Michele Hewitson interview: Geraldine Brophy

By Michele Hewitson

The instantly recognisable actor enjoys playing 'ugly' parts and is bossy in a delightful, even admirable way

Wellington actor Geraldine Brophy is a grande dame of NZ theatre. Photo / Greg Bowker
Wellington actor Geraldine Brophy is a grande dame of NZ theatre. Photo / Greg Bowker

The actress Geraldine Brophy was in Auckland for rehearsals for The Pirates of Penzance last week, and she was staying at her friend Paul's house in St Heliers. They have been friends for 30 years. "Which is very precious, really." When we arrived, we were greeted with such enthusiasm - hugs, kisses and scones - that I thought: Have we been friends for a very long time and I have somehow forgotten?

I think she greets everyone (perhaps not unappreciative critics) with such enthusiasm. She certainly lives her precarious actor's life that way. She has been acting - and now writing and directing - for 30 years and she lives in the Hutt Valley suburb of Naenae, which she says is like saying you live in Otara, but she doesn't mean that in a bad way. "Oh, no. I do like it." She is from an Irish-Catholic working-class, state-house family and she likes being working class although she can sound rather posh.

She might by now be a grande dame of New Zealand theatre, but she is only 51 (she turns 52 next week).

She does seem to have been around forever, so that is probably why. Having been on Shortland Street means she is instantly recognisable as the earthy receptionist, Moira. She was very fond of Moira - she once said she occupied the "rum and coke category" in her mind, as opposed to the sav blanc brigade. There is something of that about the actor who played her. She was even fonder of the dreadful Marion, the school inspector of Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. Marion had a prominent mole on her chin with a hair, which she is certain the make-up artist elongated with each subsequent application. "Oh, I loved that hair!" She is interested in the ugly.

The photographer sought to assure her that he wouldn't take pictures of her with Scone crumbs on her lip. "I don't even mind that, really." Most people, especially actresses, would mind. She has never minded appearing ugly - although she is not remotely ugly and has a pretty face when she is not pulling faces, which is reasonably often.

She won't thank me for that (the pretty bit, not the pulling faces bit.) "What's the definition of beauty? You're supposed to look blonder or something as you get older. I'm a ginga. Not that that matters any more, but it is a freedom. My career has never depended on my looks, therefore I'm lucky."

I do think she protests a little too much. She likes the way she looks and always has, so she is lucky. "I like myself. I look in the mirror in the morning and I think: 'That's a nice happy face.' And I like these (the lines), because I've earned them. I like my belly and my scars and my bottom and my flabby wings." She shook her arms to demonstrate said wings which were not, actually, particularly flabby - but women, after a certain age, seldom go sleeveless, so good on her.

I have no idea how we got on to this but as we are here, does she ever look in the mirror and think: I wish I was a bit thinner? "No!" Most women, even thin ones seem to. "Yes, I suppose they do. Why? This is the best I was given! This is my toolbox." She likes being "plumptious". She said, about Nicole Kidman getting an Oscar for "putting on a nose (as Virginia Woolf in The Hours) ... Some of us come with our own special effects!"

I remembered now how we had got to this body talk - she says she is a "storyteller" and with storytellers the route of an interview is usually not the straight one. I'd asked about her Pirates character, the Sergeant of Police, and whether she had a helmet. She does. Does she suit a helmet - I thought she might. "I don't know! I never much care what I'm dressed like, you know. I've played character parts most of my life and appeared in some very unattractive guises."

I don't know whether she was wearing her helmet the other day at rehearsal when she fell over a pirate's trunk. I'd heard she'd done this and I laughed rather too much at the image: Of a red-haired sergeant of police tripping over a pirate's trunk. I wasn't the only one. Half the cast thought she'd done it for comic effect - until she didn't get up again. They thought she was dead; she thought she'd broken her neck. She was always supposed to look as though she was about to trip over the trunk and then make a last-minute recovery but her legs got away on her and over she went. "My legs wouldn't stop and of course that was a very funny stunt: A 51-year-old plumpy lady doing that ... Then they called the ambulance."

And then she had to attempt to explain what had happened to a young nurse in A & E who was trying not to laugh. But that was nothing like "as fantastical as years and years go when I was in a production called Steaming and I was naked, on a trapeze, over a swimming pool at the Theatre Royal. I dropped into the swimming pool and wrenched my shoulder and having to explain that to a young doctor in A & E was far more hilarious than this one."

