Antonia Prebble on White Lies, her 'most difficult role yet'

Antonia Prebble is the star of TV3 shows Outrageous Fortune and Blue Rose.

Her latest role is in Dana Rotberg's film White Lies, based on the novella Medicine Woman by Witi Ihimaera.

Set in the late 19th century, White Lies is the story of a medicine woman named Paraiti who is asked to hide a secret which may protect one life but destroy another.

Prebble plays Rebecca, a wealthy, privileged woman that seeks the help of Paraiti in order to protect her position in European settler society.

Rebecca, her mother and Paraiti become players in a head-on clash of beliefs, deception and ultimate salvation.

Recently I interviewed Prebble to find out more about what she describes as her most difficult role yet.

When you read the script of White Lies, what part of the story did you most connect with?
I think it was just the tragedy of Rebecca's circumstances. That's what really resonated with me, I just genuinely see her as a tragic figure, who is a victim of circumstance and is just trying to do the best she can. I think there's always such a tragedy in that, where people are just trying to do the best they can but that isn't good enough. I really felt for her because I just thought, 'What else can this poor woman do?'

She's been brainwashed from when she was a small child to completely deny her identity. So I guess it was the issue of identity that really stood out to me, coupled with the relationship with her mother, which I think actually marry up relatively well. So much of your identity comes from not only knowing who you are but your relationship with your parents and how good, or difficult, that is. For Rebecca, she doesn't have a good relationship with her mum and she doesn't know who she is, because this kernel that we all have of wondering who we are is constantly being denied. It's almost like she's living this life in limbo of self, she's neither here nor there and that I thought is just so, so tragic. It's also difficult and fascinating as well.

White Lies is not really like a mainstream film. How would you describe it to someone who doesn't see many non-mainstream films and encourage them to check it out?
I'd call it a uniquely New Zealand story that is really important, primarily for New Zealanders, to watch. It talks about an area of history that is not often talked about on-screen, I mean obviously there's a lot of creative license and it's not like this particular story actually happened, but the ideas and the values surrounding the story definitely were around in the early 1900s. So in that respect it's a very important film to watch.

It's also really beautiful. The cinematographer Alun Bollinger did an absolutely amazing job, so there is cinematic beauty that is pretty unparalleled. A lot of the filming was in Ruatahuna which is a really pretty remote part of the country that is also quite heavily protected. It was a pretty special privilege to be able to film down there and put those images on screen. So I'd say viewers of this film will have a lovely experience seeing the beauty of New Zealand as well as being confronted with some pretty important ideas to think about.

Whirimako Black in White Lies

This is a very feminine film - all the main characters are women, and they're all dealing with entirely female issues such as motherhood. I love that, firstly because it's something we don't see enough in movies, and secondly, as a man, it's kind of like peeking into a world that I'm normally not privy to. How important was it to you that it was an entirely female story?
Often it is male stories that are told, not only in New Zealand but everywhere throughout the world. So it was really interesting and important to tell a female story. From my own perspective it was a wonderful environment to work in because I just felt so safe. If ever I was going to do a film like this, these circumstances were the best you could hope for because I was surrounded by women. The other actors, and the director, the head of make up, costume, and art department, were all women. So I felt very, very safe.

I think that also fed into the story because all the women in it and around the story totally understood what was going on they could all relate or at least empathise to a certain extent to issues around motherhood. So there just seemed like there was so much investment of a very delicate nature but also of the right kind, because everyone got it. So I felt like there was this wonderful cushion around me of these beautiful women who were all just equally as invested as I was in telling the best story we could.

Just to talk about your career in general for a moment, aside from White Lies - do you still miss the Outrageous Fortune crew? And has Blue Rose filled that potential gap?
To be honest, it feels like Outrageous finished such a long time ago now. Immediately after it finished I really missed it, I missed playing Loretta because she's such a great character. I missed everybody in that sort of nostalgic way. I wasn't overtly sad or grieving or anything, but it holds a very special place in my heart. But since then I don't know, everyone's kind of moved on to new things.

One of the things about the film industry or being an actor in general is you really have to throw yourself in to whatever role you're doing with your heart and soul, otherwise it just doesn’t really work. So whilst I see it like Outrageous holds a place in my heart and was a very special chapter in my life, I have sort of moved on because I've had to, I've separated from that and focus squarely and completely on each project as I do it.

Whenever I get to see the other actors - and I don't get to see them as much as I'd like to as they're all pretty busy - but when we're all together we just click like right back into place. That's really lovely, it's always just such a joy, seeing them. And I guess with Blue Rose, I don't know if it necessarily filled a gap that Outrageous had left, but it definitely was a wonderful experience reuniting with Siobhan Marshall, the writers and quite a lot of the crew were from Outrageous as well. So Blue Rose was a really, really delightful experience. I'm confident everyone on that show really enjoys themselves, it's a special experience. Every show feels different, so nothing can really fill the gap of a previous one but it builds upon the previous one and is still a great time in its own right.

