Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Todd Emerson

By Jennifer Dann

Actor Todd Emerson goes back to 1980s New Zealand in three of his current roles in TV3 series Westside, the Silo Theatre's popular play Hudson and Halls and Kiwi rock musical Daffodils.
Todd Emerson says being bullied as a child damaged his self-confidence as adult but understanding that has made him a better actor. Photo / Getty Images
Todd Emerson says being bullied as a child damaged his self-confidence as adult but understanding that has made him a better actor. Photo / Getty Images

1. Season 2 of Westside starts in 1981. How have things changed for your character Bilky?

Bilky is one of Ted and Rita West's gang of thieves. In season 1 we found out that despite the fact Bilky's got a different girl hanging off his arm in every episode he's actually gay. In Season 2 he falls in love with a man which he probably wouldn't have thought himself capable of. The most important thing to him is his mates, who are his family, so that's what he's up against. I was actually shooting Westside at the same time as performing Hudson and Halls, so I'd go from playing this super-closeted 80s dude in the day to this completely camp one at night.

2. You co-created the play Hudson and Halls Live! with your husband, director and writer Kip Chapman. Why did you want to tell this story?

I found it bizarre that this completely camp couple were all over the television and everyone was either blind to the fact they were in a relationship or ignored it.

They weren't coming out of the closet, they were just being themselves but they were visible. If I'd been 12-year-old gay Todd back in the 80s that would've given me a sense of being all right. Kip creates immersive theatre experiences so he set the play in a 1980s TVNZ studio with the audience playing the part of the live studio audience.

3. You and long-term partner Kip Chapman married recently. Were you inspired by the legalisation of gay marriage?

Seeing gay marriage legalised here was amazing. We sat with a group of friends and watched Parliament TV for the first time ever, had bottles of bubbles and all cried. It was super emotional. Kip proposed while we were on a canoeing trip down the Whanganui River. We had our rings made from gold from both our families which was melded together. For our honeymoon we went to Broadway and saw a dozen shows.

4. Which role are you most recognised for?

The Youi insurance commercials. Hudson and Halls was one of those shows where people come up to you at the supermarket and share their own stories - like my optometrist: I went to get my prescription put in some 1980s frames that I wore as Peter Hudson and she told me how when she came here as a Vietnamese refugee with no English she loved watching Hudson and Halls with her host family because they could all laugh together. All these beautiful little stories come out.

5. What has been your favourite role?

The role of Eric in Daffodils was such a blessing. It charts the relationship of a typical Kiwi male who is unable to talk about his feelings. It's also a musical, so I get to sing classic Kiwi songs by Ray Columbus, Th' Dudes, Crowded House, Blam Blam Blam and the Mint Chicks. It's the first time I've got to perform in a real musical. Unfortunately New Zealand doesn't have a professional music theatre company. Auckland Theatre Company does one musical a year. At the moment Kip's directing That Bloody Woman about Kate Sheppard.

6. You were on stage for over 100 nights last year. Was that tough going?

The pressure does take its toll especially with a show like Daffodils where you end up in a completely raw and vulnerable emotional state in front of a couple of hundred people every night. You get massive surges of adrenaline which is a lot to put your body through. At one stage last year I was doing six jobs at the same time. I was completely exhausted. I actually passed a kidney stone in a portaloo on the set of Westside while we were filming the Springbok riots. I heard Broadway musical theatre actor Andrea Burns give a masterclass at Luke Di Somma's theatre school in Christchurch. She said "As a performer you jump out of a plane every night" and that really spoke to me.

7. Have nerves ever got the better of you?

Nerves can be a great and a terrible thing. I'm in a great place now but a few years ago I found my confidence dropping so I went and found a therapist and talked it through. I realised how being badly bullied as a child had really affected who I am as an adult.

8. How did the therapist help?

I realised I was putting myself down in my head because that's what I was used to hearing. I was able to think, "Who cares what bitchy people in the industry think?" I feel like I've come out the other side and am a better actor for it.

9. Have you ever been really down and how did you pick yourself up?

I broke my back in a car accident when I was 18. A group of us all got into a car drunk and hit a tree. I had to have spinal fusion surgery and spent a year in and out of hospital. When you're 18 you think you're indestructible but in fact you're incredibly fragile. So that was a massive character building thing.

10. Have you always wanted to be an actor?

Yes, ever since my parents took me to see Rob Guest in Les Miserables when I was 6. I loved the passion of it. We didn't have a TV till I was 13 so it was always theatre, musical theatre. When I was 11 I made my parents take me to an audition for a touring musical production of The Secret Garden. I got the part and lived in Wellington for six months in a house with some other kids, a chaperone and a tutor.

11. Why were you bullied?

I got bullied for being gay from about the age of 6 or 7. I didn't know what they were talking about to be honest. I must have been an effeminate kid. I'm sure the teachers at St Kentigerns were aware that kids like me were being victimised but I knew there was no help to be gotten from them. I remember being so angry at the system. Even now unjust situations are what make me most angry.

12. What will we see you in next?

Westside is on TV3 on Sundays at 8.30pm. Hudson and Halls is about to tour and Daffodils is performed often at festivals.

- NZ Herald

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