Yes, the mind does rather boggle. She also did her leg in on Dancing with the Stars - during which one of the judges said her dancing reminded him of the dancing elephants in Fantasia. How rude. She didn't mind. "Elephants are wonderful creatures and people think they've been funny and witty playing on somebody's size. And you can mock a Botticelli all you like but it remains a Botticelli! He, he, he," she cackled, she does a good cackle, frequently. But perhaps she minds that sort of nonsense just a tiny bit. It must get tedious, at the very least, and might be why she tends to get in first.

She has pins in her leg from the Dancing with the Stars adventure. She might be a bit accident prone. "I don't like to think of myself like that. I like to think of myself as I'll give anything a go." Why does she? "I must just kind of think I'm 12."

That she does is part of her charm which is warm and encompassing, like her scones. They were cheese scones, with jam, if desired. "You don't have to have the jam, if you don't want to. It sounds peculiar but it's very good." It was. "I might have put out some whipped cream but I thought perhaps ..." I'd have eaten it. "Oh! Would you? I thought you might have baulked at that."

I can't think what she'd baulk at; probably nothing. Certainly not at telling you things. She said to the photographer: "I'm having my sort of menopausal personal summers, you see."

If there was a slightly awkward silence after this - because what are you supposed to say? I have no idea - she didn't notice. She decided she'd make what her family call her "Hobbit face" for the camera. This is a sort of anti-vanity, I suppose, in a business which is so often about what people look like and what they are supposed to look like is thin and beautiful and rich.

She said: "I'm not a wealthy person. I work all year. It's all I've done for 30 years." I wondered if she minded not having made more money and she said she did mind when she can't pay "basic things", and sometimes she can't. That seems pretty rotten after 30 years but she said: "There's been periods of my career when I've had excess. It's just the nature of it. It's ups and downs and you know that's part of the deal."

She seems to mostly get good reviews but she was in a famous flop, Leah, in 2002, in which she played a Lear as a woman. Critics hated it and the production lost a lot of money for its company. Did I say flop? Silly me. "It's still, for me, one of the great things in my mind that I've ever done. I loved that. I knew it wasn't going to be a wild runaway success ... It was inside a festival whose mandate always ought to be to support failure ... The concept is still a good one."

Really? She doesn't think that, actually, it's a daft one? "No, I don't," she said giving me a look which was not very scone and jam and more Sergeant of Police. "A lot of scholars realise that Shakespeare based Lear on the ageing menopausal Queen Elizabeth and the vagaries of the rulings later in her life. I think it's perfectly valid to explore that." But surely she wouldn't try it again? "I will. And you will be amazed!"

I wouldn't put it past her. She had said, earlier: "I have a problem with authority. I like to learn but I wasn't so keen on being taught." She was booted out of Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt at 15. This came as no great surprise, but what had she done? "I used to carry around a book called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed." She also used to smoke behind the bike sheds, of course.

On her mother's side, "everybody's either a reprobate, an alcoholic or a revolutionary". I told her that when the English comedian Jo Brand played the Sergeant of Police she went off-script and gave the Pirate King the fingers. Perhaps I shouldn't have told her that - encouragement to play up is the last thing she needs.

She's a storyteller who survived by deciding, 10 years ago, that she wasn't going to sit by the phone waiting for work and began writing and directing her own shows starring, guess who? She's clever.

I thought she might be rather over-the-top, in that theatrical way, but she's very down-to-earth, actually, and likes cooking and preserving and quiet. She has been married for 30 years next April to Ross Joblin who used to be a stage manager and designer but got fed up with that, and now paints houses and grows vegetables and plants trees. "He's got a little maxim: 'When in doubt, plant a tree.' I think it's a very good way of approaching things - especially on a 670msq section in suburbia!" They have two daughters of 19 and 21.

I was trying to imagine what she was like to live with. A bit bossy, I'd have thought. She said only women are called bossy, while men are authoritative. But too bad. She is a bit bossy but I like and admire bossy ladies and I liked, and admire, her.


The Pirates of Penzance, directed by Raymond Hawthorne, is now on tour around the country and is in Auckland on September 11 at the Bruce Mason Centre.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 14 Jul 2014 19:26:39 Processing Time: 529ms