By Jodi Bryant
Laurel Devenie was just settling back into life in her hometown of Whangarei when she got the call to play nurse Kate on Shortland Street. But, rather than choose between the two, she combines both lifestyles. She tells Jodi Bryant about her double life.
Excuse me, Are you that girl Kate off Shortland Street?" asks a man at Whangarei's Canopy Bridge.
"Yeah," smiles Laurel Devenie.
"Ahh, kia ora," says the man, clearly chuffed, before heading on his way.
Laurel, aka Kate, takes it all in her stride.
"It's actually really nice," says the 35-year-old. "I feel like it's part of the job and it's not about me, it's really about the magic of tv."
Laurel has played the role of Kate Nathan on the popular New Zealand prime-time soap for the last two and a half years. Raised in Whangarei, she attended Whangarei Primary, Intermediate and Girl's High. After being away a number of years, she had just returned north, moved in with her new partner and signed the lease on 116 Bank St as a performing arts/community space centre when she got the news she'd landed the role of Kate.
"It all happened so quick. I had just two weeks to start a year-long contract in Auckland."
But, rather than give up her newly-formed and adored Whangarei lifestyle, Laurel chose to combine the two.
Her weekdays on the Street begin when she drives to Auckland Sunday night. There she is based in a shared flat at Point Chevalier and, as well as learning lines, is available from 6.30am-6.30pm for hair and make-up and shooting scenes.
"When I first started, it hits you like a ton of bricks – it's exhausting. Shortland Street is a well-oiled machine that is unlike any other. It has the fastest turnaround television than any other in the world. I've really grown a respect for it," she says, adding that it is filmed two and a half months before being televised.
Laurel loved the show as a teenager and would watch with her mum with many of the actors becoming her idols.
Are there any divas?
"Actually no. You hear stories and there have been in the past but it's really chill. It's a lovely culture there. Over time I've got to know everyone well and I'm very close to Jen, who plays Leanne, as we share a dressing room. She is nothing like her character."
Which raises the next question: "How similar are Laurel and Kate?"
"In lots of way we are and lots of ways we're not. Often you are using parts of yourself. Kate can definitely be quite bolshie and put her foot in it, and I can do that. She's quite righteous too but also changes her mind and apologises.
"I love Kate. She's really staunch but extremely emotional. Kate's particularly nosy and gets involved. Sometimes you find yourself saying something and you think 'Kate, shut up!'"
And what about Kate's attire?
"Well, let's just say, I have a very different style to Kate," Laurel smiles.
Kate's main purpose was the mother of a transgender teenage son called Blue.
"It was really the first of its kind so a lot of it has been Kate coming to terms with accepting her daughter as a son, although I've had some other really cool storylines this year."
Kate's relationship with Mo Hannah means she works closely with his on-screen sons Curtis and Jack – a reflection of her own life with her partner and his two children.
"(In character), We're really a working-class family dealing with a lot of things. One minute I'm chasing a mystery virus around the Street, next I'm having a blind date and then I'm breaking my nose," she laughs, referring to Kate's recent uncharacteristic drunken night which ended in disaster.
"I actually cringed when I read it and you have to do these scenes (such as dancing) with no music but I loved breaking my nose."
Another highlight has been working with her dad, actor Stuart Devenie, who recently made a Shortland Street comeback as Kate's on-screen father.
"His character Neville was on the show a few years ago before I was. He's (Neville is) such a cad. Dad and I have done a couple of plays together before but we both thought this was pretty special."
With her mum a former actress, Laurel, an only child, grew up around theatre. The family moved to Whangarei from Christchurch when she was eight and she took part in school musicals and was involved with Northland Youth Theatre.
However, Laurel took the academic road and enrolled in university before realising it wasn't for her and taking some time out. She gravitated back towards drama, which confirmed this was her niche, so enrolled at Toi Whakaari drama school, graduating with a degree only to discover, like many actors, that life on the other side of drama school was a struggle.
"At drama school you're challenged beyond belief and you graduate and you're pumping but there's nothing, no pathways that you can see. It's a confusing time. It's like barren landscape.
"The first three or four years were really uncomfortable and poor. We put on a lot of shows in the Scout hall putting our skills to the test. I remember we had a booking line in our flat and we'd be busy making costumes on the floor. But I was learning how to produce, direct and initiate. I guess it just bled into starting to get work and I valued both things.
"I realised I was on the right track but there was a real moment where I was playing Russian Roulette with myself. I'd almost given up on acting because I was wondering how I could possibly sustain myself and got to the point where I had applied to do a one-month course for English language teachers."
Laurel had just withdrawn her savings and paid the non-refundable fee for the course when she decided to give her dream another shot.
"I made a commitment to make it work. I quit the course and any non-related jobs and decided, if I had to live on white rice and noodles, then I would but, whatever I did, it had to be related to the industry, even if it was sweeping the floors."
The phone rang the next day and she was offered a directing gig and, from there, everything started to flow.
A theatre-maker in every sense, Laurel has done gigs at theatre schools and production companies, including a solo play written just for her, which toured internationally, so she doesn't cite landing the Shortland Street role as her big break.
"I don't believe in big breaks. The notion of a big break implies that you're lucky. It's been a meandering and I see this as another amazing chapter. You spend a long time planting seeds and suddenly everything starts to grow."
One of these seeds is Company of Giants, a collective of theatre-making talent for which she is founder and director, and Whangarei-based ONEONESIX, which Laurel co-manages from afar after the company took over the Bank St building's lease in collaboration with the Whangarei District Council.
"It's an old-school community hall and we just wanted to save that building," she says of the vibrant community arts and performance space it is today.
There are now over a thousand people who use it every month and the latest production to show there is the Owl and the Pussycat, directed by Laurel on July 7 and 8. (See page 33)
With these projects ticking away, she doesn't exactly come home to Whangarei each weekend and relax. Then there's watching a week's worth of Shortland Street On Demand to critique her performance.
"It's really important to watch it because you learn a lot. You can see when you've nailed a scene and when you could have done more."
Laurel is aware her time on Shortland Street won't last forever but,
unlike many of her peers, has no ambition
to pursue the Hollywood dream.
"I think my work is here. We have a strong theatre industry and television is growing but you have to enjoy being part of the creation of it here. In New Zealand, it's not so much about the competition, it's about seeing how you can contribute."
And that's one of the things she loves about Whangarei, which she dubs the 'land of opportunity'.
"There is a lot to do here, a lot of gaps to fill. If you have an idea here, the chances are no one's doing it. I've done some of my favourite creative projects here because they're needed. It's a place not so much about competition, it's about contributing and I really value that."
She also loves the 'pockets of interesting people doing wonderful work in all sorts of areas'.
"I love the fact that you have to engage with a wide and diverse range of people in a town like Whangarei - in larger urban centres it's easy to end up socialising with people who are exactly the same as you but I enjoy the diversity I experience in my Whangarei community."
She loves the laidback, barefoot nature and actively enjoys Whangarei's assets each weekend, such as the loop, the parks, beaches and markets.
The 'Kate' recognition comes in waves.
"There's really specific places, like supermarkets, in particular, and places where there are lots of kids. Sometimes I hear whispers when I walk past or they will say: 'You look like that girl off Shortland Street' and I don't know how to answer. It's nice when kids come up for a photo but the thing about the selfie culture is often people just come up and want a selfie and don't want any kind of interaction," she muses.
And how has Laurel's partner, a media-shy internet technician, found her new-found fame?
"He's kind of rolled with it. He never lets me put photos of him on Instagram though," she laughs.