When Shortland Street's scriptwriters created a character with Tourette's syndrome, they copped flak for reinforcing a stereotype. Never afraid of challenging the nation's social consciousness, the show is again venturing into uncharted territory this week by introducing a doctor with Asperger's syndrome.

Virginie Le Brun, who plays new head of surgery Dr Gabrielle Jacobs, is well aware her performance will be heavily scrutinised. The former What Now and Juice TV presenter knows her soapie debut could prove controversial. She's extensively researched the condition, a developmental disorder similar to autism and associated with socially awkward behaviour. "I think it's really positive bringing something like this into the forefront. I had never heard of Asperger's before my audition, and I started researching it because I wanted to make it authentic.

"Some people who have Asperger's are more introspective and some more extroverted. Some are at the autism end of the spectrum, and others you wouldn't even know had Asperger's."

All this makes for a fascinating character sketch, and Le Brun could not have asked for a meatier role to sink her teeth into.

"At first glance Gabrielle's especially forward," Le Brun says. "She says things no one else would dream of saying, or they would but three seconds later respond with `I can't believe I just said that!' But she doesn't realise it's inappropriate. I can't wait to get the next scripts to find out who she's going to offend next."

The outgoing 28-year-old, daughter of renowned winemaker Daniel Le Brun, has learned a few things about herself through dissecting her character.

"In terms of my physical environment I'm pretty meticulous, as is Gabrielle," she admits. "As for other similarities, when I'm passionate about something, I'm really focused on it, and so is she - possibly to a fault."

Le Brun, who was known by her nickname Verge during her 1998 to 2004 stint on Juice, is every bit as bubbly as a bottle of her father's No 1 methode traditionelle, especially when it comes to her role on the long-running medical drama.

"Part way through [last] year I quietly said to myself, 'This year I want to work on Legends of the Seeker [a US series filmed in New Zealand] and Shortland Street'," she recalls.

"I was doing presenting work and thought I'd like to do a bit of acting before I had a think about settling down a bit more and having babies. If I've done some `proper' acting work before then, it's going to be a little bit easier to do some after."

You have to wonder whether Le Brun is even capable of settling down. This highly energetic woman lists BMX riding, rock climbing and equestrian vaulting - where riders perform stunts such as jumping off a horse's back - among her hobbies.

The demanding Shorty schedule has limited her spare time, which is now often swallowed up by the labour of line-learning.

Fortunately that task is not affected by her dyslexia, although it did create obstacles for Le Brun as a student at Rangi Ruru Girls' High in Christchurch.

"Numbers and me are still not getting along," she admits.

Playing Gabrielle is such a juicy assignment that Le Brun won't even entertain thoughts of plying her trade overseas.

There's one role she's unlikely to audition for; the one many would expect her to pursue - winemaking. "If I was going to get into wine I'd have a big pair of boots to fill," she explains. "I'm really proud of my father. We have made wine since the 1600s, so all the way back to that point in the family in France we've always made champagne. ... But, never say never!"

* Shortland Street, TV2, weeknights at 7pm.