Twenty-one years after her second novel made headlines, New Zealand actress and author Barbara Ewing is back in the spotlight following the book's re-release.
First published in 1997, The Actresses is again on bookshop shelves because publishers, Head of Zeus, believe its story of women in the entertainment industry — and the sexual politics and toxic culture revealed — are topical following accusations of widespread harassment in showbiz.
Those allegations, particularly ones concerning Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein, have led to the #MeToo and Time's Up movements with female stars including Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, Salma Hayek and Uma Thurman speaking out against what they say is pervasive abuse.
Concerns about workplace treatment of women have spread to other professions and industries; New Zealand law firms and university law faculties are now being closely scrutinised.
Ewing originally wrote the novel - often working on chapters or editing in rehearsal and dressing rooms - to expose the perils of being an older actress judged to be too old for many roles.
It tells the story of a group of former drama school students who gather for a class reunion 36 years after graduation. While school heart-throb Terence Blue has become a Hollywood star, most of his former female classmates are unemployed or working as understudies because, now in their 50s, they're considered past their prime. When the reunion culminates in an accusation of rape, leading to a high-profile court case, the women begin to share their stories of harassment, abuse and rejection.
Many of the incidents recounted in the book are stories and instances from her own or close friends' experiences; when The Actresses was first published, it won praise from UK stars such as Prunella Scales, Sheila Hancock and Maureen Lipman who said it was entirely believable and realistic. It was said Ewing wrote as nobody else had, the truth about actresses' lives.
Ewing struggled to find a publisher — several said there wouldn't be a market for a story about women in their 50s — but she pledged to make it a "bonk-buster" similar to Jilly Cooper's novels.
That eventually won a publisher over and The Actresses sold well and garnered positive reviews. While it was optioned for a film, it never proceeded because, Ewing says, producers thought no one would be interested in seeing a movie about a group of ageing actresses.
Ewing says she admires the women who are speaking out about sexual harassment. Now in her early 70s, she says women of her generation welcomed developments such as the contraceptive pill and greater freedom to choose whether to marry.
While they often encountered and talked about harassment, it was almost accepted as part and parcel of that newfound liberation and emphasis was on discreet ways to combat it. Ewing says younger women are now saying enough is enough and they shouldn't have to face those situations in the first place.
She says those who claim younger women aren't resilient enough to deal with the "facts of life" are doing them a disservice and should be more supportive.
"Action had to be taken further and that required great bravery of the young women involved, especially in a job like acting."
Raised in Wellington, Ewing was in her early 20s when she won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. She always intended to return to New Zealand but, after winning the RADA gold medal for top student in her year, was offered theatre, television and film roles.
One of her most well-known movie roles was as a red-headed barmaid victim of Christopher Lee's Dracula in the 1968 movie Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Ewing got the part after stuffing her bra with cotton wool to make her look buxom.
In the 1970s and '80s, she worked near continuously in theatre and television in the UK and NZ, culminating in her starring role as Agnes Fairchild in the long-running Brass, a satirical send-up of dour Northern television dramas set in impoverished mining towns.
Despite her success — and guest appearances in the likes of Eastenders, Boon, Casualty, Peak Practice, The Bill and Lovejoy — Ewing began noticing offers of work started to drop off as she aged.
"Then I heard [acclaimed UK actress] Glenda Jackson saying that she wasn't going to wait around to be offered roles as mothers and wives and was off to become an MP," Ewing says. "It really affected me and I thought, 'I need to find something else'."
While Ewing published her first novel, The Strangers, in 1978, The Actresses propelled her into a second career as an author. She's now written eight books, mainly historical fiction, and been nominated for prestigious awards including the Orange Prize.
She says the dearth of roles for older actresses — often the same age as many actors who are regarded as being in their prime — meant she had time for researching and writing her books.
"I've been lucky to have two careers in two countries."
Ewing may well be about to break into the US market; The Actresses will be released there, for the first time, later this year. In a small victory, the book has an older woman on its cover — a rarity in publishing.
Head book buyer for Whitcoulls Joan Mackenzie says it's fairly well observed that older women are frequently "invisible" in the entertainment industry but she doesn't think it's a "brave choice" to feature one on a book cover.
"Surprise, surprise: many older women — and at what age do we think that kicks in? — actually read books and may well react positively to seeing someone who looks a bit more like them on the front of the book they're selecting," says Mackenzie. "I think the lack of these images actually says more about the bias of the designers and publishers."
by Barbara Ewing
(Head of Zeus, $30)
Barbara Ewing is at the Women's Bookshop, 105 Ponsonby Road on Tuesday at 6pm.