For years she was Cheryl, everyone’s favourite out-there westie mum in Outrageous Fortune. But now Robyn Malcolm is back on our screens with an entirely different persona – and she’s loving it.
“Last year was about chaos, which was fine by me,” says Robyn (47), who stars in TVNZ’s newest drama, Agent Anna, which starts next week. “I’ve always defined myself as a mother and actress. If those two sets of shoes can be filled most days in some ways, I am very happy.”
After a great break with the kids over the holidays, doing family stuff in both the North and South Islands, Robyn says she’s more relaxed than ever. “Every year, the holiday period reveals what the new year’s resolution should be: ‘Slow the hell down!’” she says.
“Suddenly, after the craziness of Christmas and New Year where everything feels like a vertical rollercoaster to complete insanity, there’s this great pause and nothing matters except food, sleep and the beach, and you get to have extended conversations with your kids about polar bears and thunderstorms. Every year I promise to stick to that pace of life and every year, usually by February, I’ve failed. This year looks like it will follow the same pattern.”
For this mother of two, 2013 has begun in earnest. With work under her belt, including Oscar winner Jane Campion’s much-anticipated South Island TV series Top of the Lake, Australian comedy-drama Rake, and Melbourne comedy Upper Middle Bogan (co-starring Kath & Kim’s Glen Robbins) she’ll spend the next few months touring the world before returning to New Zealand and theatre later in the year.
Currently in Utah for the independent film festival Sundance, she’s then off to the Berlin film festival, followed by a trip to the UK, where she’ll meet with her new British agents. “I’m all over the show,” admits the former Outrageous Fortune star. “When you are part of a long-running series, work is regular, secure and local.”
But contrary to some people’s beliefs, Robyn hasn’t been sitting at home, jobless and bored for the past year. “I’ve played about 10 different characters across lm, television and theatre since I finished up with Cheryl. Cheryl West is well and truly dead!” she laughs.
“It’s odd – in New Zealand there’s this impression that I’ve given up, or the career’s taken a downturn. The reality is simply that I’ve worked less in New Zealand and more in Australia. Most actors function this way, moving from character to character – not functioning as a celebrity the way you do when you stay with one show for a long time. So I feel like I’m back in the swim of things.”
No matter what else is going on, her sons, Charlie (8) and Pete (6), are the most constant and important thing in the single mother’s life. Like many parents, she finds that as her children grow they are becoming better company all the time. “They are great just to spend time with,” she smiles.
“They are becoming such marvellous, hilarious company, and they remind me what is truly important. Sometimes, when I have my head in a script, Charlie will say, ‘Mummy! Stop it! Look at me. I need to tell you some stuff.’”
Life has become much easier since the family moved closer to Auckland’s city centre. “I’ve been a 40 minute drive from central Auckland since 1995, so this is a wonderful, life-changing shock!” she says.
“People visit, we can walk places and take the bus or train. The kids and I wander up the road for Sunday-night dinners, then wander home again. We’re near the bike track by the motorway so we bike places. Plus, geographically, we are really close to Allan [the boys’ father] which is a bonus.“
Inevitably, the boys have experienced fallout from Robyn’s busy life and she’s glad the move has helped her make changes. “I’ve felt huge pangs of guilt around the fact that this is Charlie’s third primary school in four years,” she admits.
“Despite my ease with chaos and change, I shouldn’t necessarily subject the kids to that. I’m lucky they are accepting, social little creatures and they’ve coped brilliantly. One thing I can rely on is that they know how to tell me when they are over it. The other day Charlie threatened to fire me from the family, which I guess gives you a sense of the power structure we exist under.”
When she’s away working, the boys stay with their father. “They have a blast with him, so when I go away they see it as a treat. Skype [the online video phone service] is magic – just before I was doing homework with the kids on Skype. I love it as it keeps things weirdly normal.”
While the actress’ breakneck pace wouldn’t suit everyone, Robyn can’t imagine it any other way. “These days I feel much more relaxed, which is odd because life is less secure. But I’m used to that. To be honest, if I had a regular life I’d probably lose the will to live,” she says. “I like not knowing what’s around the next corner, which is good because I never do. A motto of mine is that you can always count on change.”
And we’ll see that change on screen. Robyn’s latest creation – crazy real-estate agent Anna – is a world away from Cheryl. “I wanted to make a show about real estate. I’ve bought and sold a few houses and I’m fascinated by how agents think,” she says. “Anna is a hopeless cot case and a terrible mum, but she has this hope that one day something might go her way. It’s pathetic and funny and oddly heroic.”
Even by Robyn’s standards, her life is hectic, especially when you throw in last year’s house move and a very public drink-driving conviction that made her re-evaluate herself. “It’s something many of us have experienced and the smart among us – of which I was not one – know when to call a cab,” says Robyn, who lost her licence for six months last August on a DIC charge.
“I won’t get behind the wheel, even after one glass of wine. I’m paying for it as, rightfully, I should. I was furious with myself. I simply should have known better. Drink-driving is a hell of a problem here and causes enormous pain and grief for families. I feel sick that I contributed in some way and am part of a shameful statistic.”
Typically for Robyn, there’s no cloud without a silver lining. “The odd upside of the DIC has been walking everywhere,” she smiles wryly. “I live centrally and can get to everything on foot. The result has been a gentler pace of life, more fitness and less petrol use. I’m a convert. I’ve resolved to keep walking even after I can drive again.”
With so much work available in Australia it’s inevitable that the question of moving there permanently will arise. Would she consider it? “Yeah, I love it. Melbourne is pushing some pretty big buttons right now. I love the graffiti and the food is amazing.
At the moment it’s working to travel for my job, but I do feel guilty about all the air travel. Ultimately I have to feed the kids and pay the mortgage, so wherever I can do that, I’ll go. But I’m also committed to here. New Zealand stories have been my livelihood for 20 years and I’m passionate about us as a culture.”
At 47, Robyn has developed a philosophy to survive the daily grind. It’s advice she’s happy to share with other busy women: “Get sleep and a flu injection. Walk, be lazy when you can, and self-forgive, regularly. Stick notes on the fridge and chocolate by your bed. Laugh: none of it’s that serious. And always remind yourself that relationships with people are key.”
Catherine Milford and Paul Little