Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Robyn Malcolm: Cheryl West would hate Agent Anna

Robyn Malcolm's new telly role has her switching from tough Westie to desperate housewife from the posh side of town. Lydia Jenkin reports from the set of Agent Anna.

Robyn Malcolm as Anna Kingston in Agent Anna. Photo / SUpplied
Robyn Malcolm as Anna Kingston in Agent Anna. Photo / SUpplied

When TimeOut meets Robyn Malcolm to chat about Agent Anna - a series she dreamed up and stars in - she's in the middle of a busy day of filming. Clad in a damp swimsuit and bathrobe, she opts to simply throw on trackpants and use her spare time to talk, rather than head to her trailer and get changed for lunch.

The location is a Parnell hotel, ostensibly at a real estate conference, at which Malcolm's character, a newbie agent, gets a bit drunk and ends up crawling down a corridor with Roy Billing after a midnight swim. Hence the togs. All of which might sound like something Cheryl West might've done, but don't get the wrong idea - agent Anna Kingston is nothing like Outrageous Fortune's matriarch.

She may be tipsy, and rolling about in a swimsuit for this scene, but this is unusual behaviour.

"She's about as removed from Cheryl as, well, let's just say Cheryl would probably want to run her over in a car, Cheryl wouldn't like her for a minute.

They would not be friends. Cheryl would lose the will to live if she met Anna, I suspect," says Malcolm.

"She's one of those people, we all know them, when you're at a party and one particular person comes up to talk to you, and you just do your level best, without being rude, to get away from them. She's that woman."

Oh, poor Anna ...

"Poor Anna! We've said that a lot on the shoot actually, 'oh my God, poor Anna'. But what we've also tried to do is make her a bit funny."

She's certainly sympathetic, if simply a bit pathetic at times. Used to a comfortable upper-class life, Anna's husband has run off, out of the blue, and left her with a pile of debts, along with two teenage daughters to look after. It's been a long time since Anna needed to work, but suddenly money is pretty tight, so she turns to real estate.

"Do you know the book, The Surrendered Wife, it's an American book? Well, it sold gazillions in America, and it was a sort of antidote to feminism, about how to keep your husband happy, so you put yourself second.

"You let him run things, you just bake cupcakes, wear nice lingerie and do what you're told, and then he won't leave you or have an affair, and so on.

"I suspect that Anna has read this book, but it's also just how she is - she's been a really good wife, in a wealthy suburb. And he leaves her, and she's left with nothing, and she has no skills, and she's not socially confident, and she's passive-aggressive, middle-class New Zealand."

The show began when Malcolm wrote "a little couple of pages about something", and gave them to producers Rachel Gardner and Phil Smith at Great Southern Film and Television.

"I just had this idea because I think real estate agents are fascinating. They come from so many different walks of life and, in my experience anyway, a lot of people don't start their working lives as a real estate agent, they often come at it from a different point in their life, which makes them quite an interesting bunch.

"And also as a culture, New Zealanders are almost obsessed with real estate, and we're also a bit obsessed with our dislike of real estate agents, and there's a certain stereotype and perception that we have about real estate agents that may or may not be true."

Despite being a real estate agent, Anna is a loveable character. She's certainly no shark, and finds it hard to compete with her two colleagues, who certainly deserve that description - the slimy Leon, played by Adam Gardiner, and uptight Sandi, played by Theresa Healey, often finding her niceness taken advantage of.

But despite her awkward social skills, loopy parenting and clumsiness, the audience can't help but want her to succeed.

"I was interested in what would happen to a woman who had no formal skills and didn't have a relationship with money because her husband did it all. A really nice woman, who likes to be liked but would find herself in a position where she needs money, and exploring what she would do to get it.

"And as we developed the character, we all became interested in the flaws, not about her being a hero, but the flawed, fallible, messed-up person that we probably all are at some point, underneath."

With two sceptical teenage daughters, and interfering parents, plus rich former friends who no longer know how Anna fits into their social spectrum, there are plenty of characters to entertain and, as Malcolm says, the business of real estate is something many have an opinion on.

"The great crucible is, on one hand people's relationship with their houses are financial, but mostly it's deeply emotional, and represents so much for them, and yet the real estate agent seems to be all about the money, and the commission. When those two things meet you can understand why there's a certain degree of mistrust.

"I did pitch the idea to someone once before and they said, 'no, it'll never work because people don't like real estate agents', and I thought, well maybe that's a reason to make the show. I've bought and sold three houses, so I've met a few agents, as we all have. We've all got real estate agent stories."

Malcolm's very grateful that Gardner and Smith were keen, and is happy to be working on a smaller project - something a bit different from the larger scale shows she has worked on since Outrageous Fortune finished nearly three years ago, including Jane Campion's upcoming miniseries Top of the Lake, and acclaimed Australian series Rake.

"It's a little project, and we're doing it very much on the fly. We don't have a great deal of money, and money means time, so everything is incredibly fast, and it's made us quite a tight little guerilla team, running around the city trying to shoot this thing in a short period of time. But it has actually been amazing fun ...

"Rachel is producer and runner, and we've all got multiple jobs. I was cabling for the camera department the other day, and the art department was holding the boom, everyone's cross-disciplining.

"I look at it like we're all in the same sandpit, and we're all trying to build a sandcastle as fast as possible, and make it as good as possible, so you just chip in."

Who: Robyn Malcolm
What: New local show Agent Anna
Where and when: Starts on TV One, Thursday, January 31 at 8.30pm

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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