Champion of the Everywoman

By Frances Grant

Geraldine Brophy plays the most "invisible character" on Shortland Street but is adamant that her role is the most important for its reflection of society. Frances Grant reports.

I am strong, I am invisible, I am woman. A variation on the old feminist anthem springs to mind as Geraldine Brophy champions her Shortland Street character, working-mum Moira the clinic receptionist.

"It's people like Moira who actually allow society to function. They are in there serving the big bosses, in the serving industry, serving communities by keeping kindergartens and schools going," the award-winning actor says.

The role of the soap's battling everywoman was irresistible to Brophy as the chance to put "possibly the most invisible character in film, television and stage" on screen.

"Because we're not very interested in Moiras. Our society's not interested in women who have ordinary jobs and support their families, and so I believe she is very important to be seen."

Brophy - passionate, articulate, "nearly 6ft in heels" and given to expansive arm waves to emphasise her point - doesn't strike you as the invisible type.
The vital statistic on her curriculum vitae - 50 professional theatre roles in 15 years - implies an impressive career profile.

Her first foray into television work, in Fiona Samuel's excellent drama Home Movie, earned her the prize of best female actor at last year's Television Awards.

But the 37-year-old wife and mother of two daughters, juggling her full-time job on the soap with the needs of her family, knows first-hand the "inordinately difficult task" that working mums tackle.

She says Moira's character "interested me because she's the woman in the supermarket, she's the woman at the kindy. And I am one of those women. I know a lot of women who are one of those women and I'm interested in us having a bigger profile in the world."

The oldest of six children of Irish immigrant parents to New Zealand, Brophy also relates to Moira's troubles with life on a budget. "Money and feeding and educating those six children was always a struggle, so that side of things is something I definitely identify with."

And the reason she nominates for moving from theatre to a television soap - "better remuneration" - is pure Moira pragmatism.

Along with the joys of a steady income, Brophy is keen to stress her view of the soap as of "terrific cultural importance as a New Zealand work, New Zealand story-telling."

Drawing a dramatic parallel, she describes the show as the Restoration Theatre of our age. "It reflects what our society is thinking, what the average person is thinking and what, perhaps, we should think about."

How does Moira, the woman who tries to care for everyone, fit into that picture? "She's a Boadicea, she's a warrior, she's the woman who will lead the charge on the side of right for the downtrodden people."

That description is not surprising coming from an actor passionate about classical theatre and who names her favourite stage roles as St Joan and Medea.

Moira's moment of glory last year on the soap, if not quite the stuff myths are made of, was intended as a heroic moment for the plain everywoman.

The often frumpy receptionist was clad in evening gown and jewels, and hoisted aloft by a tribe of semi-naked male models, as the star of an advertising billboard campaign.

"People were saying to me wasn't it fantastic, weren't you thrilled to be carried by those six young men?" says an unimpressed Brophy. (This is a woman who brushes off a question about one stage role requiring a naked trapeze act with "all actors are used to taking their clothes off.")

But Moira's 15 minutes of glam was a "lovely story," she acknowledges. "Because she is, like so many women, proud of how they look and want to look their best, whatever that is for them personally."

While Moira's fairytale transformation into prom queen was a blow for everywoman, Brophy says she counts one of the joys of the role "being able to appear on screen looking absolutely dreadful.

"Because glamour is so associated with this show you feel compelled to say, `but I'm not like this, I'm like the majority of New Zealand women who are a size 16 or 14.' So in a way you want to champion that a wee bit."

Playing an ordinary character, as style-challenged as the rest of us, has a great advantage. "I'll get gutsy stories that require some belly."

Although Brophy says she doesn't take Moira home with her at the end of the working day, she does think of the character as an alter ego. "Actors, like magpies, pick things up and we use them and remember them - so I will often do that on her behalf."

And fans of the soap aren't always willing to suspend their belief in her fictional character. The response on the street, and the supermarket, kindy and school, is evidence viewers have taken Moira's ordinariness to heart.

"I'm often asked for advice. What was I asked the other day? `Now, do you think I should get this dress size for my daughter or should I buy a size bigger?'"

But of all the labels Brophy finds people want her to wear, that of "strong woman" is the most perplexing. "What does that mean? That you state what you feel, have an opinion, you're proactive? This is a strong woman, as opposed to these women here who are soft and coquettish and trod upon?"

There's one perception of female weakness she'd like to change. "It's taken me a long time to accept that crying's often a response I have to things, especially if I'm angry or touched. It doesn't mean I'm suddenly devoid of intelligence or suddenly find myself unable to conduct an argument.

"I don't believe it's a bad thing to be emotional, I think there should be more of it. I think passion and hormones are terrific and they should be allowed to be out there more."

Who: Geraldine Brophy

What: Shortland Street

Where: TV2

When: New season starts on Monday

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