A passion for music is in Esther Stephens’ blood — so she chose to focus for a time on developing her ‘weaker’ interest: acting. Now she’s back behind a microphone, writes Alan Perrott.
Music was such a given in Esther Stephens' home that taking up acting was almost an act of rebellion.
Her father, Paul, is a gigging guitarist who has written his own musical theatre, her younger brother's old band, Artisan Guns, were Silver Scroll finalists in 2010, while her younger sister, Miriam, just like Mum, sings and plays piano.
But here is Esther Stephens, all of 29, working both sides of the Tasman and on the cusp of releasing an album just as two different shows are set to kick off on two different networks. It must be nice to have options.
"Sure, but it means people are always asking me: 'What would you do if you had to choose one?'," she says. "The reality is, I've never had to choose and I can't see a time when I would, so it's not a thought I've ever indulged. I mean I've still got things I want to tick off acting-wise - and how do you even give up music? There might be a time when everything dries up and I'm really broke and really unemployed, but I'll just have to find a way to work because music is something I will never not do, it's been there since the beginning and it'll still be there at the end."
Her childhood sounds like a Howick version of the Von Trapps, where acting up wasn't only indulged, it was expected, especially whenever her father needed volunteers for his shows. Paul Stephens was a minister and his church was just the environment for a young girl who enjoyed playing up with the occasional dash of close harmony singing.
At 12, she stepped things up a bit and formed her first band called Marmalade Jam, which essentially involved mates hanging out in the garage singing along to Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On and sundry Spice Girls songs. But the high sugar was dropped for solid fibre when she heard the album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: "That was the first album I totally pored over. I couldn't hear it enough and Dad even learned the songs on guitar so he could sing them with me - that's support."
So, it was a given that once Stephens left high school in 2003 she'd apply for a music course somewhere. But she'd also fallen for the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber: "I'd known since the earliest time that I wanted to be a performer - dressing up, inventing characters and playing up to my family; I loved it all, especially those musicals. But I didn't have the physical discipline to be a dancer, so it was always going to be a combination of singing and acting. In the end it was a toss-up really, jazz school or acting, and seeing as I was already working in bands, I thought I'd take the plunge and go for what I thought I was weaker in. It just made me hungrier to give it a go."
Unitec it was, for a three-year course in performance and screen arts, where she trained alongside the likes of Sophia Hawthorne and Morgana O'Reilly. It was a challenge but Stephens says she learns best by doing, so she found the deepest end and jumped in, even if only to broaden her singing options.
"I never gave screen work a thought at all," she says, "Ever since school I'd assumed I was too big for television, all waving arms and that, which doesn't look good on camera. People like you turn it down so I figured I'd never get a look in, instead I stuck with theatre."
After Unitec she won a place in Michael Hurst and Oliver Driver's Ensemble Project at Silo Theatre before going on to appear in productions such as Blood Brothers, She Stoops To Conquer and 'Tis Pity She's A Whore. As ever, she was also singing around town with nine-piece band Motor City Family Funk. That, too, had begun as a leap of faith after she was pulled from the crowd to sing at the late-lamented Rakinos on High St in Auckland - the first time she'd performed publicly outside of church.
Come 2009 and Stephens had forged her place in the Auckland creative scene, which seemed a great time to take off to Europe and America.
Each day she expected a lightbulb moment to tell her she'd found a new home, but it never came. Instead she was wandering around New York when her phone rang, Anna Hutchison was leaving Go Girls to move to Los Angeles and they wanted to cast another woman to replace her, would she fancy an audition? "Like I said, I never thought I'd have the skill set for television, and to be honest I probably didn't, so I feel very lucky that they took a chance on me."
It helped that the show featured an ensemble cast - Stephens sees herself as a pack animal who works best in teams, especially a team so willing to take her in its care, quite literally at times. In 2011 she had a biopsy that confirmed she had coeliac disease, a condition that causes a rather debilitating reaction to gluten.
After three seasons playing Go Girls' Olivia Duff she realised there was more to TV work than she'd suspected. "And I felt like I'd had a good apprenticeship I guess, so when it ended I put together a decent show reel and took the opportunity to see what else was out there. "
And with that, the then 26-year-old joined the migration of young New Zealand actors heading to Australia, where she settled, sort of, in Melbourne, a city that caught her ear more than anything.
After finding a local agent she managed to get acting work in House Husbands, The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Underbelly: Land Of The Long Green Cloud, but nothing "that really clicked with me".
Her hunt for that click has turned her into something of a Clayton's immigrant with great offers regularly pulling her back to New Zealand. "It's that old thing, the moment you leave, the phone back home won't stop ringing."
On the singing front, her vocal chops saw her helping out on albums for Home Brew, Tama Waipara and Sola Rosa, gigs that saw her regularly working alongside the future members of The Means.
Then along came two juicy acting opportunities, playing Nurse Bea Smith in the TVNZ World War I miniseries, When We Go To War, and the role of Ngaire Munroe in TV3's Outrageous Fortune prequel, Westside Story.
With a mother and sister working as nurses and great-grandfather who'd served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, she says she felt particularly humbled by the former.
"I read the script and straightaway thought, 'Oh this is great, I don't have a shot' and then what do you know? Every time I get a screen job I'm so totally stoked, as in 'I really get to do this?' I've only got a few goals in life and playing an important character in a serious production is one of them, so it's been a great experience."
One of her others was to release an album of original material and any breaks in her shooting schedule meant she and her band could work on another goal: the self-released and self-titled Esther Stephens & The Means, released this month. With two television shows on the go, she admits it seemed an opportune time for a release. They start a national tour next month.
Stephens is not, it seems, someone who will ever die wondering.
As for life post-tour, when she's not performing with a music combo, the Harvey Cartel (specialising, naturally, in songs from Tarantino soundtracks), she's working on her third goal: a big part of it a major theatrical musical, but she's only managed one audition in that direction, as a dancer in the Australian musical Strictly Ballroom, "but I was probably more 'approximately ballroom', really."
Still, that setback hasn't tempted her to reach for Plan B, teaching drama at secondary level: "I think my priorities have changed drastically since I discovered this love of screen acting, and that really wasn't something I ever anticipated. So, from here, anything is a bonus really. I mean I'd never consider myself the most ambitious person in the world, but I'm really loving the ride I'm on. I've realised that I'd rather be somewhere I can work, even if it's maybe a bit small, than being somewhere bigger where I'm just another girl in an audition queue, and I just want to keep it going for as long as I can."
When We Go to War begins on screens tomorrow on TV One at 8.30pm. The Esther Stephens & The Means debut album is available now at bandcamp.com