She's Cheryl West, she's Ellen Crozier, she's the woman who makes headlines for throwaway jokes online. Sam Brooks for The Spinoff talks to Robyn Malcolm, actor and activist.

There's nothing more compelling on a New Zealand screen than Robyn Malcolm wanting something. Whether it's Cheryl West trying to get a lingerie business off the ground, Ellen Crozier shaking her sister Carla to get back to her job after a truck has bowled into the hospital, or as Pam in the just-released Kiwi film This Town doggedly protecting an innocent woman from someone she believes to be a murderer.

When I start talking to New Zealand's most recognisable actress – give or take a Lawless – at a Kingsland cafe, her dog barking at skateboarders close by (she explains that her dog thinks they're sheep), she mentions that she loves a soapbox. Her first soapbox of our conversation? Trolls. "They're sad, lonely people. Trolling is a real thing and you kind of go, 'You really want it to hurt.' And they do sometimes, they can really ruin somebody."

Malcolm has always been outspoken. Throughout her career, she's spoken out against ageism, sexism, and most notably, she was the face of NZ Actors' Equity – now Equity New Zealand – during the Hobbit Law debacle. It was the last one that earned her a lot of ire, and the following years were no doubt galvanising for Malcolm. Not only was she proved right, but the general line of thought around that fiasco was that, yes, our country had changed our employment laws at the behest of a Hollywood studio (for three films that are barely remembered now, and when they are, with markedly less fondness than their predecessors).

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Her latest controversy was when she said that Gandalf should be a kuia in the Amazon Lord of the Rings reboot/readaptation, which was picked up and breathlessly reported by local media. "I said that as a semi-joke, but I got seriously trolled. Every now and then someone would write an essay on why Gandalf had to be an old white dude and they put the thought it in, and I'd go, thanks, that was smart, and I don't agree with you, but I love the fact that you wanted to engage in a conversation as opposed to saying, well, you've never done anything."

It's the kind of thing that makes headlines because Robyn Malcolm is so beloved, and recognisable. If your average nerd said that on Twitter, nobody would blink an eye. But that's Cheryl West, that's Ellen Crozier, that's the lady who was on the news talking about actors' rights saying that, and getting screamed at for saying it.

Although This Town is ostensibly a dark romantic comedy about the relationship between Sean (David White, who also directs), a man who was accused of a David Bain-esque crime many years ago and Casey (Alice May Connolly), the hapless, head-over-heels girl in love with him, the film really belongs to Malcolm. The relationship is sweet, but it's Malcolm's dogged, Moby Dickian-like pursuit of Sean that forms the emotional core of the film. Pam could be a joke on the surface, given that she's an ex-cop who now runs a petting zoo, and the general tone of the film, but Malcolm's performance turns her into something akin to a funnier, more sympathetic version of Javier Bardem's character in No Country for Old Men (you know, that famously sympathetic character). By sheer strength of charisma, commitment and some classic old fashioned good acting, Malcolm claims the movie as Pam's. The romantic relationship is the dressing, but Malcolm's performance is the meal at the centre, full of nutrients and all the good stuff.

White raves about her performance, understandably. "Robyn really is one of the most versatile actresses in New Zealand, so there was no one else who I wanted to play Pam. What I didn't realise is how much she would throw herself into it, and how much she'd have fun with it. I would quietly ask if she was okay with wearing all khaki, and she would respond so enthusiastically to it. Then when it came to shooting, she would inch her back, push out her belly, and be fully dedicated to it."

Robyn Malcolm is a rarity in New Zealand culture, someone around whom an entire project can be centred. She's one of the few actors who are equally recognisable as both performer and personality, equally loved and respected as both, although the latter's probably been a rockier road. She's also one of the few actors to create two on-screen roles that actually earn the label iconic: that of Outrageous Fortune's Cheryl West and Shortland Street's Ellen Crozier. Many actors have the chance to create one iconic, memorable role, but it's usually just on the latter (no shade to our sudsiest drama, some of the country's best actors have done their most memorable work on it). To pull off the double trick is near impossible – least of all because so few actors are afforded the opportunity to play one great role, let alone two.

Which is to say nothing of the huge amount of work she's had overseas, especially notable for a local actor who is still mostly known to us, as a local actor. In addition to a meaty role in Top of the Lake, she's had regular roles in Australian dramas Rake and Upper Middle Bogan, and has been dotted around in other shows such as The Principal, Wanted, The Code, Wake in Fright, Harrow and even a CW drama, The Outpost.

At home, she is known not just for her screen acting, but her advocacy. For a long time now, Malcolm has fought to improve New Zealand actors' rights, which have been judged among the worst in the world.

Robyn Malcolm joins protesters as they march against mining up Queen Street in 2010. Photo / Getty Images
Robyn Malcolm joins protesters as they march against mining up Queen Street in 2010. Photo / Getty Images

Eight years ago, it was reported that the average income for a New Zealand performers (actor, dancer, other entertainer) was $26,500 per year. Little has changed since then, even an actor who is core cast on a high-end drama might not be making minimum wage even you spread that pay cheque out across a year, and being cast in something is no guarantee of future work. Malcolm thinks that we're still suspicious of actors as a culture, which was backed up by people's response to her during the Hobbit dispute. "The number of times I got screamed at 'narcissistic w*****' and stuff like that was intense. The thing that they never got is that this is not me after work going and having a bit of a play, this is my livelihood, this is my income. I take this really seriously," she says.

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"And what did people do during lockdown? We all looked for story, we all looked for stories. I really hope one of the positives that might come out of this awkward time is that there'll be some real value placed on what we do. One of the positive things that might happen because of Covid is that we've become a quite desirable place to shoot, and I know that there are workings afoot from all the various funding bodies to work together to help get more, and I hate this phrase, content. Content, content, content. It's like, what's in your bag? It's content. Do you know what is it? No, it's just good content!"

Malcolm is especially keen for there to a be a quota system for New Zealand actors in international productions that shoot here. A quota system would require that productions filming here use a certain amount of locally-based actors. Australia has such a programme. The idea is that actors based there have a "fair opportunity to gain employment in film and television productions shot in Australia". It's ripe for adoption across the Tasman, she argues.

"Obviously when you're making a movie you want to put actors in that are going to bring money, so you want a superstar. But the way that superstars are created is they have to start with a little job that gets noticed, and those roles are the jobs that are going to do it."

Malcolm says she counts herself lucky to have carved out a career despite the odds. "The lucky thing is that I found something I loved when I was a teenager, and I've managed to make a career out of it. That's especially lucky in the arts because we're not Europe, and we still don't take our arts seriously in the whole grand scheme of things, so to be able to make a living, buy a house, have kids and keep a career going is great, because the attrition rate in our industry is brutal," she says.

"I've made the decision to stay, probably against better judgement, because I just couldn't bear the thought of not doing it."