Living dangerously

By Sarah Lang

Toni Potter takes a deep drag of her cigarette and a swig of chardonnay. It's, well, very Alice - the fun-loving, hard-partying nurse Potter plays on Shortland Street. "There's a lot of Alices out there," grins Potter, who's sipping and yakking before heading home from Shortland Street central, South Pacific Pictures' Henderson studios.

Three years ago, Potter joined the perennially-popular soap in what at first looked like the somewhat stock role of the good-time-girl nurse who's up for some doctor dating (remember how Chris' exes Tiffany and Toni started out?). But Alice emerged as poles apart from her party-loving predecessors: as a brash, straight-talking tough nut with a shoot-from-the-hip style - and some of the best lines in the show. "Alice is a bit bogan, a bit loud-mouth, she likes to drink and have fun," says Potter, "but you can't really put her in a particular box because so much has happened to her."

Alice is certainly having a hell of a year. After nurses started dropping like flies courtesy of the Ferndale serial killer, Alice was abducted by the culprit - fellow nurse Joey Henderson - who kept her in a storage unit for three days, removed her appendix and tried to strangle her. With typical Alice smarts (and the aid of boyfriend Dr Craig Valentine) she escaped, subsequently returning to work too soon and turning to alcohol to numb the pain. Next up was a drunken encounter with bad boy Guy Warner, an unexpected pregnancy, and a who's-the-daddy dilemma.

After confessing her fling and agreeing to marry Craig, Alice roped him into doing a cash-sweetened interview about her escape - but when the reporter threw in unwelcome questions, Craig walked out and took off to Australia. Reconciling herself to solo motherhood, Alice called it quits with Craig on his return - then developed pre-eclampsia and went to stay with her mother out of town.

Right, spoiler alert: tomorrow Alice returns to our screens hoping for a reconciliation with Craig, when a major trauma propels her into early labour.

Phew - it's tiring just thinking about it all. "How many bad things can happen to one person?" Potter grins. "Incident after incident after incident with no slowdown in between - it's made the year go quickly!"

Laidback with a slightly self-deprecatory air, glowing green eyes, a smattering of freckles and fringed cowboy boots, Potter has the refreshing quality of being able to laugh at herself.

Much like Alice. "Alice is more like I was when I was in my late teens, early 20s," says Potter, 29. "We've both got a bit of a smart mouth ... but no, I don't drink," she deadpans over her chardonnay. "I'm actually not an alcoholic," she says. "Everybody does look like alcoholics on the show - we're always at the bar."

Or dancing on it, as her turn-to-the-bottle storyline required. Prior part-time bar jobs, where she watched a lot of really drunk women trying to act sober, proved helpful here.

So, those grappling-with-a-murderer scenes - was the adrenalin racing? "Johnny [Barker] was quite scary, sometimes it was a little bit 'Aaargh!"" she says, pulling a mock-scared face. "But we had lots of laughs and it was a great opportunity. I'm probably never going to get to do something like that again."

However the hardest storyline, she says, wasn't the attempted-murder scenes: it was the pregnancy. And not because of the fake belly. It was because she was getting really tired by that point in the story.

An apt time, then, for her first-ever decent break from Shortland Street - though not exactly a holiday. Potter spent six weeks preparing for and performing in Auckland Theatre Company's production of American classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Despite what she calls a "terrible opening night - my nerves got the better of me, I think", critics raved about Potter's performance as Maggie The Cat, a sensual Southern housewife trapped in a loveless marriage.

Potter relished returning to her old stamping-ground, theatre, and not just because she got to swap the nursing scrubs for some gloriously vampy costumes. As well as enjoying the part and the people, she found the play a "freeing experience. You can go a little bit insane in the asylum," she jokes of Shortland Street. "Taking a break to do theatre is so good because you get to stretch a different muscle; it makes you a better actor."

Though Potter is already among our best. She's one of three nominees up for a gong as best TV actress "Performance by an Actress in General Television", in the upcoming Qantas Film and Television Awards.

