Career

Kiwi actresses Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Theresa Healey team up for female-driven local film Vermilion

''This movie is a gem. It's a story by a woman, made by women about women.''

By Amy Prebble

When New Zealand acting royalty Jennifer Ward-Lealand spots her Vermilion co-star Theresa Healey perched in the make-up chair during the Weekly's photoshoot, she can barely contain her delight.

The pair squeeze each other tight and talk a mile a minute – congratulating one another on new work, enquiring about friends' health and comparing notes on their kids.

The actresses have known each other for years, since training together in the early 1980s, and are excited about starring in the upcoming local film, which was written and directed by Danish-born Kiwi Dorthe Scheffmann.

"Vermilion has been the last 10 years for Dorthe," says Theresa. "We've watched the script go through so many different changes. It was just wonderful seeing her have the chance to actually make it."

*Vermilion* is in cinemas from November 8.
Vermilion is in cinemas from November 8.

Not only does the film have a female director, around 95 per cent of the crew were women.

"This film will single-handedly change the statistics for women working in the industry, which are at about 12 per cent," says Jennifer (55), who is also the president of Equity New Zealand, a union representing Kiwi performers.

She is proud there were so many women on set, and says it meant a very different way of working.

"We had the luxury of shooting for a week and the following week rehearsing, preparing for the next location and then we'd shoot for a week.

"Normally, you're doing something like this and you're working like crazy and then fall out the other end thinking, 'What did we just shoot?'" laughs Jennifer. "I feel I've been spoiled for films in the future."

"We still worked really hard, but it was just so respectful and gentle and delicious to make," agrees Theresa (54).

*Vermilion*, which was filmed in and around Auckland.
Vermilion, which was filmed in and around Auckland.

The film focuses on female friendships and a tense mother-daughter relationship. Jennifer plays Darcy, a composer in her fifties, and Theresa plays Sarah, a corporate lawyer. Between them and Darcy's neighbour Sila (Goretti Chadwick), they have brought up Darcy's daughter Zoe (Emily Campbell), who feels Darcy left her behind while chasing a career.

Both Jennifer and Theresa understand the strain mothers feel between being a parent and being an artist. Jennifer is mum to Jack (21) and Cameron (18) with her husband, actor and director Michael Hurst. Theresa also has two sons, Zachary (17) and Xavier (14).

"I think many women will relate to that juggle, that pull on your time," says Jennifer.

"I remember when the children were little there were those times when I'd wake up in the morning and I'd been up all night with the children because that just happens, and I'd think, 'How the hell I am going to perform tonight?' But Dr Theatre always comes through."

She and Michael (61) had a pact that, when they were doing theatre, only one of them would work nights, so that their children could have a stable schedule.

"It might have been Michael or me picking them up, or it might have been great-aunt Jill, but they had a small coterie of people there for them."

Theresa also struggled to find the perfect balance.

"What's interesting is Jennifer's character chose her art. You don't set out to be a bad mum. But it's quite interesting to explore that. How, as women, it's very difficult to do both. I truly have not chosen my career over my kids."

Despite the conflict, both women have combined parent-hood with successful careers. Jennifer directed her first opera this year and Theresa recently portrayed Vivian in the local television drama Filthy Rich.

This is all despite a historical lack of roles for women over 45, and the pair admit they have relished playing women their own age in Vermilion.

"What happens is this thing called aspirational casting. Not always, but a lot of the time a 33-year-old gets cast as a 45-year-old," says Jennifer.

"All of the people who are 45 go, 'Gosh, that person is supposed to be 45, I don't look like that.' Then the youngies go, 'I hope I look as good as that when I'm 45!' But it's impossible because that person is 33.'

"All of my favourite actresses are over 45. It's not just about looks; it's about getting the chance to bring all of your life experience to a role."

"We also play professional women in Vermilion. We don't often get to play that either," says Theresa. "But this movie is a gem. It's a story by a woman, made by women about women."

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