Emmeline Hawthorne's saintly Shortland Street role

By Fiona Rae

By FIONA RAE

Meet Anne Greenlaw, nurse. Compassionate, humble, virginal. Let’s just say Sally Field got the singing nun part first. She’s saintly.

“Disgustingly!” laughs Emmeline Hawthorne. “Anne wanted to be a nun but decided to be a nurse instead.”

The youngest Hawthorne hits the small screen next week in a role she describes as so unlike anything she’s ever played before it’s hard to reconcile.

“The first difference between her and me is that her primary focus is always other people and that’s why she loves nursing — so that’s not me. I think I’m definitely more self-obsessed.”

But in times of need, a girl can’t get by without her mum — and Emmeline can always pop home for a bit of an acting chin-wag with Elizabeth, currently appearing on the small screen in Spin Doctors.

“I think, ‘God, I want to give Anne some dynamic, I don’t want her to be just this earnest, well-meaning pushover’, and mum said, ‘Well, it might be that her dynamic is her compassion and her humility and her ability to take the criticism and not be defensive’.”

Poor little Anne, straight off the boat from Cambridge, immediately runs into trouble at the clinic, in the form of the formidable Judy Brownlee, played by Donogh Rees.

“They need these new nurses,” says Hawthorne, “and I come along very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a whole lot of ideas about how the old people shouldn’t be on the sleeping pills and how it’s demeaning to put signs on their backs for the people with dementia.

“But I make the mistake about the old people and take the signs off their backs and one of them goes wandering. So Judy Brownlee automatically thinks I’m useless and I have to do all the terrible jobs, like cleaning up the sluice room and emptying the linen skips and doing tea rounds.”

But with a character this green, there will be a journey and plenty of challenges to her Catholic faith.

“Out of naivety and out of faith she’s already made some decisions as a 20-year-old and kind of resigned herself to them. ‘Okay, I’m going to wait until I get married, and I’ve got my boyfriend and I’ll probably marry him and I’m going to be a nurse’. She’s made all these decisions for herself about her life.

“She leads life along the straight and narrow, emotionally and physically,” says Hawthorne. “She’s got this old boyfriend who’s in Cambridge and she falls in love with somebody in the clinic and comes to a turning point where she has to reconcile her beliefs.”

Hawthorne has some sense of her character’s spirituality from her own schooling at Kadimah, the Jewish school in central Auckland.

“Both my sister and I prayed every morning in the synagogue and celebrated all the festivals and really understood the spiritual nature of that religion. That gave us the capacity to not necessarily subscribe to that religion but to have a sense of these greater things.”

You could say the performing arts are running in her veins. As children, Emmeline and older sister Sophia (yes, she of Savage Honeymoon and the musical Hair) would pop across from school to the Mercury Theatre, where dad, Raymond, and mum, Elizabeth, would be rehearsing. She didn’t take drama classes; she didn’t need to.

“I pretty much saw every performance that was on at the Mercury, as well as being in the rehearsal room and seeing dad direct, not that I was conscious at the time that I was studying.”

But Hawthorne has found that this stage training by osmosis can be inappropriate for the intimacy of television.

“The directors are saying, ‘smaller mate, smaller’ and I’m like, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying!’ I do have quite stagey kind of techniques in my acting, but you have to pare it back and relearn a whole new technique.”

If her parents had had anything to do with it, the girls would not have chosen the acting life.

“They warned us and warned us and tried to dissuade us as much as they possibly could. My sister and I were in this position of, ‘there’s no work, what are we going to do?’ and I think part of them almost feels guilty for that, but we made those choices.”

As a youngster she had other plans but somehow always ended up in school shows and, at 16, won her first professional role with the Auckland Theatre Company.

“I didn’t want to do this,” she laughs. “I wanted to be an ophthalmologist, because I’ve always loved glasses, so I had a bit of fantasy to be an eye doctor — close to nursing. I spent a lot of time saying, ‘no, no, I’m going to be a lawyer’, or ‘no, I’m going to be a doctor’, definitely resisting, just wanting to be different.”

And having parents in the performing arts left her with no illusions.

“No romantic notions that you’re going to be a star. I don’t get surprised when I’m out of work,” she says.

Work has been thin on the ground after playing Hannah Priest in Jacksons Wharf last year and the lead in a feature film earlier this year (Harold Brodie’s Orphans and Angels, now in post-production).

Until now, that is. Her third audition for Shortland Street led to this new role, a definite challenge for a confident 21-year-old whose life is so different from her character.

“It’s hysterical and I know there’s going to be a lot of people I went to school with who are going to go, ‘her, playing a Catholic virgin!’

“But for me, that cynicism can’t really come into play because it needs to be an honest representation.

“I feel privileged to be not only in work, but playing a character and trying to represent her in the most believable way, her journey and her ups and downs and, ultimately, her integrity that takes her on this journey.” •

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