Aussie Ashleigh Cummings tells Sarah Daniell about the fear of taking on the teen version of Kiwi icon Cheryl West.

The year is 1982. The season is summer.
The location: Ivan's Dairy, West Auckland.
"I'm no one's placeholder," declares the 16-year-old girl behind the counter.
She drops the proclamation and it clangs like a jar of rusty nails.
Watch your step.
Young Cheryl has arrived.

It's been the burning question for fans of Outrageous Fortune and its prequel, Westside, for what feels like all the intervening years between 1982 and now. We'll call it the Cheryl Effect. They could've made a spin-off drama based entirely on the speculation of not just who will play young Cheryl but who can? Hundreds have auditioned for the coveted role. Who? Who? Who would have the youth and maturity, the vulnerability and the gravitas to take on the teen version of the groundbreaking role, which earned Robyn Malcolm multiple awards and critical acclaim. As Chez, aka Slutty Pants, aka Hoochie Mama herself might say, no effing pressure.

Well, go warm up the TV and grab the sausage rolls. The waiting is over.

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The song they're playing is Be Mine Tonight, but it's broad daylight when one of the most enduring and volatile love affairs of New Zealand television drama history ignites.

Teenage Cheryl, played by Australian actress Ashleigh Cummings, debuts on the fourth episode of the third season of Westside on Monday.

It's hard to reconcile the sweet, hushed voice of Cummings down the line from LA with her character, who spins the wit right back at Wolf like a spent beer bottle.

When told she had the role, Cummings asked the producers, "Are you sure?"

Reef Ireland as Wolf and Ashleigh Cummings as Cheryl.
Reef Ireland as Wolf and Ashleigh Cummings as Cheryl.

She was well aware of the Robyn Malcolm legacy. "I respect Cheryl West so much - I'm terrified because I want to do it justice but I've done the best that I could. I just have to work my hardest and learn from this experience."

It was, you could say, a family connection that led the 25-year-old to playing 16-year-old Cheryl. Westside's Antonia Prebble suggested she audition for the role.

"They had been casting for a while. I worked with Antonia on Pork Pie and we had only one day where we crossed over really, but we got along so well, she said, why don't you audition, Ashleigh?

"I didn't know a lot about the Outrageous Fortune world. I knew it would mean being part of a great series. I had to audition without much knowledge about how important it was to Kiwi culture, and then I landed it. It was a pretty quick turnaround and I was there in a week.

"I soon understood how important this character was to so many people and I was terrified.

"I tried my hardest. I did a lot of research and worked really hard on embodying the essence of Cheryl. I was given a lot of permission to make her my own, and own her in a sense."

Robyn Malcolm once said, that when developing the character in Outrageous, she had to learn to stop smiling. Staunch people don't grin so much.

Grant Bowler and Robyn Malcolm made the roles infamous in Outrageous Fortune.
Grant Bowler and Robyn Malcolm made the roles infamous in Outrageous Fortune.

Interestingly, the producer, Mark Beesley, who was also a director for OF, gave Cummings the opposite advice.

"I was coming in trying to copy her too much. He was like, no no! This is the girl we want to see before that journey. She's not a Westie yet.

"He wanted to see the playful side of her and loosen her up.

"I was encouraged to see Cheryl as this beautiful, playful, light energy. Even the Cheryl we know in Outrageous has 30 years of absolute hardship and tough times to become this woman. I wanted to get it right. He said, it's not about getting it right. It's about bringing that element of Cheryl he saw in me. The spirit of her."

Did Malcolm offer any advice? "I've never met Robyn. I've never even spoken to her. Funnily enough, I used Robyn as my reference when I was learning the Kiwi accent for Pork Pie."

When considering Cheryl, she brought it back to herself and her own life changes. "I thought about the person I was even four years ago, I think I might be almost unrecognisable in many ways, mannerisms included. So when I thought about how much a person might have changed in 30 years, after having children, and I allowed myself some breathing space for inspiration. So I really hope people understand that and it doesn't distract from the storytelling at the heart of Westside."

