Australian actress Lena Cruz, who plays Shortland Street's new clinic director Sofia Martinez, has wasted little time stamping her mark on the series, as FRANCES GRANT reports.




She came from left-field and it was game over. While the insiders were busy with their power struggle, in strode Sofia Martinez and announced herself new director of Shortland Street clinic.



Gobsmacked faces all round. Last year's finale of the soap was awash with them. Ms Martinez, independent businesswoman and hotel group manager from the Philippines, had arrived.



No need for reception to show her the way to her new office. "I'm aware of the layout of the building," she said. Telling first words. Martinez gives, not takes, directions. When the soap resumes this week, she'll be the one calling the shots.

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Failed clinic potentates, young Nick and mortal enemy Dr Frank, aren't the only ones shocked by the strength of their new boss. The woman who plays her, Australian actor Lena Cruz, is also dazzled.



"God, she's got balls, that's all I can say, she's so strong," says Cruz. "And I'm a bit in awe of her, thinking, 'Wow, I wish I could be like that sometimes'."



The character's background was tailormade for Cruz, who immigrated from the Philippines to Australia with her family when she was 16.



With a "huge extended family in Manila and all over," she still has strong ties to her native country.



When auditions were held for new talent for the soap from across the Tasman, Cruz didn't think there was much point in putting herself forward.



"Because, I thought, it's a soapie. I was thinking of Melrose Place - they're all going to be blond and blue-eyed, that kind of look."



But when she helped a drama school classmate rehearse for the auditions, Cruz thought she might as well have a go herself.



"It's always like that, the ones I don't think I'm going to get, I get. It taught me a lesson, just do it."



Once a fan of American soap Dynasty, Cruz had great expectations of the role she was surprised to land. "I loved Alexis Carrington and I thought she was going to be another Alexis character, but she's not."



Disappointed?



"No, because Sofia has got a heart," she says, then qualifies the claim: "A little, little one."



With a heart that minuscule, is Ms Martinez going to be the Shortland Street character we'll love to hate this year? "She knows what she wants and she's not scared to go after what she wants. But she's not a bitch, I don't think." Pause. "She can be a little bit, yeah, yeah, yeah."



Ms Martinez has wasted no time in putting her mark on the place, as viewers will discover. "I've had my first bedroom scene and my first kissing scene - just shot it," says Cruz.



"And I thought, 'I hope my mother doesn't see this,' because it was pretty racy, yeah. I was like, 'My mother's not going to see this, that's for sure'."



Family and friends back home are already clamouring to see tapes of her performance.



But what attracted Cruz, aged "around 30," across the Tasman for a role in a Kiwi soap?



"Because I really, really wanted to get into television and film ... this is a great opportunity, I'm telling you. It's like a hands-on experience, you learn everything from scratch. It's great, I get to talk to everybody, see how it all works."



Cruz started training at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, after ditching a career in accounting to concentrate on her first love, singing.



She graduated with a bachelor's degree in musical theatre and immediately landed a principal role in a Western Australia Opera Company production of The Threepenny Opera. She is performing a one-woman cabaret show, called I'm A Stranger Here Myself, in the Wellington Fringe Festival in March.



Yes, we can expect her Shortland Street character, too, to burst into song on the soap sometime later this year, she says.



That background in accounting is coming in handy, however, when it comes to talking the talk.



"Blah, blah, blah," says Cruz, demonstrating her grasp of the essential meaning of management-speak.



And it helps, too, with walking the walk. She's used to wearing business suits. But how many pairs of shoes does her character, power woman from the Philippines, possess?



"Oh, Im-el-da!" shrieks Cruz. "Not quite! Oh God, no! No one can beat Imelda - that woman, oh no, no! But she loves fashion just like Imelda. I know women love fashion in general but in the Philippines, especially those women in power."



Apart from her dress-to-impress credo, however, Martinez' style is not typical of the businesswoman from the Philippines, she says.



"I've met a lot of strong Filipino businesswomen and you know, when you look at them you think, 'Oh, they're so soft and they wouldn't hurt a fly.' And you sometimes think, 'God, do they know anything?' But boy, if they decide on something, they're very strong."



Ms Martinez does not bother with the soft facade. "She is very out there."



Just how out there, the Shortland Street fans will soon discover. One poor, misguided male character is about to try to take her for a ride.



The new boss knows how to handle men and then some. Mother Cruz, better shield your eyes.




Who:

Lena Cruz



What:

Shortland Street



Where:

TV2



When:

Monday, January 10