"When I found out, I was really surprised. It's not about being humble, it just seems strange, especially being in the same category as Robyn Malcolm (of Outrageous Fortune) who's just such a fantastic actor." The pair will clink glasses at a glitzy September 13 ceremony at Auckland's Civic Theatre. "The closer it's getting I'm starting to feel a bit sick about it. Not that I think I'm going to win - I'm 99 per cent sure Robyn will - but it's the attention factor, and the expectation. I can't wait 'til it's all over to be honest."

Potter certainly doesn't enjoy the attention that comes with being a well-known face. "I go out with blinkers on: I try not to look at anybody or talk to anybody unless I have to," she says.

I squirm. Recently I saw her on Auckland's High St and had an "I-know-you-from-somewhere" glimmer of recognition, when she intercepted my gaze and looked away with nose turned up. But this wasn't a snub from a prima donna - it was the reaction of someone who gets a little freaked out when approached.

"I'm a bit of a nervy person and I've had a few weird experiences. Some people kind of think you are your character, and I'll get drunk women coming up to me in bars saying 'you're just like me' and I'll think 'you're nothing like me'. It's quite strange and quite confronting - you do find the walls close in a little bit."

Growing up the daughter of a NZ Army officer in Papakura, Waiouru and Upper Hutt, Potter never dreamed she'd one day be dodging drunk fans at bars (let alone that two fans would wage a Trade Me bidding war for a signed photo of her).

But the performing drive was there right from the start. As a child, Potter juggled ballet, jazz and contemporary dance, then during high-school years became involved in Christchurch amateur theatre. After a year working in a law office, she was accepted into Unitec's Bachelor of Performing Arts degree and moved to Auckland.

Graduating in 2000, she started picking up acting parts, mainly in Auckland Theatre Company and Silo Theatre productions. Potter plays down the talent required. "It really does come down mainly to luck. I happened to do something to make an audition panel laugh, so I ended up being in a play and it escalated from there."

TV beckoned when she was cast as a lawyer in South Pacific Pictures' 2005 crime drama Interrogation, and scored guest roles in Outrageous Fortune and the ill-fated Orange Roughies. Then along came Alice. Potter, who'd auditioned for previous parts, got a call offering her the role (no audition necessary) just after she'd finished a theatre job, with nothing else lined up. "So I was very happy to be distracted with Alice!"

And yes, Potter does sometimes watch herself onscreen. "Most of the time it's cringe-worthy but sometimes I'm like 'Ha! I was funny in that bit'." But because the camera adds ten pounds, she says it's easy to become obsessed with how you look. "I've lost weight now, but there was about six months there when I couldn't look at myself [on TV] because all I can see was my double chin."

Still, she's enjoying playing Alice, a Street favourite with her hijinks and witty one-liners. "I'm glad I don't get many boring storylines, like some of the actors who are in married couples." Though Alice and Craig shacked up for a while, Potter says working with Renato Bartolomei was so much fun that their scenes were never boring.

Lucky lass: Bartolomei's got that sexy older man thing going on, right? "I've had a lot of ladies tell me they're very jealous of me," she laughs, with a mock preen.

Is her own love life as eventful as Alice's?

There's a long pause. "I've had my ups and downs but I'm pretty happy at the moment." That's all she'll say - but it's more than I thought she would.

Potter's sanctuary from stares and nosy journalists is her Karekare Beach home, where she spends much of her downtime reading and watching DVDs, dreaming of owning her own house at Piha with a vege garden. A firm believer in fair trade and buying New Zealand-made, Potter eats mainly organic locally produced food while avoiding excessive consumption and sweat-shop-produced goods.

Though her fiscal weakness is definitely her ever-expanding music collection. "If I wasn't an actor I'd probably want to be involved in the music industry. I wish I had the voice to be a rock'n' roll star," she laughs.

But for now acting's treating her pretty well.

"You know, when I was in my third year at drama school, one of the teachers told me 'I hope you realise you aren't going to work in this industry'. It felt like a kick in the guts. But now I'm seven years out and I'm like f**k you - here I am!

" Shortland Street screens weekdays on TV2 at 7pm.

- NZ Herald

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