Former Whangārei woman Jess Sayer has been described as one of New Zealand's most exciting playwrights and actors. She plays one of the starring roles in the new telefeature, Runaway Millionaires.

Jess Sayer isn't allowed to talk about her role or the movie she's starring in, which will be screened as a TV mini-series later this year.

There has been a great deal written and said about the movie's subject however, a story closely based on a true-life, international news headlining tale.

In Runaway Millionaires, Sayer plays Kara Hurring, the woman at the centre of the "theft" of $10 million mistakenly placed in the bank account of her partner, Rotorua petrol station owner Leo Gao, their flight for a new, secret life, and the international hunt for the pair.

Jess Sayer with her dark hair dyed red in her role as Kara Hurring.
Jess Sayer with her dark hair dyed red in her role as Kara Hurring.

Gao had asked Westpac for a $100,000 overdraft to prop up his business, but with too many noughts added, it came in at $10 million.

The story of how the couple disappeared with their ill-gained fortune gripped the world for some time, and they were dubbed ''the runaway millionaires'' by the media.

It was two years before Hurring was tracked down, by which time she had been abandoned in China by Gao, who had taken what money he could after their ill-gotten funds were frozen and run.

With the police closing in, and her 6-year-old daughter with her, red-haired New Zealander Hurring was alone in a strange land, hunted and penniless.

It would later be revealed she had left an infant son in China. In August 2012, in the Rotorua District Court, the then 33-year-old was sentenced to nine months' home detention and ordered to pay $11,830 in reparation for her involvement in absconding with and spending some of the money.

Hurring had been found guilty by a jury in May that year of 25 charges of theft, three charges of attempting to dishonestly use a document and two charges of money laundering.

What Sayer can say about the Runaway Millionaires movie, being made by Fearless Productions, is that she worked closely with Hurring to find her character, and said there was something special about being part of telling a true story.

"I've felt it since my first audition. Kara's done a huge thing — sharing her story with us — and it's been an honour working with this team to bring it to life," Sayer told the Herald's entertainment section, Spy.


Hurring and Gao struggled to keep up their lifestyle during their life on the run, she said.

It's certainly a doozy of a story and, a skilled playwright herself, Sayer might well have pulled it out of her own head and written it as an edgy, dark comedic tragedy with a touch of pathos.

Her own writing has been described as ''razor sharp'', ''brave'', ''absorbingly dark'' and ''not for the faint-hearted'', with the ''ability to be off-hand and flippant, then hard-hitting and punishing, sometimes within the same sentence''.

Not yet 30, Sayer has excelled in theatre and television.

She has written children's plays, serious theatre, and her tele writing, co-writing and acting credits include Shortland Street, Almighty Johnsons and Outrageous Fortune.

She wrote and acted in the web-only, three series Auckward Love, co-created by Holly Shervey and Emmett Skilton, which debuted in 2016 and quickly became among TVNZ's highest-rating OnDemand shows.

The show revolved around the chaotic lives and loves of four 20-something flatmates in Auckland. The subject alone would be ripe for a hilarious, bitchy, rich, feast of hell-sisterhood, but any subject needs to be well handled. The show's success was due to its quality of writing and acting.

Sayer, a former Kamo High School head girl, wrote her first play, Fix, as a way of coping with her parents' difficult divorce.

Fix was a fiction and not about the family events. She was persuaded by a friend to enter it in Playmarket's "B4 25" playwriting competition, and won the 2011 award.

''I was quite shocked because I had no idea about what I was doing,'' she said later.

''I just wanted to make sense of things that had happened and I am interested in how people cope when they're on the knife-edge of sanity, which is the scenario in this play.''

She went on to win the "B4 25" playwriting competition three times, and has twice been shortlisted for The Adam NZ Award.

In 2015, aged 25, she won the prestigious Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.
It was, she said, ''A game changer''.

She told the Northern Advocate it was amazing, humbling and ''unreal'' to receive the award and a huge honour to win an accolade that has previously gone to some of the country's best-known playwrights, including Hone Kouka, Briar Grace-Smith, Jo Randerson and Arthur Meek.

She is comfortable either playwriting or acting - even when it is just to help pay the bills. (Recognise the young woman from Lotto's clothesline-shifting family?)

Sayer, who left Kamo High School planning to be a journalist, said during one interview that she got into the writing and acting world ''by accident really''.

''I was halfway through my bachelor of communications and a group of us went to see Creditors by August Strindberg. Long story short, I fell in love with everything about it and I decided I needed to leave uni immediately and become a playwright.

''I thought drama school might be a good way to learn to write … so after uni (Mum convinced me to finish the course) I auditioned for The Actors' Program. I got in and now I couldn't imagine doing anything else.''