When the dark, violent, slow-burn drama The Bad Seed first came Madeleine Sami's way, the actress was hungry to get serious.
By the time The Breaker Upperers, her debut feature with Jackie van Beek, began to roll out across New Zealand last May, Madeleine Sami had spent two and a half years immersed in the process of writing, directing, performing in and editing the buddy comedy. Taking a hard swerve towards darkness actually came as a "relief" for Sami.
"I was so ready for it," she says. "To not have to do all the things that we were doing on The Breaker Upperers, and just to come in and act, it was a nice change – to play drama, and to be a part of something quite dark, brooding, and slow-moving."
The Bad Seed, based on a series of novels by Charlotte Grimshaw, is the kind of pacey, engrossing crime miniseries New Zealand TV has rarely seen before. The intricate plot connects a complex web of characters, centred on Simon Lampton (Matt Minto), a successful obstetrician whose upper-class life is shattered when he becomes a suspect in a murder. Sami plays detective Marie Da Silva, a determined cop who is relentlessly suspicious of Simon and his ties to the wealthy Hallwright family, whose patriarch David is set to take office as New Zealand's Prime Minister.
It's a mystery box of lies, corruption and politics – and an unflinching look at New Zealand's class system and the ever-widening gaps between rich and poor. "It's probably not something we see a lot," says Sami. "We've seen a massive shift in the last 10 years of extremes of wealth and poverty in New Zealand, so I think it's a good time to be telling this story."
"I think New Zealanders would be hesitant to admit that they have [a class system] but there is," says Dean O'Gorman, who plays Simon's rough-around-the-edges brother (and flatmate), Ford.
"The difference between incomes, the difference between career, and pressure to get a career – I found that interesting. My character's got no money and he's living with someone who is earning lots of money. There is that divide in New Zealand but I don't know if it's immediately apparent."
It was confronting even for the actors to step into the sleek houses of New Zealand's elite; O'Gorman says he was often taken aback by the actual neighbourhoods in which they shot the series. "I was looking at these houses and they're f***ing massive. I was like, 'Who are these people?" he says.
"It was pretty crazy," adds Sami. "They were locations you didn't even know existed in Auckland. You're just walking in going, 'Wow, life has been good to some people.'"
It's a world which Simon and Ford didn't grow up in and Simon in particular has made every effort to hide their poor upbringing and the dark secrets of his past. His own wife, Karen (Jodie Hillock), knows nothing about Simon's life before the age of 20.
"Simon does feel immense shame but more importantly, I think, so much pain about his upbringing," says Minto. "He's just doing everything he can to escape it and be the absolute opposite of what he was as a kid – very unsuccessfully.
"He lies and lies and lies, all the time," says Minto. "I don't think he's villainous but it's that thing – how do you trust someone that's just constantly lying and what are they capable of if they're able to lie?"
That dishonesty only heightens The Bad Seed's sleek, unsettling style, which forced each actor to consider the multifaceted layers of their performances. "It was a fine line to tread," says Minto. "You don't want the audience to loathe (Simon). He is a shell. He's built this whole world, and it's so empty; he's just grasping for some sort of meaning."
It was in the interrogation room where Sami had the most fun. "You're just stuck in this room and Matt and Dean are really subtle and amazing and give great performances, so there's this tug of war – one second you think someone's done it and then you don't," she says. "Those guys kept everything quite close and I think it's best for the audience to try to work out who's the baddie in all of this."
Though Sami was up for the challenge, coming out the other side, she says she wouldn't mind returning to something a little lighter. "You do a drama and you go, 'Oh gosh, that was heavy.' I took that home with me every night," she says.
"You don't even realise until you've finished most of the time, and you go, 'Oh, I feel a little bit sunnier today' – because you're not thinking about a murdered woman day in, day out. It totally gets into your subconscious."
Who: Madeleine Sami, Matt Minto & Dean O'Gorman
What: The Bad Seed
When: Airs across five consecutive nights from Sunday, April 14, 8.30pm