Star-crossed and acting the part

By Barney McDonald

Model-turned-actress adds new layers to Juliet role, writes Barney McDonald

Actress and model Derya Parlak who is staring in the film 'Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song'. Photo / Doug Sherring
Actress and model Derya Parlak who is staring in the film 'Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song'. Photo / Doug Sherring

We've all rolled our eyes over the model-turned-actress. Already beautiful or handsome, they're not content with the glamorous life of the catwalk and fashion editorial. Instead, they want it all: beauty, fame, wealth and immortality, not to mention all the trappings of a lifestyle far beyond the reach of mere mortals.

But this is New Zealand. We don't really do supermodel stardom. A handful have escaped the parochial local industry to find their fortune and rock star or millionaire spouse overseas. The rest drink the fetid bathwater of a Kiwi industry too small for stars, yet overflowing with egos and wannabes desperate for at least a few moments in the glare of the camera flash. If you're born with good looks, why not? It's there for the taking, though what it takes out of the hapless parade of models is anyone's guess.

Derya Parlak, 21, is better positioned than most to understand the vagaries of the local modelling industry and clever enough to comprehend the perception of the model-turned-actress. A model herself at 14, she now has seven years' toil in the industry, though she counters it's never really been for her.

Fully aware she's setting herself up for criticism of the model-turned-actress, she completed her first major acting role in Tim Van Dammen's whimsical musical version of William Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet. Titled Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song, it's a strange film, alternately garish and ill-conceived then quirky and amusing. Suffice to say it elevates kitsch to a new level of shtick that some will love, many will loathe.

Through this quagmire wades Parlak, whose keen intelligence and world-weary countenance are at odds with the film's disposability and the usual criticisms of models who decide they can act. She says she loves the film and the experience of making it, though it required three months of weekday shoots and a mute performance because there is no dialogue. The songs were recorded by professional singers, then dubbed. She is keen to distance her acting from her modelling, partly because she knows she's an easy target for criticism and also feels that the modelling career isn't representative of who or what she is as a creative, thinking person.

"Romeo and Juliet was a huge challenge and that's what I like about acting versus modelling," she insists. "It is challenging to an extent with modelling because you have to have opinions for yourself. You have to make your mind up for yourself about stuff. It overwhelms your mind. But I want to let go of what's going on in my mind and just be."

Although many would argue that's precisely what models do when they're working, with Parlak it's a double-edged desire. Firstly, she wants to collaborate on a deeper, more artistic level with people who have greater aims than simply creating a pretty photograph or marketing a product. And secondly, she is smart, thoughtful and rebellious. She wants to change the world rather than be an instrument of its mediocrity.

"At 14, I didn't spend much time doing the modelling," she recalls. "I didn't really want it. I was really young. From that age I wanted to act more than anything. I just dabbled in modelling for as long as it took me to get on with things. I always wanted to get into acting but I wasn't quite ready to act on it just yet. I had quite a good thing going with modelling.

"I did think about going overseas with it but I did realise that wasn't for me either," she smiles. "I did a few things overseas but it's a lonely industry. A lot of people try to get to the top but I didn't really want that. I've got more to do. I love the industry but I hate the industry, at the same time. I almost just wish I was an average 21-year-old Joe Bloggs who hadn't seen that side of things."

Parlak doesn't think of herself as beautiful, nor does she want to cast the modelling industry in a bad light, something her agent, New Zealand's Next Top Model judge Sara Tetro, who put her forward for the part of Juliet, is probably relieved to hear. Instead, she reads as a young woman who has her wits about her, hinting at teenage years overflowing with hedonism and rebellion, underscored by a gravitas that reveals surprising depth and wisdom.

"Modelling has taught me a lot but I don't want to be a part of it forever," she concedes.

"It has definitely given me layers. People are really amazing to learn from. It helps to learn how to play this card or that card. With acting, I remember Tim saying that for this film you had to tell so much through your eyes. That's something I learned through modelling."

Where the keen perceptions and mildly cynical perspective come from is fundamental to understanding the nature of this young woman who has managed to make Juliet compelling, despite the limitations in playing her. The daughter of New Zealander Shona and Turkish immigrant Rudy, who met on the London Underground, she spent her primary school years at Auckland's Ficino School of Philosophy, a non-denominational institute with the mantra "Education that nurtures your child's unique potential". High school was spent at Avondale College, one of the country's largest secondary schools.

