On the street with Anna Jullienne

By REBECCA BARRY

When interviewing the actor who plays Shortland Street's most glamorous lesbian, there's no skirting around the question. So, first things first: Um, are you?

"I'm not a lesbian, no."

Anna Jullienne is used to that one — most of the time it comes from curious young men. But she is also approached by plenty of people keen to talk about her character, Maia Jeffries, without broaching the topic of sexuality.

"I think that's the good thing about Maia," Jullienne says. "She is a lesbian but it's not all-encompassing in her character. She's a nurse who is a lesbian rather than a lesbian who is a nurse.

"Then, of course, I get the young guys who are, like, 'Oh, are you a lesbian?' who are dying to know."

Maia is not the first lesbian on the show — Meredith Fleming was a core character in the mid 90s — but her arrival on Shortland Street has made for some inevitably dramatic on-screen moments.

Initially introduced as a friend of Victor Kahu's long-estranged daughter, Jay, the truth was revealed when Shannon spied them kissing before the credits rolled.

Her nursing job at the clinic also made for some awkward social situations. Vinnie tried in vain to hit on her and Eltham was convinced he could woo her to "the other side". Li Mei struggled to behave normally around her — in one scene her line of defence was: "You see, China doesn't really have homosexuals."

The audition process was just as revealing. While Jullienne says she had no concerns about playing a lesbian, she soon became aware of others who did.

"The thing with Shortland Street is the public start to think you are your character. Maybe some people are worried about that — they wouldn't want other people to think they're a lesbian.

"I know some other women who went for it and their male partners were a bit, kind of, funny about it. I don't have too many qualms about people thinking possibly that I am.

I always thought it's something a bit different. I have an edge to me which I was quite excited about."

Jullienne is obviously very fond of her character because she speaks of Maia in the first person. That's what you get when you play someone day-in, day-out, she says.

"When sad things happen in her life you do find yourself reading the scripts going, 'Aww'. I feel a lot of empathy for her. And, likewise, when you realise that she's going to party. Like, 'Ooh, cool. I'll look forward to that, I wonder what I'll be wearing'."

At present, Maia has a lot to look forward to. Having broken up with the assertive Jay, she has gone from a submissive character coy about her sexuality to a confident individual who can fend for herself. There is romance in her future.

"There was almost a role reversal for Jay and me, because I found it so easy to settle in and she didn't," Jullienne says. "All of a sudden I'm the one telling guys to get lost when they're perving."

Like Maia, Jullienne is impossible not to like. Vivacious, her voice goes from soft, high-pitched and girly to a full-throttle guffaw in the space of a few words.

She was recently taken aback when someone suggested Maia was nerdy.

"I was quite like, 'She is not.' But then, the more I think about it, she is a little bit . As far as work goes she can be quite geeky and conscientious. She's a little bit quirky as well. She has a giggle.

"She's very nice, she's very careful and quite thoughtful when people are upset. She gives a lot of sensible advice."

As for Jullienne: "I'm not so, um, nice. She probably puts up with a lot more than I would. I'm probably a bit louder than she is."

At 21, Shortland Street is Jullienne's first major television role. She was halfway through a bachelor of arts, (a double major in English and film, TV and media studies) when she was given the part.

Before then she cut her teeth in stage productions, playing roles as diverse as Shakespearean characters, teen mums, wannabe-actors and "the quirky mother" types in musicals.

Since taking the part in Shortland Street she has had to learn to tame her theatre side, work the cameras and get used to the idea of driving from the city to the Henderson studio five days a week, sometimes starting as early as 7.30am.

A career in nursing was never on the cards.

"I'm so un-medical," Jullienne says. "I pretty much know how to take blood-pressure now, and that's about my lot. I get really grossed out. Even though they're all fake wounds I can't look at them for too long or I get a bit squeamish."

Not so when it comes to kissing Jay. Jullienne had become good friends with actress Jaime Passier-Armstrong so locking lips was no big deal.

"I think because it's so far away from reality for both of us that it's a bit more of a laugh. We have a giggle about it and don't take it too seriously.

"I've done kissing scenes with guys where it's almost a bit awkward.

"You don't know if they're getting weirded-out by it ... they don't know where to put their hands. Whereas Jaime and I, it was more like, 'Don't smudge my lipgloss'. We were more worried about our makeup getting wrecked than anything else."

The star: Anna Jullienne

The show: Shortland Street

The time: Weeknights, 7pm

The place: TV2

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