"BEING A LEAD" (Part One)

Three years out of drama school Sara Wiseman landed the lead in the New Zealand series Mercy Peak. She carried the responsibility and workload of this role with a confidence and clarity of purpose that resulted in an extraordinarily successful screen performance. The reasons for her success were plain. Sara had a clear and simple view of her performance process and she was extremely well organised in applying her process to the task at hand. Despite this there was much for her to learn about the functioning of the television production machine and in this interview she shares the learning experience of being cast in the lead for the first time.

Sara Wiseman with CraigParker and
Allison Bruce (f/g).

Richard: To my surprise, I heard that you started off doing stunt work?

Sara: Yes, I did start off doing stunt work on Zena and Herc's (for five years Hercules and then Zena were shot for American network television from Auckland) with New Zealand Stunt Agency and whilst I was doing that I was doing part time acting classes. And then I decided to do full time study and so I had to give up stunt work because you are not allowed to take time off from classes. I then trained for three years and I only did my stunt work in the holidays while I was training.

Richard: Were you always going to be an actor?

Sara: I had always been into performance, like dance and stuff, and then the first real tug towards acting was when I was on Heavenly Creatures with Peter Jackson. I got to work on a set and to see how everything happened … and I was watching Kate Winslet work … that was when it really hit me hard … that I wanted to get in front of the camera.

Richard: Were you absolutely confident that you could do it?

Sara: Oh, absolutely not. I was terrified and I went into a state of depression (laughs) and decided that it would never happen because I had never done any acting. When I was in primary school I auditioned for Cinderella and got the Deaf Mute, that came on and bowed and walked off. They obviously thought that I couldn't do it. And it just took a lot of courage to even start doing the night-time class. Fortunately I found an amazing acting teacher whose technique was perfect for me at that time … it was all about coming from your own personal truth rather than from the text … so, I learnt and my confidence grew and I started taking different classes and then I eventually auditioned for a fulltime drama school.

Richard: So how long had you been out of drama school before Mercy Peak came along?

Sara: I graduated drama school at the end of 1998 and in that final week I started on "Street Legal" doing their pilot. From that I did some computer company work and some short films and eventually got "Jackson's Wharf" with SPP ….

Richard: So you went straight out of drama school into regular work?

Sara: Mmm, yes I did.

Richard: You were blessed weren't you?

Sara: Yes, I was. Very blessed. By doing "Jackson's Wharf" I was seen by the producers and the writers from here (South Pacific Pictures) and I was called into Tony Holden's office at the end of Jackson's Wharf and asked if I would like to look at a script for a project they were doing the next year if they got funding. So I read the script and they said they were interested in looking at me for the lead … but … there was a huge amount of down time … of waiting … six months of "Are you? Are you not?" …

Richard: And did you do an audition?

Sara: Yep, I auditioned.

Richard: So what was the audition like? It must have been different for you because you hadn't auditioned for a lead before?

Sara: It was extremely nerve wracking in the respect that I was initially offered the role and then that was withdrawn and they said, "The network want to see you go down on tape." So I got quite frightened by that. So … I went in and auditioned and it was not a great audition … I was quite nervous. I did a lot of silly things.

Richard: You felt it wasn't a great audition?

Sara: Yeah. And neither did they. They rang up and told me … they said, "It wasn't a very good audition!" (Laughs)

Richard: That boosts the confidence - doesn't it!

Sara: (Laughs) Yeah. And it's particularly good when the Network is saying, "Why would we pick her?" So, that was quite nerve wracking. So, I had to come back and do a different audition with a different reader. And then, it was a waiting game between two other girls and myself that they were choosing between. I finally got the call about four weeks after that second audition …

Richard: It was quite a long wait.

Sara: Yeah. It was a long time. Lots of gaps. And then I got a call saying, "If you want it, it's yours?"

Richard: The news we are always waiting for.

Sara: Yes! But by then it was about a good seven months since they first offered the part.

Richard: And this was about three years out of drama school?

Sara: Yes, it must have been about three years.

Richard: But with a fair amount of television work as well as stage work under your belt during that time. You were working quite regularly?

Sara: Yes, I was working quite regularly.

Sara with D.O.P. Mark Olsen

Richard: Two things impressed me as first images of you. One was your level of organization and the other was that on the screen and there was a wonderful optimism that you bring to your character. And I wondered where that came from? Was that something that came to you off the page or was that something you brought to it?

Sara: A bit of both, I think. When I read the scripts I had no problem seeing the type of character Nicky was. It was very clear to me. So that was a blessing. And it has just been a case of making the most of the scenes and the scripts that I had been given by Rachel (Laing - Executive Producer and Story Producer). Normally … I have always thought that it all should be in the script …

Richard: And this time you felt that it was?

Sara: Yes, I felt that … I felt that. Probably for the first time. (Pause) I suppose thats because it was such a substantial role I had a lot of information to go by … especially in the first one (episode)… so that was a blessing.

And as regards to optimism I am very aware that people don't want to see a down trodden person that is serious all the time and the moments that you can find a vast lightness are important … because it's such a serious role in regards to her profession - she's a doctor; she's very direct; she's very in control and all that sort of stuff … so those moments of silliness and those moments of vulnerability are essential and need to be sort out to keep the balance.

Richard: So you actively look for them?

Sara: Yes, I look for those moments.

Richard: And you enjoy playing them?

Sara: Yes. Love it. Absolutely. I love playing the silliness and the absurdity. Those moments of relief where people go "I like that moment rather than er …er … er …drama … drama … what's going to happen next?"

Richard: Yes we do. We like those moments.

Part Two of this interview Sara Wiseman recounts the experience of starting pre-production, for the first time in the lead role of a series .



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