Elisabeth Easther, the sometime actress, playwright and part-time journalist, lives in a pretty little house in Pt Chevalier. I went to see her there because her play, Famous Flora, which is based on the famous Auckland madam Flora McKenzie, is about to open in Auckland. I had to be reminded, by the playwright, that we were supposed to be talking about her play because I had got rather distracted, by the playwright. So I had better do Flora now. She was a society lady who ran a posh frock shop, Ninette's, and ended up running a brothel. She was a successful business woman who became an alcoholic and whose life came to resemble "a tawdry cabaret". There will be fabulous costumes, by Elizabeth Whiting, and it will be staged at the White House "adult entertainment centre" and you can stay on for that show afterwards.
The getting distracted was only partly my fault. She is given to saying unexpected things. "Do you want a game of Battleships?" she said, eagerly, early on. No, I only play Scrabble, I said. Not to mention, so I didn't, that playing a game of Battleships in an interview would be beyond bonkers. But perhaps it was a metaphor for an interview. One never knows with her. She can be cryptic. "I hate Scrabble," she said, vehemently.
She was wearing a nice frock and no shoes and she had painted her toenails black, some time ago. She said she had brushed her hair and put some makeup on, for us, because she was hopeless at primping and so mostly didn't bother. She hadn't made it as far as the toenails, patently. We both work at the Herald but as I am seldom in the office and she works three days a week (mostly writing travel pieces for Weekend magazine which she adores and calls "my free holidays") I don't know her. I once wandered by her desk and noticed that she'd cut her hair and so I said: "Your hair looks nice."
"Oh," she said, flinging about what remained of her hair, "you don't need all that hair." A bit bonkers, I thought, but funny.
My only other dealings with her have been when she has been doing publicity for a couple of things, including herself. The first was for a film and, after many confusing emails, we arranged a time for me to interview an actress who, it turned out, would not actually be in the country on the arranged date. I could have strangled the publicist. The second time we arranged that I would interview her. Her play, Seed, about fertility, which won this year's Adam NZ Play Award, was about to open. We arranged a date and then she remembered that she'd actually also arranged to write a piece for Canvas magazine about her play. I really could have strangled the publicist. I wrote a complaining email - "away with the fairies" - to a colleague who replied along the lines that she was that, alright, but that she was charming enough to get away with it.
She must be, because here we are in her pretty little house and she is in her pretty dress with her hair nicely brushed and she has made lemon drizzle cake which she will serve on her pretty family china, with little silver forks. But first we were examining her hatchet, which she uses to chop up kindling. There is nothing too weird about that.
But the hatchet was a present from an ex-boyfriend and has an inscription: To My Darling Sweet Pea. She got rid of the bloke, but kept the hatchet. "It's handy." Odd things seem to happen to her. She noticed, while she was having her picture taken outside, that somebody had stolen her lemon tree. "Oh! The lemon tree's gone!" The really weird thing about this is that there was no sign of a lemon tree ever having been there. "The hole's just ... closed over. It's just gone. Wow!"
I thought she might be a bit tricky to live with but she was outraged (by which I mean she was acting at being outraged and which is rather what I was getting at by asking). "I'm good!" she shouted. "I bake! I do the dishes. I keep a relatively clean house. I'm nice. I'm really kind." I asked if she thought she'd ever have another bloke and she said: "Oh yeah! Several."
She was married, to the father of her 8-year-old son Theo, but that didn't last - "Yes, I am a divorcee!" - although she says he is lovely and a wonderful dad. She is not really the marrying kind, but they married when she was pregnant. "You didn't want to have a bastard!"
She is happier living on her own, although she wouldn't mind a fella to take on her free holidays. She wouldn't like another actor boyfriend because she had one once, who was very nice, but: "Oh, God, two actors in the house ... " That was when she was what she calls "a proper actor" which means sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and when it did it mostly wasn't for her. "His agent would call and he'd get an audition and I wouldn't and I'd be like: 'Why?'" He once went to see the casting agent for Xena and Hercules and she told him to ask her why she never got an audition. "It was because I was too fat!"
She's little. "I've had porky times. I did have a porky patch during the 90s. Remember when carbohydrates weren't the enemy? I had a healthy fondness for bagels. Ha, ha, ha. But I was never, you know, too rotund. Maybe a little bit. But anyway, I thought it was mean."
And so do I, having by now been thoroughly charmed. I still think she's away with the fairies, but I now think: Lucky fairies. But what did happen to her acting career? She is 44 and was quite famous when she was just 25 and playing the nut job Carla in Shortland Street. People still remember her Carla and so do I. I couldn't remember, though, whether she'd been killed off. "No. Asylum." She killed a character called Bernie with a candlestick during an earthquake. She was shown a scene on morning telly a few years ago and "apart from the fact that the clothing was horrific, I had no memory ... It was like there was a whole room in my brain that has been sealed up".
She never enjoyed, "you know, recognisableness. You know how you sometimes feel paranoid and you think people are talking about you? They really are ... I just get too self-conscious ... I don't do a lot of grooming, so I always would feel somehow I was a disappointment to the general public. Ha, ha".
She likes staying at home and baking and reading and playing her piano and singing (songs from Frozen, the Disney animated musical, her "terrible secret!") and writing her plays. She did play the mother in the Countdown ad series which ran for about three years and paid lots of lovely dosh. And she said, because she looks nothing like a mother from a supermarket ad series, that the "recognisableness" was much less. Still, I said, many actors would be snooty about appearing in ads. "Dicks," she said. But were some actors snooty about her appearing in those ads? "I know some who were jealous!"
Have you seen actors? They look like lollipops. Who would want to look like a lollipop? They're like stick people. Their thighs are the size of my arms. I like cake. I like eating.
Also, she says she doesn't have the right look to be a rich and famous actor. She looked all right, I said. "Yeah! All right!" she said. "Have you seen actors? They look like lollipops. Who would want to look like a lollipop? They're like stick people. Their thighs are the size of my arms. I like cake. I like eating."