As the Shortland Street cameras stopped rolling last December, it was the end of a chapter for Kerry-Lee Dewing after nearly eight years playing nurse Kylie Brown. Tears rolled down the actress' cheeks as she bid farewell to her beloved character and the castmates who have become like family to her on the popular TVNZ 2 show.
"It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life," recalls Kerry-Lee, 30.
"It was amazing. I didn't know I was appreciated to that extent. You put so much into your role and hope that it translates. I was showered with flowers and gifts and beautiful words. There were friends, cast, crew and people from the network there, lining the corridors clapping as I walked out of the studio. It felt like a funeral, but Kylie didn't die!
"It's the relationships with cast and crew that are the hardest thing to say goodbye to," admits Kerry-Lee, who departed on screen last Friday. "You can never express your gratitude enough and the part people have played in your life.
"It always sounds cliché when you say it, but I literally have Shortland Street to thank for not only the actress I've become, but the woman I am today, because it wasn't just me growing up in that time – I coexisted with this other woman Kylie. Working through her trials and tribulations, her successes and losses have all shaped my perspective. I got schooled two-fold!"
The blonde beauty first appeared on Shortland Street in 2012 and was quickly entangled in a tumultuous love life with many boyfriends, dates and even a marriage or two while enjoying popularity with fellow nurses.
Things took a darker turn in 2016 for the resident 'it girl' when the show tackled the controversial topic of euthanasia, with Kylie assisting her mother to die after she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
And while her storyline became lighter for a time, by the end of 2018, the nurse was sent careening down a destructive path and barely came up for air.
"In the lead-up to Kylie's downfall, there was a kidnapping, being an accomplice in a murder, I found out I had the BRCA gene after mum, so I had an elective double mastectomy, which led to more issues, had an ectopic pregnancy and found out I couldn't have kids," tells Kerry-Lee, confirming her closeness to her character by frequently flipping between the first and third person.
"Then my sister and Dylan arrived, and he ends up killing her along with my unborn child who she was the surrogate for, his twin Dan arrives and tries to warn me off but I'm undeterred. Then there's a wedding, a crash, a fire where Dylan is burnt and then, and only then, the true fun ensues. It was a lot!
"Kylie's whole world fractured then and there. I often refer to it as the green side – good-natured, loyal, caring and empathetic – and then the red side, when she was damaged and believed no evil should exist in the world, assuming an 'avenging angel' role, making it her responsibility to rid the world of it. There was a whole moral shift."
It made for compelling viewing, but the talented actress admits it began to take its toll on her.
"When you're working consistently at that level for that amount of time, in high-stakes situations where your adrenaline is spiking on a daily basis, your body doesn't know the difference between reality and fiction, so it has to exist within me, as Kerry-Lee, somewhere," she explains, bringing a hand to her stomach. "And so it physically does, it exists."
And few fans of the show could forget the heart-wrenching scenes of the nurse spiralling out of control. There was an attempted suicide, two murders and a bomb.
"When she's in a psych ward throwing herself around, I have to go to those places," tells the actress. "It's in my nature and my work ethic to lean into that opportunity and do what needs to be done to the best of my ability".
Her commitment to the role is obvious as she admits of Kylie, "I hold her close to my heart and protect her and that place fiercely.
"I'd be having breakdowns one week, threatening people not to stand between me and my duties, and trying to commit suicide the next. It's one 20-minute scene but for me to get to that place, to conjure up what's required, isn't instant. Understandably, my adrenals were firing and even if I had the ability to put it all aside, it wouldn't be too far because the next week I'd need to go there again."
Despite its demands, Kerry-Lee is quick to point out how grateful she was for the chance to play Kylie, saying, "I feel truly honoured I was given the opportunity to tell stories of that nature and that they trusted me with it. From a creative point of view I was lucky enough to flex different muscles and be challenged on a daily basis."
But with her character spiralling out of control, Kerry-Lee shares that rather than relaxing at the end of the day when shooting was over, she was instead focused on the next day's scenes and thinking about how to tackle them. After some time of this, she realised she needed to shift the focus back on to her and take a break.
"For me it's been an era," she declares. "It's been the greatest part of my 20s and it has shaped the actor I am today, the person I am today. It was really hard to convince myself to take a leap into the next chapter in my life, to be open, to not worry and let whatever happens, happen. But I was finally forced to listen to myself.
"Physically, the signs were telling me it was time. I needed to look inwards and take some care of myself. I was expending too much, especially in that last little while – and so for me to get to that point was quite significant."
And three months into her break, she is doing just that. With the full support of her mother – who she moved from South Africa to New Zealand with in 2002 – the adventurer is now living across the ditch in Sydney.
"Mum has always wanted me to live my life well," says Kerry-Lee. "She's an incredible support and wants the best for me, whatever that looks like."
Having previously spent a lot of time in Sydney, she has many friends there and is adjusting to life away from Kylie. But she admits it was initially hard to let go.
"It was almost like switching everything off, completely changing my horizons – literally!" she says.
"I'm on the Eastern Beaches; it's really nice and busy with lots going on. I'm doing a lot of walking, taking in the ocean breeze and just existing in reality as a nobody. It's been really beautiful and something I've needed as a part of this process of coming back to me. I'm not sure I could have done that in New Zealand."
Visibly relaxed and with a smile, Kerry-Lee adds, "To be honest, I've had no expectations of myself for now. I'm always going to be a hard worker and I'm always going to be doing something, but it's nice not to have any pressure. It's amazing to learn what you enjoy!
Like going for a walk, you're very mindful. You're present and more conscious and I'm being better to myself, nurturing myself a little bit more."
And as for what's next for popular nurse Kylie? Only time will tell.
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