Eli Mathewson talks to Bree Peters, who plays the evil child-stealing murderer Pania on Shortland Street about being a soap villain.
Last Thursday at 7.29pm, as Pania Stevens made the impulse decision to hijack Kylie’s car and kidnap TK’s toddler Tillie, was the exact moment that all of Bree Peter’s future nannying jobs ceased to exist. Since the age of 17, Bree has been nannying to support her acting career. After a few months of ruthless behaviour on Shortland Street, that chapter of her life may have just come to a firm close.
“Literally, people in the street pull their kids away from me,” she tells me on the Sunday before the kidnapping episode screens. We’re hanging out in the back room of the Gypsy Tea Room, with one of the bar staff coming in every five minutes to tell us there’s a 30th birthday coming to kick us out any minute.
Today we are not interrupted by any crazed Shortland Street fans – but it has not been an easy few months for Bree. Such is the extent of hatred towards Pania, and therefore Bree, that the Shortland Street publicity team had to get Bree on a kind of “Hey I’m a real life person with feelings” publicity tour, smiling alongside Kerry-Lee Dewing on Breakfast to prove she is not really trying to kill her.
Take the briefest look at the Shortland Street Facebook page and you’ll quickly catch a glimpse of the passionate anger felt towards Peters’ character. Alongside, strangers have taken increasingly more to Facebook to praise her acting abilities. There’s no denying that she has brought the most memorable Ferndale villain to life since that nice new nurse started strangling people.
Not that villain is even the best word to describe the husband-killing GP. “That word, baddie or villain, is sort of an anathema to an actor,” she says. The most riveting aspect of Pania’s storyline is that she shows remorse for what she has done, looks turn over a new leaf and even admit the truth, but then does something even more ruthless. She’s not a typical baddie, she’s just a passionate person who will do anything to achieve her goals.
In case you’ve missed her storyline so far: Pania fell in love with TK and murdered her husband Caleb, also best friend to TK. As he was a recovered drug addict, Pania first manipulated him into overdosing on prescription pills, then injected poison into his drip. After destroying all the evidence by swapping his body with one due a quick cremation, she stalked and poisoned TK’s girlfriend Kylie. Most recently, she kidnapped his daughter Tillie and took her to a cliff face. It’s been awesome, Shortland Street at its soapiest (and best).
It’s a far cry from the brief Bree originally received, whilst performing in the zombie show Generation Z in the Edinburgh festival. Pania was described as “a happy go-lucky GP from down the line… speaks fluent Maori… is loving and loyal to her husband”.
Having worked on the set of the show for a few years and been very nearly cast before, Peters didn’t think too much of it. But pretty soon she was back in the country at her old workplace, on the opposite side of the camera. Her previous job on Shortland Street had been coaching people about the lightening-fast production schedule – each scene is given about 20 minutes to shoot in the schedule. Now, she had to put the techniques she’d taught others into practice herself.
“Having made that switch from crew to cast, I was already worried about everyone looking at me, worried that I’d slow things down.” To be completely prepared, Bree would learn the 29 scenes she would shoot that week over the weekend. She wanted no room to fail. Although she was already familiar with the process, it was still a struggle coming to terms with just how short each scene had to shoot. “When they wanna move on – I’ve got to be cool with what just happened, that’s going to go to air.”
Episodes are shot six weeks before they air, and the storyliners are only so far ahead of the actors. Bree had no real warning that the happy-go-lucky GP from down the line was going to become a killer, until a weird feeling led her to do some prying. “Around Christmas, I had a little bit of heat from people online… I just had this feeling,” she says. “And I went down to production and asked them ‘Do I do this?'”
“I was very reassured that I [Pania] wouldn’t do that kind of thing, that I [Pania] wouldn’t do anything very bad… Four months later I read the storyline, because I knew where to get them – I could do that kind of thing – I read ‘Pania kills Caleb’ and I was like WHAAAAAT?!“
If people were showing heat to her character already, Bree knew that it was only going to get worse when they saw what she had planned. Combined with the idea that her contract was ending, Bree was intitially freaked out. Over time, she used the fear to find a new freedom in her performance. “Once I accepted that it was out of my control, I thought what am I in control of? The choices in the scenes. Once I accepted that, it was a blast”
From there, Bree took the quick shooting schedule by the reigns and managed to spin the character’s breakdown into a memorable and electric performance. She would constantly make decisions in the moment, change her intention mid scene and get herself in as much trouble as possible. When Pania is on screen, it’s impossible to work out what’s going to happen next. She changes tack so quickly, opening up to someone one minute – then coldly manipulating them the next.
I asked Bree what films and television got her interested in being an actor initially. Her response was not your typical soap star answer: MacGyver, Magnum PI, Hook, Goonies, Stand By Me, Home Alone. A child movie buff, her local Cherrywood Video Store started giving her old tapes for free because she was spending so much time there
“I always wanted to be the boy because they did stuff,” she says. “The girls were boring, they didn’t do anything”. I asked her if she thought that was changing, if there were more girls ‘doing stuff’: “I dressed up at ComicCon three years ago as Katniss Everdeen. Finally.”
Bree’s dream projects are epic and action-filled shows like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, especially anything where she can do her own stunts. She craves something where she doesn’t have to wear Pania’s awkward 3/4 sleeve shirts and business skirts. On this particular day, she is dressed in a basketball singlet and jeans.
Bree did get one chance to do some stunt work on Shortland Street – a scene where Pania almost runs Kylie down in her car. She was meant to do a slow run and hand it over to the real stunt driver, but she wanted to do it on her own. “I just fanged the car and stopped right in front of the boss’ office” – only to find out afterwards that the car they had given her to drive was actually her boss’ car. She had also driven it way too fast for them to even catch it in the shot.
The 30th birthday arrives at the bar and we’re kicked out. With Pania’s storyline reaching its climax tonight on Shortland Street‘s hour-long special, Bree is looking forward to what comes next. All she knows for sure is that she won’t be nannying any time soon.
Shortland Street airs weeknights at 7pm on TV2
This content, like everything we do at The Spinoff, is brought you thanks to the excellent folk people at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.