Kiwi Rose McIver relishes her new lead role as a zombie with a conscience - even the brains for breakfast, writes Leena Tailor.

Rob Thomas will forever be known for television series Veronica Mars, as will the show's star Kristen Bell, who has gone on to star in film, television, theatre and video games.

Casting Bell in the role that would spark a cult following and jumpstart her career was surprisingly easy, with Thomas poring through auditions knowing all along he had the one.

It was a different story for his latest project, comic book-based iZombie, where the screenwriter/ producer feared the right actress didn't exist, before being wowed by a Kiwi at the 11th hour.

"When we cast Veronica Mars, Kristen Bell was literally the first of 100 actresses I saw and I spent the whole time knowing, 'I've got it. That first girl I saw - I want her'."

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This time, Rose was the 100th of 100 actresses.

"We were down to the last day and I was panicked because I did not think we had it. But just looking at her, [I was] thinking, 'She has star quality'. To say she 'pops' seems so subjective, but that's it. Part of it is line delivery and part of it is natural charisma and feeling like I want to watch this person each week.

"She's magnetic, effervescent and has charm. Having a certain intelligence that shines through was also important."

Whether or not iZombie does for McIver what Veronica Mars did for Bell, the 26-year-old Aucklander has already begun establishing a global following thanks to stints on Once Upon a Time, Masters of Sex and mini-series Petals on the Wind.

Approached about iZombie by her agent, she didn't fully realise what she was getting into.

"I assumed it would be along the lines of The Walking Dead, but it's this bizarre, zombie comedy procedural which jams in as many genres as we can and they have a lot of fun with it.

"It subverts the ideas of the zombie genre a lot."

McIver plays medical student Liv, who leaves a party with the worst kind of hangover - becoming a zombie, who must eat brains to survive.

Feeding her new appetite via a job at the morgue, she finds with each bite, she taps into the memories and feelings of the murder victim whose brain she is eating.

The show marks the actress' first leading role in a US series, and promos show a ghostly McIver pouring hot sauce into her chopped brain salad.

Says Thomas: "She had this great life, was going to marry a great guy, become a doctor and saves lives and when she gets turned into a zombie, all that's taken away from her.

"She doesn't want to give her fiance 'zombie', so she ends that relationship and she needs brains so she takes a job at the morgue. She starts the pilot with no reason to go on, then discovers she might be able to do some good in the world."

Adds McIver: "I only recently watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I feel like my character is a cross between Buffy and Angel - an ethical zombie. She's the heroine, solving crimes and fighting against injustice, but she's also a zombie who is trying to eat brains in the most socially responsible way. So she eats the brains of people who have died to preserve some dignity."

The show airs on The CW network in the US. Thomas isn't trying to outdo The Walking Dead and says the show's gruesomeness will be toned down in comparison.

McIver says behind that gore is a coming-of-age tale of a young woman discovering her identity.

"It's like anybody who comes out of school. When I came out of high school I was no longer able to answer, 'I'm a student', or 'I live in Titirangi and this is my world'.

"There are things you struggle with as far as connections to your family, deciding where to live and whether to still engage with school friends. It's all those things we go through - hers is just a heightened experience.

"So it's a very human and accessible story; it just so happens that hers is magnified by the fact that she has also lost her life."

In transforming McIver from fresh-faced Kiwi to primetime zombie, make-up artists trod a fine line between zombification and maintaining Liv's normal appearance, since friends and family still believe she's human.

Her zombie traits, which require 90 minutes in the make-up chair, are amplified on the weeks she skips brains for breakfast.

"She's unhealthy-looking - I lose all my pigment, have white hair, white skin and dark circles under my eyes," says McIver. "The hungrier I am and the longer it's been since I've eaten a brain, I get redder contact lenses and veins.

"The mannerisms were incredibly challenging, but luckily the first time I played zombie was in the middle of the night, shooting in the cold of Canada in the woods.

"I was clinging to the roof of the car, my brain was mush and I had no inhibitions, so just played around and found something that worked."

Romance and man candy will also weave through the series, in the form of One Tree Hill and 666 Park Avenue's Robert Buckley.

He plays ex-fiance Major Lilywhite, whom Liv dumps following her transformation.

After joking that working with McIver is "a disaster, like Mariah Carey all over again", the actor admits the New Zealander has proved pivotal to creating the ideal environment on-set.

"It's an interesting dance when you start working on a new project, to see how your number one on the call sheet behaves, because whether you like it or not they set the tone," says Buckley. "So if you get someone like Rose who is infinitely patient and kind to everyone, it's a win.

"Everyone enjoys each other's company. We've had a blast. I've done enough [shows] to know that's special."

Who: Rose McIver
What: iZombie star lead Olivia "Liv" Moore
When and where: On TVNZ On Demand from Thursday, March 19

- TimeOut