Wearing an extremely sharp and sophisticated powder-blue power-suit, Lisa Chappell looks the epitome of a strong woman.
And as the Weekly sits down with the actress during a break in rehearsals for her latest work on stage, Bright Star, the aesthetic couldn't be more fitting. After all, Lisa has cut her teeth playing many tough women in a man's world – including our most famous suffragette Kate Sheppard, and McLeod's Daughters' leading lady Claire McLeod.
"I think if I've had a theme running through my work the past 30 years, it's that of strong women. And that's why Andrea is such a challenge for me," Lisa (49) laughs, alluding to her next testing role.
To mark 125 years of women's suffrage in New Zealand, a number of performances, exhibitions and talks are being held across the country, including theatre-piece Bright Star.
Lisa explains it is based on the life of New Zealand astronomer and cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley, who was one of the most creative and significant theoreticians in modern astronomy, despite having to juggle a career and family.
Her admiration for Beatrice is clear. But Lisa isn't playing Beatrice. "Oh, no, I'm too old," she laughs. "I play Andrea, Beatrice's friend and neighbour. She's a mother of four, an American homemaker and the opposite of Beatrice. She represents the view that being a mother comes first. But that comes at a really big price," she explains.
"So when I first was offered the role, I didn't think I could relate to this woman. She lives her life fundamentally opposite to the way I live it."
In what way? we ask.
"Well," Lisa says, "she swims downstream. I've swum upstream my whole life. But then I thought, what a great acting challenge! You can't judge characters when you play them, you have to find empathy and understanding to play them."
There's also no better time for a challenge, with a big birthday coming up this year – 50 in October, for anyone asking.
Lisa recognises that her life is something a bit different from many others her age.
"Well, firstly, the big 5-0! It's a bloody achievement. It's a privilege to grow older. We have weird societal pressures and expectations with women, particularly about ageing and that's not something I want to endorse," she says.
"I know I'm in the minority doing what I do, and not having children, and not being married and not owning a house," she admits.
"I live so differently from most people and friends I grew up with from school. Because I don't have the same tethers as everyone else, I think that helps me feel young. I've shifted 50 times and I'm just a gypsy. It's just me and my dog, and we follow the work. So with this role, it's a really interesting opportunity to have some insight into that life."
Her 50th celebration has already been and gone with a "trip of a lifetime" with two school friends to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, because Lisa will in fact be working on her birthday, much to her delight.
"I'm privileged to be working! And extremely happy to be working with beautiful people, and thrilled to be doing a story that is meaningful and empowering for women," she says smiling. "There are ebbs and flows with this work, so whenever I'm not working, I always make sure I have a writing project on the go.
"I love the ebbs now though, I really do, because you get to spend quality time with family and friends, and work on your own health and wellbeing. I didn't use to like it obviously because I was frightened that's how it would stay. But, of course, I realise now that nothing stays the same ever. So I embrace the flow!"
This perspective, and ability to handle the ever-changing scenarios life throws at her, is something that has come with age and experience, Lisa insists.
Money has never driven her, just the pure love of being creative. She's done it all in entertainment – television, with her past projects still screening all over the world, film, theatre, singing and musicals.
"If you're in line with your true values, somehow you manage to get through it," she says.
"I think that's something I've always done as I've gotten older. I've kept clarifying what's truly important to me and making sure those boxes are ticked."
Is the Lisa Chappell now different from the Lisa Chappell 30 years ago?
"There are really only two differences," she answers after a pause.
"One is I have no ambition, and two, my first thought is always to be a team player and be kind. Everything else is still the same. I still get thoroughly excited about doing jobs and I've always wanted to play strong female characters because that's what I believe we need more of."
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