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Robyn Malcolm: "I've been cheating on Cheryl since 2010"

The beloved local actress stars in new comedy series, Agent Anna, which started Thursday on TV1.

Malcolm as Anna Kingston in Agent Anna

This is a series about a woman who becomes a real estate agent – is that a hard sell? People don’t generally like real estate agents …
That’s why I thought it would be great to make a television series about them. There’s a great paradox that as New Zealanders, we’re obsessed with real estate, but we’re also obsessed with our hatred of real estate agents, so getting under the skin of that to me was really interesting.

Did you talk to a few estate agents?
Yeah, I’ve bought and sold a couple of houses in the last few years, and the thing I’m interested in are the people who aren’t the heroes, you know? With a lot of American television, the stories are about legendary people, or heroic people, or people who are really amazing at their jobs, and are the perfect human in some way, and have perfect human bodies and superhuman hair. I like the idea of making a story about somebody who just really wasn’t very good at anything, and the wrong side of 45. What’s interesting is why people choose to become real estate agents. We have this perception that they’re sharks who drive flash cars and have Rolexes and are overdressed in the middle of the day, they’re Machiavellian creatures. And yet, the average annual income of a real estate agent is incredibly low, I remember reading a statistic a few years ago that the average annual income of a real estate agent was $17,000. So there’s an enormous chasm between what our perception of what agents are and the reality.

It’s like being an actor – you’re in work or you’re out, and the income is up or down.
That’s exactly right – and you’re only as good as your last sale. We have a thing in acting that you’re only as good as your last job, and it’s true, it’s all on a tightrope the whole time. The occupational hazardry, I guess, of being a real estate agent is that everything becomes about the commission – so what happens to a person? So here you’ve got Anna, who is this passive-aggressive, Pollyannesque middle-class housewife, whose driver in life has just been to be liked by people, suddenly thrown into this real dog-eat-dog world. She’s someone if you met her, you’d go “I don’t want you selling my house, you’d be terrible at it.” But she has no other choices, as far as she can tell. I love it when comedy is about real stuff, I’ve always thought that when people are going through the most difficult moments in their lives, when they’re in pain, it can often be very funny.

She reminds me a little of your character in [the Beckett play] Happy Days – “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Almost the entire byline for Anna came from a phrase that I heard Colin McColl use once when we were doing a play years ago. He used to talk about the brightness of the truly desperate. That’s a perfect way to describe Anna, her brightness is inversely proportional to the level of her desperation – which is very Winnie.

It seems quite common that women, especially, have to reinvent themselves through no fault of their own.
Most of us at various points in our life have to deal with reinvention, because change is inevitable, and with somebody like Anna, I like the idea of the reinvention was also about self discovery. Remember that book The Surrendered Wife? I was so appalled at that book, but equally appalled at how popular it became, particularly across America, so Anna was inspired a bit by that as well. She was the truly surrendered wife, she lived her life through her businessman husband and through her children and so when all of that goes, what does she do? She’s got no resources to draw on, she doesn’t have the inner strength of a Cheryl West, she’s a failure. So what do you do when you’ve got to reinvent from the ground up? She calls herself a victim, but I think the great discovery of a person like that is to try and take responsibility for it. I remember, about four episodes in, I was saying, “If I was married to Anna, I’d leave her too!”

Malcolm as Cheryl West, photographed in 2007 by Jane Ussher

Have you put enough distance between this role and Cheryl West now?
You have these love affairs with characters that you play, and my love affair with Cheryl went on for a number of years, but I’ve been cheating on Cheryl since February 2010. I’ve played 11 characters since Cheryl. In an actor's career, I think there’s an imbalance with a very popular television show because people relate very strongly to one character that you’ve played for a long time and they don’t see the whole arc of a career – and nor should they. I feel like I left Cheryl behind a long time ago, but the show has remained really popular and I guess people’s relationship with that character is potentially stronger than mine is now. But I like Anna, I’m really interested in taking Anna on some journeys because hers will be a really unpredictable one, and flawed and shifting and surprising and all those things.

You went to Great Southern Television with the idea for Agent Anna – has that made a difference to way it was made?
Yeah, I have the role of deviser and associate producer as well as actor, which was wonderful, it meant that I was part of the story development team. I call it an all-care, no-responsibility position, because I got to throw my weight and my opinions around with impunity and then go and be an actor. I’ve really enjoyed being able to contribute at that level, and also working with Maxine Fleming and Rachel Gardner and Vanessa Alexander in particular, they’re glorious women. It was all smell-of-an-oily-rag, like co-op theatre almost, done very fast and on a very slight budget, and in a way that made it more fun, we just had to go for it.

So it a big change from working for South Pacific Pictures?
Yeah, the budget was comparatively absolutely tiny. That’s fine, we’re kind-of cutting our teeth. Great Southern’s response to me was really wonderful, they were really happy to work collaboratively, they weren’t frightened of the whole union thing, the fact that I’m really outspoken in that area, and the whole thing felt very open-palmed and egalitarian, I guess. It never really felt like work, and we were all interested in telling the story. The thing about television is that it’s terribly, terribly ageist and terribly sexist – less so in New Zealand I think, which is really great. New Zealand is a lovely environment to be able to tell the story of a 47-year-old failed woman.

You’ve been able to compare with Australia on that?
Yeah, you just have to look at how the Aussies respond to Julia Gillard, it’s a much more sexist society. I think we’re way ahead there.

I think we all raised a cheer when she gave that speech in parliament – were you in Australia at the time?
No, I was in the UK then, and someone sent it to me. What she’s up against is extraordinary; we have a different tone here. But, still, women who are not in positions of power or don’t have a profession and are 45 and over, run the risk of becoming invisible very quickly, and yet they’re one of the biggest demographics in television. For me, it was like, a) I want to tell the story of a woman like Anna who on paper she might not be that interesting because she’s not a hero, and b) it’s a no-brainer because women of our age watch telly, they go to the movies. I’ve got a British agent now, and the response I’m getting is that there is more work around for women of your age than there was 10 years ago.

Women want glamour too, though too, don’t they?
Yeah, they do, but that’s not the reality. We all want to watch Sex and the City and we love the clothes-porn and all the rest of it, but that’s what Anna wanted too, and life never quite worked out that way. There’s the brightness of the truly desperate, but the other tagline is be careful what you want, because you’ll get it. She wanted to be a surrendered wife, but what happens when the guy you surrender yourself to decides to leave you?

The cast of Agent Anna

At the end of the first episode, it seems that she might have some suppressed rage – is that part of her makeup?
Yeah, although that’s an aberration. That’s the lovely thing about passive-aggressive behaviour is that every now and then rage will squirt out from the toothpaste tube from another angle.

There is quite a bit of physical comedy – does that carry on?
Because she’s not a centred human being, because she’s in a state of flight a lot of the time, she is quite a clumsy person. We have a few deck chair moments, and I really like that, but it had to be grounded in something real – she is the sort of person who would walk into a wall. Anna is not in control of her world. So I enjoyed that a lot.

AGENT ANNA, TV1, tonight, 8.30pm.