Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Chelsie Preston Crayford: Act natural

Greg Dixon talks to Kiwi actress Chelsie Preston Crayford about her bohemian childhood and why she resisted going into showbiz.

CHelsie Preston Crayford says she was 'tricked' by her parents into moving to a more arts-driven school. 
Photo / Richard Robinson
CHelsie Preston Crayford says she was 'tricked' by her parents into moving to a more arts-driven school. Photo / Richard Robinson

It is the last day of summer, and Chelsie Preston Crayford is sitting in her gloriously sunny backyard, furrowing her brow. The award-winning actress, a small but growing star of television, film and the stage, is considering what she was once told at acting school in Wellington.

"I remember when I finished Toi Whakaari somebody said to me 'you'd better get really good at pouring coffee'. I used to get so angry about those comments. People really close to me would say 'what are you going to do now?' I would say 'well, I'm going to act' and they'd say 'well, good luck, not many people do that'. Well f*** you ..."

It is fair to say the 26-year-old Preston Crayford - the Preston comes from her mother Gaylene, the film director, the Crayford from her father Jonathan, the musician - has spent the years since graduation making good on that last sentiment.

Since she finished Toi Whakaari in 2008 she's been on stage in around a dozen theatre productions, she has been cast in more than half a dozen television series and tele-features - mostly in Australia - and has starred in a feature film, Home By Christmas, which screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

She has won an award, a major award. In 2012 she was given the gong for most outstanding new talent at Australia's version of the Emmys, the Logie Awards, for her lead role in one of Australian television's most respected franchises, Underbelly.

And this month she opens in a play, which, to hear her tell it, might well be a major peak in her career. She has been cast in the Silo Theatre's production of the epic Angels In America, a Pulitzer Prize-winning two-parter (the first part is Millennium Approaches, the second Perestroika) that runs to a total of seven hours and is Silo artistic director Shane Bosher's final outing with the company.

Written by American playwright Tony Kusher, Angels In America is set in a Reagan-era America riven by the Aids epidemic and explores the shifting fortunes of two couples, one gay, one straight. Much praised (but also derided by American conservatives), it is a difficult play to analyse; its staging is typically very simple, but its mix of magic realism, history, sexuality, personal politics, paranoia, angels, Ethel Rosenberg and Mormons along with its swirling plotlines make it a complex modern classic.

Preston Crayford says she fears (and she's only half joking, I think) that Angels is so good it may have ruined her for anything else.

"It's the most exceptional writing ... amazing writing. Kushner's obviously very gifted. In draft, the plays were really, really long and he's whittled them down to their bare bones, he's distilled them and distilled them. Normally you read something and you think: ignore the punctuation. As an actor, you read it and you go 'throw the punctation away' or it will sound wooden. But this is like every full stop you need to pay attention to, every dot-dot-dot means something. There is a code. And every pause is scored, and every stage direction is important. I've never come across anything like it."

Chelsie Preston Crayford in Code. Photo / Simon Cardwell
Chelsie Preston Crayford in Code. Photo / Simon Cardwell

Seen at a distance, it would seem inevitable that Preston Crayford become an actress.

Both her parents are involved in film-making. Her musician father Jonathan, who turns 50 this year, is mainly a multi-instrumentalist who works and records (some 11 albums so far) around the world including New York, Brazil and Cuba. He's performed on the same stage as Macy Gray. He has made a short film starring his daughter called The Girl From Sweden And A Maori From Dunedin, and has also exhibited his photographs and paintings. However, he began his career at 18 composing music for feature films, including two of Preston's, Mr Wrong and Ruby And Rata.

"He spends a lots of time in New York and Spain," says Preston Crayford. "He spent lots of time recently in this little town called Cadaques, which is Salvador Dali's home town, it's a little seaside town in Spain. And he sort of became like the bard of the town. It was amazing. I went to see him and we spent his 47th birthday there." She pauses. "I don't know how to describe him." A longer pause. "He's pretty out there ... He does a lot of crazy sort of projects all over the place," she concludes, then smiles.

