Based on some of the headlines she's made over the course of her acting career, you might have preconceived ideas about Teuila Blakely. Namely, that she is as bold, brash and ballsy in real life as she tends to be on screen. Spoiler alert: she is.
But I'm still somewhat surprised when she sneaks through the door of a quiet café in West Auckland wearing her apparently standard off-duty uniform of nondescript activewear.
She's here to discuss her new role in Prime TV drama The Brokenwood Mysteries, where she's been cast as prison superintendent and CEO Angela Lafferty, whose on-duty uniform is eye-catching power suits.
"I had a lot of fun with that," says the 44-year-old best known for her four-year stint on Shortland Street playing polarising nurse and single mum, Vasa Levi.
"That aspect of the job – the dressing up – it's always very fun because you're like, I know these women exist. I know who they are, I've seen them around. And it was interesting to embody that type of woman. It's not you, but you don't mind trying it on for a while."
The Brokenwood wardrobe is broader by Teuila's standards, but the character is still within the realms of the, as she puts it, "hardcore Samoan bitch" she's brought to life in every local production from Filthy Rich and Westside to Sione's Wedding and, of course, Shortland Street where, for the first time, playing a woman that audiences loved to hate had its pitfalls.
"Having strangers not only recognise me in the street but conflate me with that character was actually quite hard to deal with," says Teuila who, I'm sorry to disappoint, is not a bitch whatsoever.
In fact, when she successfully auditioned for a minor role in season one of Outrageous Fortune, the would've-been bad-girl Savannah was rewritten to be, well, slightly less bad, to better suit the actress' own temperament.
Perhaps 'in control' is the common thread that better links Teuila to her typical character? "I think it's really important for young women out there to see these kinds of roles played by women – nowadays more than ever," she says by way of agreement.
If the implication is that serious roles for female actors have, for a long time, been rather limited, Teuila's half-Samoan heritage has seen her doubly pigeonholed.
"Until quite recently," she explains, "when they wrote a doctor or someone of status, they automatically meant white, unless it was intrinsic to her story that she came from somewhere, in which case she'd be an 'ethnicity-specified doctor', and you might get a look in. Otherwise, you were excluded from the process before it'd even begun."
It's a testament to Teuila's fortitude and talent that despite this troubling set of circumstances, she's never struggled to secure work. If anything, she could have done with a little less of it at times. The week before our interview, she took five days' leave and jetted off to Samoa – her first holiday in eight years.
"It's wild. Almost incomprehensible," she says. "In all that time I've just gone from project to project, non-stop, to a point where I couldn't even think about it, I just had to keep going."
The brief reprieve reminded her that breathing space is a non-negotiable for her. "That's something I have to manage really well to keep from imploding," she says. "Not just physically, but mentally. There's some real conscious effort behind that."
For now, staying single is a big part of this strategy. "It's the only way I could do it. If I was trying to maintain a romantic relationship during this relentless period of my life I think it would push me over the edge. It's like, this is my time to do me."
In any case, alone for Teuila does not mean lonely. Ask her ex-fiancé-turned-flatmate Oscar Kightley, whose 50th birthday was the excuse for the five-day fiesta in Samoa.
"Sometimes it's just better the devil you know!" she laughs, with regards to the pair's unconventional living arrangement. Indeed, a love match they might not have been, but you couldn't ask for greater compatibility. "We work in the same industry at the same kind of pace, and we have very similar lifestyles and share the same friends," says Teuila.
"So our theory is that it'll work until it doesn't. And if and when things change, we'll deal with them. But right now it's really easy." Incredibly, not even overnight guests are a source of awkwardness, with the exes entirely supportive of each other's romantic pursuits.
Not that Teuila lives life on anyone's terms but her own, especially when it comes to her sexuality. Famously outspoken on the subject whether she's defending her own choices or championing sexual empowerment for all women, her path to total sexual freedom prevailed both because of and in spite of her conservative upbringing.
"I've always been innately sexual," she begins. "But I was raised to believe that sex had to go hand-in-hand with relationships, if not marriage. Then suddenly I was an adult woman, not in a relationship, and I was like, this isn't going to work! I need to get it from somewhere."
This meant recalibrating her ideas around casual sex.
"Initially I really struggled to give myself the permission to do it. Then I realised it's because as a woman, I've been conditioned to think this is wrong from the very beginning. So I had to free myself from that way of thinking, and as soon as I did – and enjoyed the experience – I thought, I need to tell every woman I know, 'Don't feel guilty! We're allowed to do this! It's fine!'"
It hasn't always been fine. In 2014, when an intimate video featuring Teuila and then-Warriors player Konrad Hurrell was leaked online, the fallout was not only significant, but significantly one-sided.
At the time, Teuila addressed the public shaming she was subjected to, using it as evidence that more work needs to be done to normalise female sexuality. Today, she has a number of projects in the pipeline that speak to this need.
"We're living in an age where there's all this dialogue around female empowerment, sexuality and consent, and that's great," she says. "But a lot of the work out there is about supporting the women who say 'No'. My work is around supporting the women who say 'Yes'".
Open discussion around 'saying yes' is something Teuila practises with her 27-year-old son Jared, who she had at 17.
"Deviancy comes from secrecy," she says, pointing out that her life would almost certainly have unfolded differently if sex had been talked about in her parents' household.
"So for us, no topic is off-limits. And in fact in this #MeToo era with all the stories in the news, it's heartily encouraged."
Some of her proudest parenting moments have come from watching her son and his friends respond to such stories with maturity and compassion.
"We have to remember that the majority of men are good," she says. "They've been raised by women. They've been raised to respect women. They're loving, sensitive, vulnerable, emotional young men. They get it. And they're equally as horrified by the things that go on."
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