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Robyn Malcolm’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)
Robyn Malcolm’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureOctober 28, 2023

‘I still get called Mrs West’: Robyn Malcolm on the role that changed her life

Robyn Malcolm’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)
Robyn Malcolm’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)

The New Zealand television legend reflects on the legacy of Cheryl West, working with Jane Campion, and why she’s still haunted by banana skins.

Just like her Far North co-star (and fellow My Life in TV contributor) Temuera Morrison, Robyn Malcom is someone who has truly earned the right to the (extremely overused) word “icon”. She first made red cardigans cool as nurse Ellen Crozier on Shortland Street in the 1990s, where her character burnt down her house with a cigarette, thwarted murder attempts by her own sister and survived the dramatic sinking of a harbour cruise in the 1998 Christmas cliffhanger. 

While we’ve never forgotten that crisp Crozier uniform, it was the laced-lined leopard print of Cheryl West in Outrageous Fortune in the mid 2000s that would become her most recognisable onscreen role. The foul-mouthed, hardass Westie matriarch quickly became one of the most beloved local characters of all time, winning Malcolm a slew of awards and even spawning a nationwide search to cast Young Cheryl in the prequel series Westside.  

Robyn Malcolm as, from left to right, Cheryl West, Pam in This Town, and Ellen Crozier (Image: Tina Tiller)

As if the longest-running soap opera and drama series wasn’t quite enough, she’s also starred in Top of the Lake, Agent Anna, Upper Middle Bogan, Blackbird, Rake, This Town, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Far North. Her latest project is scripted series After the Party, which we recently called “the best New Zealand drama in years”. Malcolm plays Penny, a high school teacher and grandmother whose life implodes after she accuses her husband of sexual assault. 

After the Party begins five years after the horrific incident, with Penny living and working in a community that either doesn’t believe her or simply wants to move on. It’s a beautifully made, layered series that’s full of ambiguity and unresolved tension, and as the drama unfolds and viewers try to piece together what really happened that night, Malcolm hopes the audience will be pulled right into Penny’s complex, uneasy world. 

Peter Mullan as Phil and Robyn Malcolm as Penny in After the Party (Image: Supplied)

“I hope they feel like they’ve been through six hours of incredibly entertaining and involving drama,” she says. “You feel quite wrung out, but it’s very satisfying. It’s like you’ve had a really, really good meal.” Ahead of After the Party’s premiere on TVNZ1, Malcolm spoke with us about her favourite TV moments, including the legacy of Cheryl West, working with Jane Campion and how Get Smart taught her to never trust a banana. 

My earliest TV memory is… The moon landing. I would have been three, and I was sitting on my potty in our living room in Motueka. I remember the black and white, and the image on our little TV and the heater on, knowing there was something major going on.

My earliest TV crush was… Lindsay Wagner, the Bionic Woman. I was obsessed with the Bionic Woman. I was inconsolable when she died, my life fell apart. I couldn’t think straight for ages. This woman could do anything. I mean, Steve Austin was fine, but she was a total girl crush. Years later I had the same kind of crush on Sigourney Weaver in Alien, and it was like “this is the woman I want to be when I grow up”. 

The TV moment that haunts me to this day is… There was an episode of Get Smart when one of the criminals dressed up as a gorilla, and every time they killed somebody, they left a banana skin. I hid behind the couch, it was one of the scariest things I’d ever seen. I never looked at banana skins quite the same way for a long time.

The TV ad I can’t stop thinking about is… a Tabu by Dana perfume ad. Again, I must have been quite young because I remember thinking “what’s all this about?” It was kind of early 70s, kind of Farrah Fawcett, Vaseline on the lens, and she was looking very desirous of a man with his shirt off, chopping wood. I remember as a kid being quite, “ooh, is this about chopping wood?”

My most defining TV role was… Cheryl West from Outrageous Fortune. It turned my career in a completely different direction. I loved the fact she could be villain and hero, I loved that she was an absolute dick and did so many terrible things, but did them for the right reasons. She was equally comedic and equally dramatic and I got to play such a massive range of human experiences through her journey.

Cheryl got to drive fast cars, smoke, drink, shag lots of men, yell at her kids, love everybody and do terribly illegal things at times, and be whole. Of course, because the show was so popular with New Zealanders, I still get called Mrs. West and her nickname was Slutty Pants, so I still get that a bit, which is really funny. I don’t mind it. 

Robyn Malcolm as Cheryl West in Outrageous Fortune (Photo: Supplied)

My TV guilty pleasure is… The Super Models. When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with the idea of the beautiful woman, because I was short and round and played the cello. They seemed like an animal that was so far away from me, you know? 

My favourite TV project that I’ve ever been involved with is… I really loved Top of the Lake. Jane [Campion] is a master, and that collection of actors was just heaven to work with every day. 

The thing I wish people knew about being an actor is… It’s not for the faint-hearted, and the primary experience of most actors is rejection, which no one knows about. When we were auditioning for After the Party and I was watching all my colleagues come in, and every single one, I knew the journey they’d gone through. You spend two or three days with the script, you think about the character, you think about what you’re going to wear, you throw yourself into the emotional place of the character. Most of the time you hear nothing back, and most actors experience that 20 times a year. The reason we do it is because when we do, it’s amazing. It’s a real privilege to do it. 

Robyn Malcolm and Temuera Morrison as Heather and Ed in Far North (Photo: South Pacific Pictures)

The TV show that defined my lockdown was… I watched a lot of reruns, like Deadwood. I was obsessed with Deadwood.  I’ve watched that show three or four times. 

My most controversial TV opinion is… Sex and the City was a piece of shit. Do you know one of the reasons why we ended Outrageous Fortune the way we did? Having just seen the last episode of Sex and the City where they made all the women hook up with a bloke, I was like, “fuck that, let’s have Cheryl on her own”. 

The last show I binge-watched was… A Norwegian comedy called Norsemen. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It’s a pisstake of Vikings, and they pillage and kill and sacrifice and do all those things, but they have these really mundane conversations about life as they’re doing it. It’s on Netflix, and I don’t know why it didn’t get much traction. Honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

After the Party screens on TVNZ1 on Sundays at 8.30pm and streams on TVNZ+. 

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