Three years ago it was announced that New Zealand actor Zoë Robins would be taking on a lead role in Amazon’s massive production of The Wheel of Time. Now, finally, the series has arrived on screen. Sam Brooks talked to her on the eve of its debut.
It’s early morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in Prague and Zoë Robins is in full wardrobe, hair and makeup. She’s in the Czech Republic filming season two of a behemoth Amazon series that is pitched to run for up to eight seasons. I, meanwhile, am sitting in my dark Auckland apartment at 10pm, bleary eyed, wearing a presentable dress shirt over yoga pants and staring at her in a Zoom thumbnail. Six Zoom squares sit between ours, all publicists with their cameras turned off, eyes on the clock to make sure we don’t go over time. I’m one of many journalists that Robins will talk to today.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear already: her role in The Wheel of Time is a big deal.
We check off a few names before we get into the interview proper: The Actors’ Program (where she studied), The Basement (where she hung out), actor Michele Hine (who was and remains her mentor). When some New Zealand actors make it big, you often feel like they cut off their roots. The opposite is true of Robins, who hails from Lower Hutt. She’s deeply aware not just of the part these places and these people have played in her life, but how much it would mean to them to be acknowledged. She delights in doing so.
Robins is also deeply aware this role isn’t just a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s something that makes her a rarity among New Zealand actors. “Just to be involved in something like this is something that us Kiwis back home can only dream of,” she says. “It’s very rare and there’s so many talented, amazing, special artists that would kill to work on something like this.
“I still pinch myself every day.”
The Wheel of Time, written by Robert Jordan, is one of the biggest fantasy book series of all time, and has been described as a proto-Game of Thrones: there’s magic, there’s dragons, and there’s a big ol’ quest right at the middle of it. While there have been several attempts to adapt it, it took until 2017 for Amazon to greenlight a pilot. As a show of confidence, the streaming service renewed it for a second season a full six months before the first season even premiered.
The role of Nynaeve, a respected village leader despite her youth, initially came to Robins just like any other one: another email for an audition. Before she landed the role she was auditioning five to six times a week, sometimes even three times a day. She was offered the option to audition for both Nynaeve and Egwene (played in the series by Australian actress Madeleine Madden). In a choice that speaks to the work ethic that her teachers and mentors laud her for, she auditioned for both.
About a week later, she was on a Skype call – which shows you how long ago this was – with series showrunner Rafe Judkins. They spoke for an hour about the character, the story and his ideas for the series. “He was using vocabulary that I had to mentally ignore. He was saying stuff like, ‘you know when you’re in Prague and when we do this’. I just had to ignore it.
“I did have a little feeling that it was set in stone very early on, which was wonderful. I still have moments where I’m like, how is this my life?”
While The Wheel of Time is the first series of this scale that Robins has worked on, she’s been a fairly consistently working actor since 2014. She starred in Power Rangers: Ninja Steel, had roles on Shortland Street, The Shannara Chronicles and The Brokenwood Mysteries, and was cast on an ABC pilot directed by Regina King back in 2018.
Despite all those roles, it’s something else that she mentions as giving her the confidence to take on a role like Nynaeve: The Actor’s Program, an Auckland acting school. “Each day I would walk into the studios and just be petrified as to what was coming,” she says. “But that’s just a wonderful way to get used to the fear, the unknown and the unpredictable nature of this industry.”
Which brings the conversation to Michele Hine. A tremendous actor in her own right, Hine was artistic manager at The Actor’s Program until last year. Robins mentions her several times in our interview, always with a smile, as someone who has been in her corner from the very beginning.
Hine returns Robins’ effusiveness. “She was always truthful, and sat easily in her character’s reality, but what blossomed over her year with us was her connection, trust and joy. It was like watching a beautiful flower open, and she gained confidence in herself and others and that glorious smile of hers got wider and wider.”
Go back even further, to Robins’ stint at Long Cloud Youth Theatre Company, where many of New Zealand’s finest actors got their start, and that talent was already visible. Former Long Cloud artistic director Stella Reid, who taught Robins and directed her in several shows, also speaks highly of her. “I forget that my working relationship with Zoë was so long ago,” she says. “She certainly seemed older than her 18 years at the time, and she operates with the exact same level of professionalism in any interaction I’ve had with her since.
“Even from a young age she had a big gravitational pull, and I watched a lot of people happy to orbit around her.”
While her list of previous acting credits sounds like a dream for most actors in New Zealand, where “consistent employment” usually involves a show whose title rhymes with “Bortland Beet”, Robins has still had to fight to keep on going. She’s a woman of colour in an industry where our breakout female actors – Lucy Lawless, Melanie Lynskey, Anna Paquin, Thomasin McKenzie, to name a few – are overwhelmingly white. Keisha Castle-Hughes, Academy Award nominee, Game of Thrones player and current lead of a Dick Wolf drama, is the exception that proves the rule.
The scale of the opportunity presented by her Wheel of Time role – a lead role on a massive fantasy show with a huge inbuilt fan base, and another season already confirmed – is not lost on her. “I think it’s validation for a lot of us actors, and also New Zealanders, that it can happen. I think it’s also nice to feel like my persistence paid off. There were definitely times where I was like, ‘OK Zoë, what are you doing?’
“I could definitely feel that energy from family and friends, coming from a place of concern and love, but [in an] artist’s career and livelihood, there’s no guarantees of anything. Even after The Wheel of Time, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next. So I’m just taking it day by day – with the knowledge that this is incredibly special and a wonderful gift.”
Robins is an actor who, for all her talent, seems to have forced the stars into alignment through sheer willpower alone. “There were moments of questioning and self-doubt, but I think I’ve always held onto the possibility that this could all happen. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I was certain that I just had to keep persevering.
“I’ve always said to myself I’ll stop if I don’t enjoy it anymore, but it’s my dream.”
Late in the first season of Wheel of Time, Nynaeve has to be convinced to take up the call to adventure. The characters who come to her, Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) and Siuan (Sophie Okonedo), are two Aes Sedai, powerful women who can call upon magic to keep the world’s darkness in check.
Since the explosive events of the pilot episode, Nynaeve has had to leave her village, chase after her friends and deal with several lifetimes’ worth of arduous shit. She’s tired, but she’s resolute. She is not going to be walked over by these two sorceresses just because they have grand ideas for her. Robins taps into all of these emotions and comes thrillingly close to stealing the scene entirely away from her two Oscar-nominated screen partners.
In that moment, Nynaeve and Robins are the same: women embarking on one of the biggest adventures of their life, staring it straight in the face and saying: “Bring it.”