In White Lies, your character Rebecca's first interaction with Paraiti is quite unpleasant. Rebecca is quite unfriendly, cold and racist. As a white Kiwi woman, was that a difficult scene, because it's reflecting an ugly part of our history?
No, to be honest I didn't have to struggle with having to do that at all. Some of the other parts to film were much harder to bring to fruition. That's not because I'm racist in any way! But I understand where Rebecca was coming from, you know what I mean? That for me is always what makes doing a particular scene either difficult or not, is knowing what the characters motivations are. And I feel like you can never judge a character because then you're not honouring them to the best of your ability. I really don't judge Rebecca. I really think she is a tragic figure, doing the best she can in difficult circumstances. So yes, she is racist at the beginning of the film and she feels like she's superior to Paraiti. She can touch her face, she can dismiss her, she can do whatever she wants because she feels she is so superior. But this is what she's been told since she was a baby. Every single day she's been told that white is better than brown. So I just think what else could she do? She's just responding to the 'truth' that she's been spoon-fed every day of her life. So whilst objectively it's difficult, challenging and confronting, objectively for her, in her self, she was just doing what she saw as normal. She doesn’t think there's anything wrong with what she's doing. That makes it all the more awful, that's what makes racism all the more awful in general, people just thinking it's normal. But in the actual acting of it, it made it quite simple.

Antonia Prebble and Whirimako Black in White Lies

Appearing on-screen naked for the first time must be difficult for any actor. What gave you the confidence to do that with this film?
It was a really long process for me. I met the director I think around two Septembers ago. She told me when I first met her that she had actually written Rebecca with me in mind and I thought that was amazing. I felt very honoured. I read the script and read the novella it's based on and saw there was quite a lot of nudity, and up to that point I'd always been really anti-nudity. I've just felt really modest and shy about going anywhere near that and haven’t wanted to at all. I had a blanket rule, I decided not go for roles that involved nudity, because it just wasn't my bag at all. So it was very confronting decision to have to make and it was a very long drawn-out process.

Dana the director, being a woman, knew it would be a big consideration to think about for me. So I went to her house and we literally had a seven-hour meeting and she fed me brownies, ice-cream, frozen yoghurt and we went though every single scene that would require some sort of flesh-baring. She told me why it was there, why it was justified and how she would like to shoot it. So then I was armed with this information, but I was still really unsure, and actually leaning towards not doing it, feeling I still wasn't ready for that sort of thing.

But she sort of gave me three months to decide, because three months from there they were officially getting their NZ on Air funding. At this stage they had only applied for it, I think they were pretty confident they would get it, but they didn't know for sure. So Dana said she had to know at the end of it so then we would hit the ground running if they got the funding. I went over the script again, I did lots of thinking about it, I did lots of talking about it to old actresses who'd done nudity. I did lots of talking with my family and I did a lot of research. I got out a lot of movies that have non-sexualised female nudity because I feel like there's a big distinction between the that and sexualised female nudity. That process really did take me two-and-a-half months. The distinction I made was if I accepted this role, I wasn't actually compromising my values, I wasn't falling down to a lower set of values - I was actually having to stretch up to something. It didn't compromise my values, it was just a challenge. And the reason it didn’t compromise my values was because it wasn't sexualised. I can't say in what context the nudity appears in the film because it'll give away what's happening, but the male gaze that it may attract is a very different kind of one to that which would be given to sexualised female nudity. So I just realised I was sort of ready for it, and said yes.

And then when we actually did it, it wasn't even an issue. There were so many other challenges in that movie that the nudity was fine. When we came to filming scenes with nudity, it was something I could easily achieve just by taking off my top!

So once you'd thought about it so much and made that decision, I guess you were very happy with that decision and didn’t have to second-guess once you were actually doing it.
That's right, I felt ready to do it, yeah. And I was very well-supported the whole way through, everyone was just so respectful, all of the crew and obviously the other actresses. I felt totally safe the whole time.

As you've indicated, you have to bare your emotions in this film too. Rebecca goes through a lot of anguish, physical and mental pain. That must have been challenging also?
It really was! Yeah, it really was. It was definitely the hardest role I've ever taken on, by any stretch of the imagination. I knew it was going to be when I accepted it, and it was. It was full on. That was a lot more difficult and required a lot more of a complex process than baring my body. So yeah, in the scheme of things the nudity was a complete non-issue.

Whirimako Black in White Lies

In decades from now when you're sitting in your rocking chair on the front deck, looking back at your life, how do you think you'll remember White Lies?
As a really challenging, but also quite profound and sacred time. I feel very proud and privileged to be part of such an important story and because of all the culturally significant issues that we were tapping into, particularity in relation to Maoridom, I feel it is sacred and delicate and had to be treated with the utmost respect. As a result of that it felt really, really special. I'm proud to be part of an important story like that, something I hadn't had much connection to prior, that's what still resonates with me and it feels like it's a very deep resonance, so I imagine when I'm rocking in my chair that'll still be lasting.

White Lies opens in New Zealand cinemas today.

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