Some may think actress Jessica Grace Smith would be feeling the heat as Westside‘s newest Cheryl West, but she is no stranger to a challenge.
As the third actress to take on the iconic Kiwi character, Dannevirke-born Jessica thinks of it more as preservation than pressure when it comes to portraying the Westie matriarch.
“You know she’s a loved character, so I was very careful to just make sure that I was coming from my own point of view and not trying to copy what Robyn Malcolm or Ashleigh Cummings did,” explains Jessica.
“There’s always the anticipation of how the audience is going to respond to it, but because the series did a kind of time jump, it felt like it was pretty seamless.”
Jessica is based in Sydney with her partner, former Shortland Street star Benedict Wall, 35, but the ex-Home and Away actress is loving a reason to be home in New Zealand.
And although she may be new to the set, Jessica is no stranger to the Wests’ world. The 30 year-old initially auditioned for the role of Cheryl in 2017, but lost out to Ashleigh Cummings, 26.
But after landing a starring role in the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Goldfinch, Ashleigh reluctantly had to step away from Westside, leaving a gap for a new Cheryl.
However, casting for Cheryl was kept very hush-hush, admits Jessica, who wasn’t aware she was up for the part until well into the audition process.
“It came through as a different character and I thought, ‘Oh cool, this makes sense,’ because me and Ashleigh are very different actually and I got so close last time,” she explains.
“They were like, ‘This is Cheryl’s best friend,’ but the further along we got, the more it was revealed – and actually it was Cheryl!”
Jessica says her transition into the role has been incredibly smooth, helped by the fact she was already friends with her new co-stars. Antonia Prebble and David de Lautour, who play Rita and Ted West, have been longtime pals of the actress.
“They’re so welcoming, and Antonia is messaging me every other day and just being like, ‘How are you going?’ and, ‘Are you enjoying yourself? It’s really lovely,” smiles Jessica.
Since the end of season four, the show has jumped ahead four years to 1987 and the West family has multiplied. The twins Van and Jethro are both four years old and baby Pascalle has just been born.
Jessica admits that despite the old actor’s adage about “never working with children or animals”, she loves having littlies on set and it’s even fired up her maternal instincts.
“I enjoy playing a mum,” she enthuses. “I’ve got a good connection with them and so the idea that anything could happen to them, you know it’s easy for me to be protective.”
Although Jessica may not adopt the West style of parenting when the time comes for her to have children, she loves the “kids will be kids” attitude on set.
“It’s been really fun portraying the Wests because back then it was a world with no seat belts, kids running around with scissors, playing with lighters and matches, and we’re not reading books to them, there’s no kind of learning, we’re not helicopter parenting them,” she laughs. “It’s essentially if they are not bothering adults, then they’re fine.
“It’s quite refreshing to look back on that kind of parenting – and I think New Zealand audiences will really like that.”