Nicole Whippy's just landed what might be her biggest role yet on prime time soap Shortland Street. She tells Chris Schulz why her "dream job" has come at the perfect time.
In mid-February, Nicole Whippy found herself in Doha. She was on a layover on her way to the Berlin Film Festival and she had time for a quick sleep and a bite to eat before she got back on her plane.
After checking into her hotel, the 41-year-old got a text. It was an offer from her agent: "Do you want to audition for Shortland Street?"
The role, a social worker and mother of two teenage children, instantly appealed to Whippy, who has racked up an enviable list of credits on many of New Zealand's biggest and best drama shows, including Jackson's Wharf, Nothing Trivial and Outrageous Fortune.
She replied immediately. "When I read the breakdown for Cece, I just went, 'Hell yeah, this is good'," Whippy tells Weekend. "As an actress, this is the type of work I want to take on.'"
There was one problem: Shortland Street's producers needed to see her audition that day. Whippy gave her phone to her sister Sharon, who she was travelling with and she filmed her right there in their Doha hotel room.
"We were in this tiny little hotel room trying to figure out what they would like," she says. "It was really bizarre because it felt so far away."
She sent the quick-fire video to her agent with a note. It said: "I'm sorry."
Two days later, she was at the Berlin Film Festival for the debut of Vai. The follow-up to Waru, which landed in cinemas here this week, is a collaborative project that tells the story of one woman's journey across the Pacific in nine instalments.
Whippy isn't on screen, however. She and her sister Sharon co-wrote and directed the 10-minute, one-shot vignette that opens the film. Shot in Fiji, where Whippy was born, she describes the experience as "absolutely life-changing".
Whippy grew up in Buckland's Beach, and says she rarely saw other Fijians. "It's something I've struggled with my whole life," she says. Working on the film has sparked a reconnection with her heritage: her daughter is learning the Fijian dance Meke, and Whippy's taking Fijian language classes.
In Berlin, as she posed for photos on the red carpet, Whippy's agent called with another message. Her Shortland Street audition was a success. "They want you. Can you make up your mind? They're all waiting."
It was a huge decision. The offer comes at a time when Whippy is busier than she's ever been. As well as Vai, she's been working on a kids show for TVNZ streaming platform HeiHei. She's starring in the sequel to Anne Hathaway's 2001 film The Other Side of Heaven. She teaches drama workshops for teenagers and has two children of her own, one of them a pre-schooler.
Her partner, Tommy Holden, is busy too: he's a co-founder of the popular vegan icecream brand Little Island.
"I've got lots going on," Whippy deadpans. The offer also surprised her. "I'm an older actress. My impression of Shortland Street was maybe I was a bit past it. Maybe it's something people do at the beginning of their careers."
Nevertheless, it didn't take her long to say yes. "I've never done [Shortland Street], and it's always been on my radar," she says.
The whirlwind wasn't over: it was just beginning. When she got back from Berlin, Whippy's agent picked her up from the airport and they drove straight to Shortland Street's West Auckland studio. She met the cast and crew, then had two days to recover from jet lag. She was in on Monday at 6.30am, ready to begin shooting.
A few weeks later, that's exactly where she is when she meets Weekend. As stars like Michael Galvin walk past and Benjamin Mitchell rehearses down the corridor, Whippy sips on a coffee - a long black - and smiles. She couldn't be happier.
"It's a dream job," she says. "I get a whole year with a character. You never get that. I get … to sit with this character and see where she goes, and because it's Shortland Street, she could go anywhere."
It's true: in the furiously fast world of Shortland Street, where they often film an entire episode in a day, anything could happen to Cece. She's arriving in Ferndale as part of the King family with dad Ben, son Louis and daughter Sophia. Whippy's already filmed her first scene with Galvin's character, Chris Warner. "That was bucket list," she giggles.
Beyond that, Whippy won't reveal too much about her role. But that grin of hers says a lot.
"I'm at that stage in my career where I'm like, 'Throw it all at me.' I'll direct a film, run a drama club, raise my kids … This is good for me. I thrive on it," she says.
"It is so the best decision I could have made. Everything has kind of worked out beautifully."
* Vai is in cinemas now. Whippy will appear in Shortland Street from the end of April.
WHERE YOU KNOW HER FROM
Xena: Warrior Princess
She was straight out of drama school and aged just 20 when Whippy landed her first role, a one-episode cameo as an Amazon Queen called Chilapa on cult action series Xena: Warrior Princess in 1999. "I took over from Danielle Cormack, [whose character] was killed," she says. It didn't last long: Whippy scored her next role almost immediately afterwards, on the short-lived, small-town drama show Jackson's Wharf. "I couldn't go back," she says.
Whippy had just missed out on a role on Shortland Street - "I was on hold, and I got released, and I was really bummed-out," she says - when she got the call-up for Outrageous Fortune. Whippy made the role of upbeat underwear designer Kasey Mason, Cheryl West's best friend and the future wife of Munter, so memorable it's hard to imagine anyone else playing her. A series regular, the show kept her busy for six years, from 2005-2010, as it rode the biggest wave of popularity a New Zealand drama show has seen. "I could never imagine my life not doing Kasey," she says. "It was meant to be."
Her last major primetime role was on Nothing Trivial as gossip-loving divorcee Michelle Hardcastle. The show followed a group of unlucky-in-love 30-somethings for three seasons, but ended in 2014 with a made-for-TV movie. At its peak, it was credited for rebooting the pub quiz industry. Whippy believes it's the role that most people recognise her for. "They usually go, 'Do you know my Aunty Sue?' They can't quite place me." She usually replies: "No, I don't know your Aunty Sue. I'm sure she's lovely." That's likely to happen a little more often once her role on Shortland Street begins airing.