For Shortland Street’s 25th anniversary week, Alex Casey interviews the soap’s longest serving extra.
In Ferndale, Dr. Mary Tompkins is a god among mortals. She was there when Luke Durville died of a brain bleed. She was on duty when a gunman unleashed hell in the cafeteria during the Christmas party. She treated a pilot after his helicopter crashed in flames in the car park. She’s only ever taken one sick day, and she’s saved hundreds – maybe thousands – of lives within the four walls of Shortland Street over the past 14 years.
She’s also never said more than six words in a row.
Known in her early years as Dr. Dorita Peters, Dr. Mary Tompkins is played by Shortland Street’s only character extra in the cast, Mary Eagleton. “The new name suited me just fine,” she laughed, adjusting her powder pink leather jacket with some seriously bejewelled fingers. Having done extra work on our longest-running soap for over a decade, as well as in Outrageous Fortune, Filthy Rich and Ash vs Evil Dead, Mary knows a thing or two about working the background.
In the lead up to Shortland Street’s big 25th birthday spectacular, I got her on her day off to give her the spotlight.
How did you get into this line of work all those years ago?
I was actually delivering a parcel for a friend of mine in Auckland city, and I didn’t realise at the time that I had walked into an agent’s office. I walked in, dropped off the parcel, and a lady said to ‘oh, you look like that actress Judi Dench… I’d like to sign you up to our books’.
I was very hesitant at the time because I had never done anything like before, but I’m a person who loves challenges so I just went for it. I signed up and within a few days I was on Shortland Street as an extra, within a few months they made me a doctor. There was a time, for about two years actually, where I was the only woman playing a doctor.
Had you been a fan of Shortland Street before you started work on it?
Yes, I was. I think it’s a great show and I’ve watched it every night since day one. I was a huge fan when I started, and my first day just blew me away. I think it’s very true to the New Zealand way. They bring in some great and progressive topics, which is good because there’s a lot of people watching that it can impact. Did you know when it first started, they didn’t give it two years?
Really?! I did not know that.
I’ll always remember that. People said it would be rubbish and look at it now – 25 years later.
How did you take to being an extra?
I was very nervous, but you get past that eventually. I love it now.
To a rookie, it’s very easy to forget how a normal person walks or holds their arms.
I’ve never looked at it that way. For me, I just really enjoy it and I’m so used to it. I’m at the point where the assistant directors just let me do my own thing, you know? I always throw a few little extra moves in, that’s just what you pick up over the years.
Have you ever had to deliver lines?
I’ve had a few lines of dialogue over the years. Sometimes I say things like “sure” and another time I had about six words that were quite medical. I had to stand in front of the director and say it over and over again in front of everyone. I was embarrassed, but it made me bring myself out a lot more and give more to the performance.
Who is Dr. Mary Tompkins to you?
Well, she’s certainly a very hands-on doctor. She loves looking after her patients, just like I love meeting people, and she’s fantastic under pressure.
And she’s never been fired!
Exactly. So many other great doctors have come and gone, but Mary has always been there.
What are your most memorable Shortland Street moments from the past 14 years?
When Sarah Potts died and Amanda Billing left, I cried a lot. That was big for me, because I had worked with her for 10 years and really loved working with her. That was the most emotional moment for me. All my memories from working with Pua and Robbie Magasiva are so much fun, they were always so bright and happy.
Are you a bit of a celebrity on the set?
I have actually had a couple of extras come up to me and tell me that I’m a legend. I don’t see myself as that at all, I get a bit embarrassed when people say those things to me. It is an honour when people recognise me though, I didn’t think anyone ever noticed the people in the background.
What tips and tricks do you have for fellow extras starting out?
Listen to the AD. Go with the rules. Don’t take photos. Don’t tell people what happens in the storyline. Don’t sit on the props.
I’ve always wanted to know this: what are you saying when you are mouthing words in the background?
People always ask me if I’m just quietly saying ‘blah blah blah’. I’m actually not, I’m talking real medical talk. I’ll say things like ‘your blood pressure is high’ or ‘we’ll have to do something with this shoulder’.
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That’s the sort of thing I’m miming, and most of the patients I’m working with can pick it up. When my husband was sick I picked a lot of the language up, and I learned how to do a lot of little things like taking blood pressure and injections.
Would you ever want Dr. Mary Tompkins to become core cast?
I have noticed that the main actors have started mentioning my name a lot more in the script, but I would never want a full speaking part. They would probably fire me! I would take it, but I’d be very apprehensive I would be sent down the road at any point. I’m happy where I am. I could do this forever if I wanted to.
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