800 Words Michelle Langstone on cold sets and being typecast

By Michelle Duff

Kiwi actress Michelle Langstone stars in hit comedy 800 Words.
Kiwi actress Michelle Langstone stars in hit comedy 800 Words.

It's a Wednesday morning at South Pacific Pictures, the coffee has yet to arrive and Michelle Langstone is talking about the death of capitalism. She is wearing gumboots. Her eyes are a fierce green and her jersey is sloppy. She says she's tired but she looks a million bucks, even in the gumboots.

The actor is lamenting the state of the world, and the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. "There is an end point to capitalism that we are fast approaching, because it is unsustainable," she says, a gumboot swinging. "I mean I am obviously an absolute socialist but I don't know when caring became creepy, I really don't. I mean, I don't understand a country that looks at you with suspicion because you want everyone to be all right. I can feel myself getting all hot, it's terrible."

She goes on. "Everyone says, 'oh actors, they shouldn't get involved in politics' but art is political. Everything you do in your life, every choice you make, everything you put on your body or you choose to take is political, and art especially.

I'll probably get torn a new one for my overly simplistic views but I'm like, 'Really, this is it? Is this how we think we're winning at life? This is the model we're aspiring to? America?"

READ MORE:
Dean O'Gorman: Why LA is over-rated
How Natalie Portman became Jackie Kennedy

Michelle is delighted to be playing the strong and funny Fiona. Photo/Supplied
Michelle is delighted to be playing the strong and funny Fiona. Photo/Supplied

An hour with Langstone is an hour of dissection. Had she not been an actor, you get the feeling she would have made a good philosopher -- every topic, from politics to hairstyles and family, is given the same considered analysis. She is also an avid reader and writer, and politics runs in the family -- her great-grandfather, Frank Langstone, spoke fluent Maori and was a minister in the first Labour Government.

Right now though, Langstone is tired. She's talking to Weekend at the end of a 20-week shoot for television series 800 Words, the comedy series which became a hit instantly after its Australian debut in September 2015. It follows George, played by Erik Thomson, who moves his family from Sydney to the small New Zealand town of Weld after the death of his wife. It's the creation of James Griffin and Maxine Fleming, who between them gave us Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons and Being Eve.

Langstone, 36, plays Fiona, the owner of the local boat club and volunteer ambulance driver. It's probably the least antagonistic character she's appeared as on our screens in recent years; her previous iterations include the vampish Michelle on The Almighty Johnsons, Dr Bethany Hall on Shortland Street, a married woman having an affair on Go Girls, and a city girl on McLeod's Daughters.

It's been a nice change, Langstone says. "I'm so fond of Fiona. She's a delight to play, she's had some heartaches, but she's very strong. She's funny, she's a bit odd. She's got a good sense of humour ... yeah, I like playing her."

Are there any similarities between her and this character? "She's just to the left or the right of me, I can't figure it out -- she's a lot more together on paper than I am, and more established in her adulthood perhaps in ways that I'm not, in terms of owning property, but she's good-hearted. I feel less conflicted playing her than I did playing Michelle in The Almighty Johnsons, because there were things about her I just couldn't understand. Sometimes it really hurt my heart playing her."

Michelle Langstone and fellow Kiwi Anna Julienne. Photo/Supplied
Michelle Langstone and fellow Kiwi Anna Julienne. Photo/Supplied

800 Words has been renewed for a third season, and Sydney-based Langstone has just finished filming the second when we talk. It's involved a lot of trudging around Titirangi and Piha in her gumboots, hence their appearance today. "They're my new best friend, because in the winter it's just bogs everywhere," she explains. "We're at the beach a lot, which is really beautiful. Weld is an amalgamation of all the beautiful parts of Auckland that I love. It's so heavily location-based, which is really unique and it feels really authentic."

The only downside to filming into "the bleak midwinter" is continuing to pretend it's hot outside. "I had a couple of moments being outside on the streets of Warkworth in shorts and a singlet in seven degrees at 7am thinking 'I'm not enjoying myself that much' but we've got through it mostly unscathed," she laughs.

800 Words has a big cast, which means long days and scenes. "It's taught me a lot, and you really have to pace yourself. My storyline in the last six or seven weeks has just been massive so I've been totally slammed."

Langstone was born in Howick, the second of three children. She didn't enjoy her high school, which she considered too sports-focused, and gained university entrance at 16 as an escape route. She spent a year studying literature at Auckland University before dropping out to attend drama school at Unitec, where she fell in love with acting. Thankfully, when she left at 21, she found the industry wasn't as intensive as the drama school experience. "I get that it's a ruthless industry and I get that it's really hard but drama school is not indicative of that, thank god."

What she does find frustrating is being typecast - after The Almighty Johnsons, for a long time she was being put forward for very alpha female roles. "In New Zealand you are very heavily associated with what you've done ... there was a period of time where I was always going up for the sort of vampy, sexually predative, full on sort of Amazonian. That's really not who I am. I find that very limiting and it's very easy to get limited in this industry."

Langstone filmed Go Girls and The Almighty Johnsons at the same time, which she thought would lead to more work in New Zealand. Instead, she found the opposite. "I'm not sure our industry is big enough to sustain that, you become really well known and, unlike in Australia where they like to hold on to their actors and build them and let audiences follow them, here it can be actually not that helpful."

Langstone on 800 Words: "It's taught me a lot, and you really have to pace yourself." Photo/Supplied
Langstone on 800 Words: "It's taught me a lot, and you really have to pace yourself." Photo/Supplied

Instead she took six months out to work in publishing and do some travel, returning to acting with 800 Words. In the last two years she's been splitting her time between her home in Sydney's Woollahra and New Zealand, filming. "I've got an interesting relationship with home, because when I'm not there I miss it but when I am here it drives me crazy. There are inherent qualities in New Zealand at the moment that I struggle with. I feel a sense of fracture in our collective consciousness ... I don't understand the New Zealand I'm faced with at the moment, it's not the New Zealand I experienced in my 20s," Langstone says.

"Maybe I'm really sensitive but I feel there's a guardedness here that I struggle with, we used to feel a lot more open and now we feel a lot more shuttered. It's so frustrating to see a government that is willingly leaving people behind and lying about it."

When she's not acting, Langstone writes about books for The Listener and The Pantograph Punch. Writing, she says, affords her a sense of accomplishment which acting does not.

"They feel very different, they access different parts of me but they both come about because of my love of language and literature. I love books, I always have, they are strewn throughout my life. Acting is physically inhabiting the world of story, and writing is creating it."

As for the future, Langstone, who is single at present, is adapting a novel to a screenplay, going to auditions, has just returned from filming an advertisement in Spain, and is open to where life takes her.

"It's funny where you end up, isn't it? All the absolutes I had as a young person, I think every single one has gone. The absolute ideas I had about love or my life or who I was, every single one of them with the passing of time has fallen down."

"I hesitate to say that I'm not ambitious, but actually I'm just ambitious to be happy, and to feel complete or that I am engaging with my life in the best way I can. Longevity, that's my plan for acting. I hope to still be doing it in 20 years, 40 years. I hope to do it until I'm not here anymore, that's my only plan."

- Weekend magazine

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 29 Apr 2017 06:55:15 Processing Time: 598ms