Her mother Gaylene is, of course, one of this country's pre-eminent film-makers and documentarians. From Ruby And Rata, which is one of New Zealand film's gentlest classics to Bread And Roses, the TV mini-series dramatising the life of late unionist and Labour MP Sonja Davies, to War Stories, to Perfect Strangers, a thriller starring Sam Neill, Preston has earned a special place among our filmmakers. In 2001 she was made New Zealand's first filmmaker laureate by the Arts Foundation. The following year she was made an officer of the New Zealand order of merit.

So Preston Crayford was never going to be anything but creative. However, it was by no means certain she would choose acting as a career, even though she was one from a young age.

"I have friends who were prolific child actors. I was never one of those. My first job I did when I was 4. It was water safety commercial ... So it wasn't unfamiliar for me to work, to get paid for it, for it to be a job. But when I was a kid, people on film sets used to say 'so are you going to be an actress when you grow up?' and I'd go 'no way' ... I just never wanted to be a little girl who wanted to be an actress. I thought that was just too cringey for words."

Still, she did drama at high school. Wellington-born, she went to Wellington East Girls' College for most of her schooling but was "tricked" by her parents into moving to the "more artistic" Wellington High School in her final year. "I wasn't really thriving at East, I was getting into a lot of trouble."

Was she bad?

"I got that way because I was quite bored I think. But I went to Wellington High and encountered a drama teacher called Annie Millard who has just changed too many people's lives to talk about really. Annie really shook me up."

After finishing high school she went travelling through Europe. It was a bit of a drama trip too - to London to The Globe, to Paris, to Rome and to the coliseum, all around Greece and its various amphitheatres and to the Parthenon and Meteora. But when she came home in 2005 she was still unsure of her future and instead took two jobs, one in a gift shop, the other in a coffee factory, in Wellington. Then a friend suggested she audition for Unitec's acting course.

"I went 'oh, nah'. She said 'why don't you just do it?' So I got on a plane and went and did the Unitec auditions. I hadn't done any acting for about a year. And just doing the audition I was reminded of that little flame that I had for doing it.

"But I had missed the auditions for Toi Whakaari. And I was also too young. I was 18 and the entry age was then 19. But I actually got a sneaky call from somebody who was at the Unitec auditions who said 'I really think you should just email Toi's Miranda Harcourt' and I felt really ... it was really hard thing to do, embarrassing thing to do, but I emailed her and asked could I come along to the auditions." As it happened, a student had just dropped out and Harcourt agreed Preston Crayford could attend the auditions. She eventually got a place.

You have to ask, so I did: has it helped her career being Gaylene Preston's daughter? She does her best not to sound defensive about this question.

"I couldn't deny that I've been exposed to things lots of other people aren't exposed to," she says carefully. "The fact that I could get Miranda Harcourt's email address, stuff like that, that I'd met her before I suppose, helps. I would say that I have had an advantage in that respect just having parents that are artists who do what they want to do for a living instead of a job. They create their job. So that's an advantage already because there are lots of people who don't learn that you can do that.

"But I've always been aware of that [question]. I've always battled with the feeling like I really have something to prove. But now, I don't think it helps."

Of course now she has a body of work. Her film credits include Taika Waititi's Eagle vs Shark and Anthony McCarten's second feature Show Of Hands and in 2009 she featured in the core cast of Great Southern Television's slightly unloved, one-series drama The Cult. In 2010 she appeared to spend the whole year in a theatre, doing, by my count, eight productions, including The Vagina Monologues and two Silo plays directed by Bosher.

Chelsie Preston Crayford and Martin Henderson in Home By Christmas.
Chelsie Preston Crayford and Martin Henderson in Home By Christmas.

However, it was her role two years after graduating from Toi, in her mother's wonderful, sort-of docu-drama Home By Christmas in 2010, that has given her early career impetus.

Based on her own family's wartime experiences: her grandmother Tui was left at home with baby Gaylene while her husband, Chelsie's grandfather Ed, was a soldier then a prisoner of war. Preston Crayford was cast as Tui - who had in fact also helped raise her.

A couple of years after Ed's death, Tui, 77, had moved into her daughter Gaylene's Wellington home. Chelsie, who was 4 when Gaylene and Jonathan split, was just 7.

