Go Girls' new face

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Esther Stephens. Photo / Janna Dixon
Esther Stephens. Photo / Janna Dixon

Esther Stephens may be new to TV's Go Girls but she knows a thing or two about the attitude. The year before she landed the part she set herself a Go Girls-style goal to force herself out of her comfort zone.

"I decided I wanted to travel and have some adventures," says Stephens, whose latest adventure is strictly based on Auckland's North Shore. Introduced this Thursday, she plays Olivia, a high-flying fashion journalist who has returned from New York, much like Stephens, who spent a few weeks in the Big Apple during a trip to the US and Europe.

"It was quite fortunate timing because I'd just returned from nine weeks overseas and Olivia is extremely well travelled. Being in New York, I definitely got a sense of the cut-throat world Olivia came from," says 24-year-old Stephens.

The character is an old school friend and travel buddy of Amy's but tensions arise as she gets to know Amy's buddies Cody, Britta and Kev.

"They're not huge fans of Olivia because they remember her as being the Miss Perfect from high school, the Miss Popular," says Stephens. "She was a high achiever so they recall her being top of the class and there's a bit of resentment there."

Olivia will also discover things aren't so rosy on the home front as trouble is brewing within her family.

By the end of the Go Girls' first year on air, the keen protagonists had fulfilled their goals with some rather unfortunate side effects. Cody got married to a guy who turned out to be gay, Britta realised she was too nice to be famous and Amy, chasing riches, ended up broke. Many of the characters are finding solace in the beds of the opposite sex this season; the writers were apparently keen to spice things up by adding some raunch and bringing in another Go Girl.

"It's a very sexy show," agrees Stephens, who is playing a character three years her senior. "I did think, why not Olivia? She never gets any sex! But she's quite emotionally reserved. She's not as 'free love' or prone to leaping into bed with men."

But the character more than makes up for her lack of passion with her enviable wardrobe. This power-dresser gets around in Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester and Miss Crabb, plus a whole lot of international labels Stephens had never heard of. The clothes have helped her get into Olivia's slick and professional frame of mind, as well as creeping into her real-life wardrobe.

"I don't have a lot of designer clothing but I certainly found myself trying lots of new outfits and new looks. Like jackets I'd never think to look twice at. I find myself going out and buying Olivia's wardrobe."

The move to the small screen has been a big learning curve for Stephens, who has forged a successful career on the stage. After graduating from Unitec Performing Arts School, she scored a place in the Silo Theatre's Ensemble Project, an intense "theatre bootcamp" whereby emerging actors put on two plays simultaneously, under the watchful eye of Michael Hurst and Oliver Driver.

From there she confidently stepped into high-profile roles in Hurst-directed productions She Stoops to Conquer,'Tis Pity She's A Whore and Twelfth Night. She has also showed off her singing skills in the musical theatre productions Spelling Bee, The Threepenny Opera and Blood Brothers. Go Girls is her first major TV role.

"It's always a bit difficult coming into something that's established because there's a set tone and pace," says Stephens. "One of the writers says it's like jumping onto a moving conveyer belt."

It helped that she knew Bronwyn Turei (Cody) from Unitec, who gave her reassuring words of wisdom on her first day, reminding her that she and Alix Bushnell (Britta) were new to TV too when they first started.

"I just tried to go in with an open mind and do my best once I'd worked out what I was doing. I always thought I was a much stronger theatre performer so I was quite surprised when I got the Go Girls role. You judge yourself off the bulk of the work that you've done. But it's been a fantastic challenge. It's allowed me to learn a whole new way of working."

She soon found, particularly through watching Matt Whelan who plays Brad, that she needn't tone down her acting for the screen.

"You can actually deliver a very big performance and still let it be very real. I've learned the most through watching my fellow actors work."

She also realised her hometown of Howick isn't all that different to Milford.

"It shares a lot of the same stereotypes like the real estate mums. It's like a total mirror image."

* Go Girls plays on TV2, Thursdays, 8.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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