Anna Paquin sinks her teeth into a meaty, complex protagonist in Flack, writes George Fenwick.
In the opening scene of Flack, we find Robyn (Anna Paquin), our protagonist, in full crisis mode. She saves lives in the scene – literally and metaphorically – trying to control what could become a major drug and sex scandal for her footballer client. Her work done, she exits the hotel room, stopping briefly to take some of the drugs for herself.
At once, we're introduced to the complicated, morally questionable character of Robyn, an American-born, London-based publicist, who spends her days dousing fires for clients desperate to retain their fame and status. She's strict but empathetic, and very, very good at her job. But her personal life is another world entirely; she's a recovering addict, continually falling behind because of her impulsive, self-destructive choices.
"Every time you get on an aeroplane, they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others. That is fundamentally a lesson Robyn has never learned," says Paquin. "She has completely neglected to take care of her personal life in any meaningful way."
She's the sort of meaty, complex character Paquin is continually hungry for and, frustratingly, the kind that's more scarce for actresses. "It's more of a new thing for female protagonists in film and TV to be complicated and flawed and emotionally truthful," she says.
"I think we've seen that forever and a day with male protagonists, and I could name 20 incredible intensely wonderful performances with central male characters that are massively flawed but that you still root for because you understand what has gone into making them that person."
After 27 years in the public eye, Paquin is familiar with the world of public relations – but she's thankful to not count herself in the same boat as the fame-hungry stars in Flack.
"The public aspect was never the bit that appealed to me," she says. "That bit, frankly, just used to really frighten me. It's just a lot of people staring at you and expecting something, as opposed to what is quite an intimate process, which is making a film, or doing a TV show, or a play, or something where it's just about you and the people around you."
Paquin executive produced Flack under her company CASM, which she runs with her husband, Stephen Moyer. They've been working to make the show for five years, watching as the script has developed and changed over time. That led to a number of striking moments when it finally came to the shoot; in the first episode, Robyn takes down a chef accused of sexual harassment with a flawless monologue about rape culture and the way society sexualises women from a young age. It could read as a response to the #MeToo movement – but that passage has been in the script from day one.
"There were little tweaks done to some of the dialogue to make it obviously exist in modern culture, post-#MeToo, and Time's Up, but that was there from the get-go if I'm not mistaken," says Paquin.
"It's relevant now, it was relevant five years ago, it was relevant 25 years ago and probably centuries ago. You really hope that at some point, things like that stop being relevant."
Alongside Robyn, Flack is populated with complex female characters, from Robyn's boss, Caroline (a formidable Sophie Okonedo) to her paranoid sister Ruth (Genevieve Angelson). Paquin was able to assist on casting through her role as producer, and she describes that process as "some of the most fun I've had at work ever".
"There is a different energy [on set] when the women are the centre of the plot, and it's the boys who are doing the coming and going – the husbands and the friends and the boyfriends."
Paquin has particularly high praise for the hilarious, scene-stealing Okonedo. "It's almost absurd," she says. "Me and Lydia [Wilson] and Rebecca [Benson], who are the office trio, would joke that you don't have to do much acting when Sophie is chewing you [out]...
"There were things we didn't even realise we were all doing – like when she was really having a go at the three of us, we'd all kind of move back at the same time, just instinctively."
Who: Anna Paquin
When: Friday, February 22, 8pm
Where: TVNZ On Demand