More pertinently, Parlak has spent the past 18 months enduring the suffering and death of her beloved mother, who was diagnosed last February with a left frontal lobe brain tumour and died this March. Parlak had already completed filming of Romeo and Juliet when her mum became sick so the year of her illness was spent trying everything conceivable to aid her recovery and alleviate suffering. If Parlak was wise beyond her years before, she has clearly matured to the point where frivolous, inconsequential ideas, jobs, activities, even conversation, are at odds with her personal and world view.

"My mum was my biggest mentor," she insists. "She wasn't jealous of me and didn't want to live through me. But she also supported me. My mum kept screwing my head on tighter and tighter, giving me this really good groundedness that I needed but let me be free as well. She was good at saying, 'You should get into acting. You should break away from things and do that'.

"She lost her best aspect when she got sick because she was so smart, witty and wise," sighs Parlak. "She read so much and had a really good instinct. I almost feel like I'm living the same life as her now. She had a lot of confidence; just a great, awesome person."

Parlak is still feeling the impact of her mother's illness and death, though she has turned some of that grief into a crusade to help people eat better. Rather than becoming a nurse, which she considered, she has joined her father in opening a bio-restaurant in Auckland's rapidly expanding Wynyard Quarter district, ironically just round the corner of New Zealand Fashion Week's annual venue where Parlak modelled this past week. Called Portside Organic Bar & Eatery, Parlak describes it as a fully bio-certified restaurant. But it's her reason for being excited that warrants mention.

"When my mother had the tumour removed last February it left her right side with a stroke," she says. "She was only supposed to live two months, so my Dad and I tried everything we could think of; all this holistic stuff and all the conventional treatments, like radiation. Then we got her on this diet, with no dairy, salt, sugar, oils ...For your body to have the privilege of having those things it has to work overtime to break them down.

"For us, we had to be creative. Yes, it was bland, but she improved dramatically. Internally she was amazing but the brain was going to do what it was doing to do. After they'd operated she was prone to seizures. To see someone you love so much in that way was life-changing for me. I can never be the same person I was before."

Parlak is now determined to help other people live better lives, one bio-certified meal or drink at a time.

"I want to help people and cure people," she enthuses. "I couldn't do it with nursing, because I knew the medical system is quite corrupt, so I'd like to do it with food. That's a huge part of my life at the moment."

Considering Parlak has a lead role in her first movie, her priorities may surprise some.

However, she isn't underwhelmed about starring in Romeo and Juliet. It simply seems to be something she's taking in her stride, rather than jumping up and down about it. As someone who has never taken acting lessons, playing Juliet doesn't mean she has automatically become a "star-crossed" actor. Perhaps "well-intentioned interloper" better describes her.

"Shooting was long and arduous but it was cool," she says. "It was cool being up at Waipu. You kind of forgot about stupid life back here. You had to be in one mode and by the end I probably was this character."

It didn't help that she hadn't prepared for the role in advance of shooting.

"Ha! I didn't really!" she laughs. "I just kind of winged it. I didn't practise any of my scenes till I got to Waipu. I pretty much learned every song as we went."

Her director, Van Dammen, wasn't fazed.

"I love her performance," he gushes. "She's compelling to watch and nails a complex role that is difficult for even the most seasoned actor. She draws you in and offers a fresh take on an ancient and familiar character. Derya brings an empathy to a part that's really the role of a bratty teen. She brings layers to the role that I haven't seen before, modernising Juliet in a unique way and makes her a bit more ballsy and badass."

Her co-star, Christopher Landon, the charismatic Romeo to Parlak's vulnerable Juliet, seems happy to concur.

"I met Derya in rehearsals and thought she would be perfect for the part as she's beautiful but also holds the attention of people around her well," he offers.

In that simple sentence, Landon has nailed Parlak's appeal, both on-screen as Juliet and off-screen as the serious yet fun-loving woman on a mission. She holds your attention, even if things have to work hard to hold hers. With modelling falling by the wayside and acting an adventurous trip, the restaurant she is crafting with her dad is her inspiration right now. She says she doesn't really have time for modelling and Romeo and Juliet may not lead to other roles. But Parlak's greatest role is the one she is living, on her terms, in her way, at least for today.

Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song opens on Thursday.

- Herald on Sunday

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