Kate Elliot reveals to George Fenwick just how demanding her brutal new series was of her.
To play Detective Jess Savage in The Gulf, actress Kate Elliot needed to be fearless. Jess is a woman in recovery; mainly from a harrowing car accident but also from past demons that weigh on her mental well-being. The role would be a tough ask of any actor – but Elliot says she didn't have to go far to venture into that dark headspace day after day.
"Last year was a particularly difficult year for me, so I definitely came into playing that role pretty broken myself," she says. "Huge emotional changes within family dynamics – I moved house a number of times, I lost a love – all of that kind of stuff. I just went there with as much vulnerability as I possibly could give the character.
It didn't take much preparation for Elliot to hit Jess' major emotional beats. "I was walking round like a raw nerve for most of last year, so everything was on the surface anyway; it was all right there for me to access," she says.
"Having a kid helps - going home and she's there and she wants to play or watch cartoons; you've got to come back to ground."
The Gulf opens with a young boy, haggard and thin, showing up on a country road at night on Waiheke Island. Officials identify him as a child who went missing five years ago, and Savage is pulled in to lead the investigation - despite her failure to uncover the truth when she worked the initial disappearance.
The boy's confounding reappearance is the first of three sinister mysteries that Savage and her fellow detective Justin Harding (Ido Drent) uncover over The Gulf's six episodes. Elliot says she's never seen anything like The Gulf in New Zealand and has rarely had the chance to dive headfirst into such an extraordinary character.
"I hate the expression 'strong female character', because nobody ever talks about 'strong male characters' but (Jess) is really well-rounded, she's fascinating and she's got levels," she says. "That's what excited me - this new challenge of playing a detective but also playing a mother and an addict – all of those multifaceted parts."
Elliot gave her all to Savage, saying that in one scene, which required her to explode in a burst of rage, she perhaps went too far.
"We were shooting a scene where I'm destroying a house, and [director] Robert Sarkies wanted to do it all in one shot. I started just throwing things and smashing stuff and just basically destroying this house. I swiped a whole lot of stuff off the top of a piano and the wall plug of a lamp swung around and hit me in the head.
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"I knew that something had hit me but I kept going and, during the scene, it formed into a large egg with a bit of blood," says Elliot, laughing. "Once we had finished the take, I just looked up at everybody and I was like, 'Is everybody okay? Nobody's bleeding?' And I could just tell by the look on their faces it was me that was bleeding.
"It was intense. It developed into a black eye that they needed to cover."
Meanwhile, Drent's character is fighting to bury his own demons. "He's not just a cookie-cutter cop," says Drent. "He's this detective with a quite complicated backstory that gave him texture and I found it really fascinating.
"We can run from our fears our whole life, and [Justin's] created this character through running away from his fears," says Drent. "What you see on the surface isn't necessarily always what you get. It's quite a manufactured persona, yet he carries it really well."
Drent spent time with real-life detectives and cops to prepare for the role, heading out on the beat and learning basic skills in order to flesh out Harding as a believable character. "It was amazing but crazy scary at the same time," says Drent.
As Savage and Harding worked through the mysteries together on screen, Elliot and Drent had to curate a careful, disconnected chemistry. "They're like two cogs in a machine and that's about as personal as they get," says Drent. "It's been a great experience and I've learnt a lot from [Elliot] - she's got one hell of a challenge with her character and it's really awesome to work alongside her."
"Ido's a pretty interesting character in himself," says Elliot. "We're like polar opposites, but I respect him as an artist; our politics are quite different and the way we look at the world is quite different but it's always good having a good scene partner to work against. I feel like quite often you're only as good as the person you're working with."
One to watch, says Elliot, is newcomer Timmie Cameron, who plays as Jess' daughter. "I could see Timmie developing as an artist before my eyes and it was a beautiful thing to watch," she says. "She has great skill and precision and poise; it's a really beautifully understated performance."
As is almost a requirement for any good crime show, the performers are playing against the most omnipresent character of them all - the setting. In The Gulf's imagining of Waiheke, the island is an enigmatic, almost gothic mystery; an isolated paradise where the distance from civilisation leaves room for darkness to grow in the shadows.
"Our Waiheke is a bit more like Great Barrier, or Waiheke in the 80s," says Elliot. "It's portrayed as a smaller community and not just full of people who are there for the weekend or at their baches.
"I personally think it's that idea of the water between. It's the Hauraki Gulf obviously, but it's not just the water - the space between people, or the space between things is where the tension is held."
Who: Kate Elliot and Ido Drent
What: The Gulf
When: Premieres August 25, 8.30pm