Ashleigh Cummings with boyfriend Aaron Jakubenko at the Pork Pie film premiere in January. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Ashleigh Cummings with boyfriend Aaron Jakubenko at the Pork Pie film premiere in January. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Episode 4 of Westside begins, as it so often does, with a war and ends with a party. Ted West is watching the TV news and the Falklands crisis is about to erupt. That year, then-Prime Minister Rob Muldoon said New Zealand, "will back Britain all the way". The first Maori language show, Te Karere, is trialled. Gliding On wins best entertainment in the television awards. The All Whites reach the Football World Cup finals in Barcelona. Money machines are introduced. "They'll never take off," says Ted .

Cummings was born 10 years after the setting of her debut scene, in Saudi Arabia, one year after the Gulf War ended in 1991. Her parents, both medics, worked for the royal family.

"When I was 12, just a couple of days before the fall of Baghdad in 2003, we got some information we should get out. So my parents told my sister and I we were going on holiday. We left next day. I would love to go back."

They had incredible experiences - both difficult and rich. "My parents wanted an adventure. They wanted to have children in a world that was accessible to all kinds of cultures. There's so many expats in Saudi and people from all over the world - and it's pretty central to Asia and Europe - so we would travel for six months at a time. I do have strong memories.

"I still kind of struggle not calling it home because it's the longest I've ever lived in one place. I left home when I was 14 and travelled with work. So I never really had roots anywhere - like I did in Saudi.

Ashleigh Cummings with Brenna Harding in Puberty Blues. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Ashleigh Cummings with Brenna Harding in Puberty Blues. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

"It was full of excitement and adventure and variety. And then there was the underbelly that began to occur around 2000 when there was a huge shift in the social and political climate and it became very dangerous. I think it's informed my world view and my work as an actor."

When Cummings returned to Australia, she joined a performing arts school. She has appeared on stage and screen, in the soap Home and Away, and the TV adaptation of Puberty Blues. Last year, she won the Heath Ledger Scholarship to study film and acting in LA.

She was 9 when she decided she would be an actor - "as a child you just have an instinct for what you need" - and at 14 she decided to spend her savings from her acting work and a part-time job on a one-way flight to LA. "Don't worry - my parents still knew exactly where I was and I'd check in with them constantly."

A peripatetic lifestyle though has taken its toll personally, she says.

"Throughout my teenage years I always thought, I'm so lucky to have that experience as a child - constantly moving, slipping into new environments, and learning to adapt. But I realised that comes with its own negatives. You have relationships with whoever you're with at the time and you pick up and move on and you don't establish grounded relationships with people long-term. It's essentially quite lonely unless you start developing really solid communication skills with other people and get a good look at yourself. So I'm very lucky that I learned to adapt but I have had to work on nurturing relationships and sustaining them.

"I have my family and my friends and my boyfriend - I'm very fortunate to have their love and support. I think maintaining those relationships is extraordinarily important."

Cummings' boyfriend is Melbourne actor Aaron Jakubenko, star of The Shannara Chronicles, Spartacus and Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. "We are very in love and happy - I'm very fortunate."

Her family are Sydney-based, but in LA she is surrounded by aspiring New Zealand actors. She's done the supreme initiation, you could say, playing young Chez.

"I'm so lucky I've worked on two Kiwi jobs now and so I've bumped into Kiwis a lot over here. I love New Zealanders and I love New Zealand."

She is refreshingly phobic about social media: "I'm terrible at using it. I'm very bad at technology. I understand how powerful it is - but I think I'm a bit allergic to the phone. I can't even hold it for too long."

Next week, film festival-goers can see Cummings in the lead role in Hounds of Love, at the NZ International Film Festival. And it's just been announced that Westside has been granted funding for a fourth series, so Cummings will be back in Auckland at the end of this year, to start filming.

"I have to say they were so welcoming. I haven't been on a set with that much heart. It really is like a family. They explained everything about the show from the past, as though they were a family and telling their story to their new child. Like it was a blanket or something."

Perhaps a nice orange and brown crocheted blanket in which she can wrap herself and swot up on spectacular insults. "You're foul-mouthed," says the Wolf cub. She replies: "At least I don't smoke." She's no one's placeholder.

Lowdown
Westside, series 3, episode 4, Cheryl reveal.
Monday, Three at 8.30pm