"Mum and Tui were like really good co-parents. I grew up with two completely different parenting styles, the war generation and the 70s generation and they couldn't be more different as people. A good example of it is that I would come home from school and if Tui was making me dinner she would make me some over-steamed veges in cheese sauce at 4pm. And if I was eating with Mum we would have like pasta al dente at 9.30pm, with some sort of fancy ingredients. It was like two completely different women - and I had a really strong relationship with both."

Home By Christmas, which received strong notices, went to the Cannes' festival and Preston Crayford went with it.

"The Australians and New Zealanders hang out together and so I met a bunch of people. I found I was really grossed out by the sort schmoozing aspect of Cannes, which is immature because that's why people are there ... But I made friends with people. An Australian producer called Tim White saw Home By Christmas and said 'if you ever want an agent in Australia come talk to me and I'll put you onto a couple.' Home By Christmas went to the Sydney Film Festival and I went with it and I hit him up."

The Logie lives at her mum's house. Before she won the gong for Australia's most outstanding new talent in April 2012 - you can watch her nervous-as-hell acceptance speech on YouTube - she has, for the most part, been homeless and she has moved around a lot since.

"I mean let's be practical, you can't be carting that around. It was great to win it; I was probably the only person who never got anything at prizegiving my whole schooling, so it felt good."

To hear Preston Crayford tell it, being cast in Underbelly: Razor - set in the roaring 20s and 30s, it was the fourth in the Underbelly franchise - didn't take much more than sending off an audition tape, which she made with her mate Danielle Cormack, who was also auditioning for the show. In the end both Kiwis were cast as the key leads in one of Australia's biggest shows.

"It still surprises me that, when I think about it," Preston Crayford says, smiling.

What doesn't surprise her - though it does me - is that the work dried up after she was handed her Logie by presenter Rove McManus. "There's a saying: you win an award and don't work for a year - that totally happened," she says.

She filled in some of the downtime travelling between Sydney, Wellington, LA (where she found an agent and auditioned) and Melbourne, and by making a short film, Here Now, which was made with $4500 of crowd-funded money and was a finalist in last year's New Zealand International Film Festival's best short film competition.

She also found time, around this time last year, to have her photo taken with John Key at a film premiere while holding a small sign (actually her ticket) with "I'm with stupid" and an arrow pointing at Key on it. ("I saw the opportunity and took it," she says now. "It was my way of speaking out about the current government and their policies. And it was always going to ruffle a few feathers - that was the point!")

But the work drought has long since broken. She was cast, along with Lucy Lawless and David Wenham, in an Australia political thriller called Code which screened there last year. As well as her turn as Harper Pitt, a neurotic, valium-addicted Mormon housewife, in Angels in America - a production she turned down local TV work to do - she also has a small role in Taika Waititi's upcoming vampire flick, What We Do In The Shadows and she will be seen this year on TV3 in Hope And Wire, a major mini-series about the Christchurch earthquakes made by her mother, which was shot in that city last year.

Preston Crayford as Monee in the upcoming TV drama series Hope And Wire. Photo / Gaylene Preston Productions
Preston Crayford as Monee in the upcoming TV drama series Hope And Wire. Photo / Gaylene Preston Productions

It's fair to say she's not planning to get good at making coffee any time soon, though neither does she sound like she's got cocky - she's contends she's become a pro at dealing with audition rejection.

"I dealt with it more than 100 times last year. If you took that stuff hard, you'd have a terrible life. I don't want to have terrible life. And there is more to life.

"What I do is actually not that important. I like it and it feeds me in different ways but it is not everything to me. So that helps. It's taken work, but now I feel confident I can say I'm not in a position where I'm relying on whether someone chooses me or not for my sense of wellbeing.

"But I do feel like an imposter all the time. I'll probably always feel that way ... because we're kind of brought up that you're not meant to get away with it. I feel like there's always going to be a little part of me that's like 'really? I'm allowed to do this? Are you sure?"'

Angels In America, part one: Millennium approaches and part two: Perestroika, play at Q Theatre, march 21 to april 13. See silotheatre.co.nz for more details.

- NZ Herald

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