working actor.

“I didn’t give a sh*t what my body was doing for once. I didn’t give a sh*t about whether I had an audition or if the agents were ringing. I got to let go a bit and it was kind of a holiday from all that.”

Naturally, in the bad-boyfriend workings of the universe, as soon as Claire made that decision, the acting world came calling again.

She was offered a one-woman show in Dunedin, playing a fighter pilot who controls bomb-dropping drones over war zones.

“Everything in my body wanted to say no thank you, and I actually did say that, but then I turned around and went, ‘Oh no, I do want to do it,'” she laughs.

“My body needed to get on board. At the same time I was meant to be at a wedding in Mexico and [instead] I picked Dunedin, in August, no less.”

Freezing temperatures aside, it was a blast.

“I was on stage, by myself, speaking non-stop for an hour and a half, end to end, with nobody else to depend on. It was terrifying and amazing; you’re using every skill you’ve managed to sponge up as an actor.”

That six-month period was enough for Claire to realise she wanted to be back in New Zealand full time, so in 2015 she moved back for good.

Shortly after that her dad started to decline rapidly, and he now lives in a home.

“The hard part is that, compared to some forms of dementia, he is there – his personality is in there. He knows who we are, he doesn’t have episodes where he loses his marbles (so to speak). But he hasn’t been able to say my name for a couple of years.”

It is, Claire says, frustrating for both parties: that her father is mentally present but cannot communicate with his family, or understand what they’re saying to him.

“About six months ago, we could still work out what he was saying but now none of the words make sense.”

Those who have had loved ones with dementia will know very well the particular hardship that comes with the brain condition.

“It’s horrible. And it’s very sad,” Claire says simply.

“It has been difficult for us all to watch… essentially, you start losing him, grieving the loss, as he’s sitting in front of us. But also we’re so incredibly grateful that it’s not the kind of illness where he doesn’t know who we are. I still feel like when I’m hanging out with him, Dad knows exactly who I am.”

There’s been a strange and wonderful silver lining that has developed in the past few years.

At 73, Bryan – who “has never had a creative bone in his body”, Claire jokes – has suddenly become interested in all things arty. “He’s had this amazing, artistic Rain Man moment and started drawing beautiful replicas of watercolours. It was phenomenal.”

As his health has declined, so has Bryan’s ability to draw, but his new-found enthusiasm for art hasn’t dimmed at all, and one of the many father/daughter things they now do is go to art galleries together.

“He’s quite judgemental about other people’s art,” Claire laughs, before growing serious.

“There are hilarious times and there are heartbreaking times and they tend to smash up pretty close to each other. I’m sure that no matter what age you are, the minute you have to start dealing with the death of a parent, it’s incredibly confronting and life-altering. But our family have gently adapted to our new normal.”

On turning 40

Amongst the heavy family events, there have been a few shining lights of joy in the past couple of years. Being cast in Fresh Eggs is a big one, Claire says.

It was “a complete gift” and reunited her with many cast and crew members she’d befriended over the years.

“It was one of the best acting experiences I’ve ever had.”

Being given the responsibility of a lead role and “feeling like I have the skill set to actually own it with confidence” was a big part of that.

“We all knew we were making something pretty special.”

It also helped pave the way for another big, exciting plan that also fits the reverse structure of Claire’s adult life: last year, to celebrate her 40th birthday, she finally got to do her big OE.

At the end of 2017, Claire was earning the least amount of money she ever had, after a stint doing internship and stage work – both creatively fulfilling, but neither wallet filling.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m going to Europe next year, I don’t know how I’m going to afford it but I’m going.'” And then along came Fresh Eggs and suddenly the big plan looked a bit more possible.

A trip across Europe was organised, with Claire’s best friends from around the world joining her at various points.

There were award-winning restaurants in San Sebastian, cathedrals in Barcelona, Champagne for breakfast in Paris and fist-sized lumps of fresh mozzarella in Sorrento.

There’s a photo of Claire on her actual birthday, rosy-cheeked and happy in the evening sun on a boat in Capri with Happy Birthday pink bunting draped next to her.

“It was one of those glorious, beautiful plans that fitted together,” Claire says of the trip. “Every day I woke up feeling like I was going on my own mini adventure.”

Claire and Cohen Holloway as Penny and Wade on the new TV series Fresh Eggs.

So 40 is looking and feeling pretty good.

Finding ways to diversify in a stop-start career means Claire has added numerous strings to her bow – her behind-the-scenes work also includes a plan to write and star in her own show, as well as working on her wellness website, Good For You, which she co-runs with a journalist friend, Kylie Bailey.

Claire was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 12, and ended up in hospital at the age of 20 after becoming increasingly rundown while filming.

When told she would be on medication for the rest of her life to manage it, Claire went down the alternative medicine route before finding a lifestyle that keeps the chronic condition at bay.

As a result, wellbeing is both a priority and a great interest, hence Good For You.

It’s a busy, full life. Currently it’s also a solo one, and Claire is just fine with that.

“I’m really grateful that I’ve been single in my 30s and not in my 20s,” she says.

“When my relationship ended, the last thing I cared about or wanted was a relationship. I wanted to go out and see the world; so I had a very independent mindset. Being in that mindset meant I’ve had a really strong sense of myself and of my sexuality and of my own empowerment. Over the past 10 years I’ve had some beautiful and varied relationships with men… and some utter disappointments.” She breaks off laughing.

“But the key to that time for me is that I’ve had the self-confidence to know what I want, and what I don’t want. And the confidence to ask for it… or say no!”

In a beautifully poetic ending, two weeks after our interview, Claire rings me with an update.

That phone call from her agent she was waiting for? She did get the job, and will soon start shooting a new US film.

She’s also been given the green light to start writing the pilot for her own show.

“It turns out now I’m doing all the things,” she laughs down the phone. And so life takes on another twist, as it always does.

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