How Fern Sutherland is breaking out of Brokenwood

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Fern Sutherland never saw herself on the small screen, but the small screen found her anyway. Photo / Supplied
Fern Sutherland is earning her own international fan club with her small screen roles. As The Brokenwood Mysteries returns for a second season, she talks to Lydia Jenkin

By Lydia Jenkin

Fern Sutherland has the interesting honour of being one of our most internationally successful Kiwi actors, while remaining relatively unknown in New Zealand.

With her key roles in The Brokenwood Mysteries, where she plays Detective Kristin Sims, and The Almighty Johnsons, where she played a PR/secretary named Dawn, she has been seen by millions of people worldwide (Brokenwood airs in France, the United States, Denmark and Australia, while The Almighty Johnsons has played on TV in the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and Russia as well as on Netflix in many territories). And although she has slowly wormed her way into local consciousness, she's only occasionally approached in the supermarket.

"I can certainly walk around in Auckland and be totally left alone," she says with a laugh. "Though the other day I was doing my supermarket shopping and all these people were like 'Oh hello dear, I just love the show! Me and Ivan just think it's fantastic, and so nice not to have all that blood and gore and needless violence.' and I was just like 'Thank you!'"

She does a very good impression of the slightly older following she has earned with Brokenwood, but she has equally good anecdotes about her Almighty audience.

"Another day I was up in Ponsonby getting some liquor, and this guy wandered in off the street, he was a bit of a shambles, pretty rough, and he came in, and he was like 'Oh you're off that TV show, you're off The Almighty Johnsons. Oh man, I watched the first couple of seasons in prison, and then I got out, and thanks man, that really got me through prison, and all the guys in there loved it eh, and they loved you.' And I was like 'Oh wow. Thank you, that's awesome. You stay out of jail, okay!'

"Those are the extremes of my fans."

Sutherland has loved performing and telling stories since she was a kid growing up in New Plymouth, but she didn't know she wanted to be an actor.

"I'd never really identified that I wanted to be an actor as a child, but I was always enlisting my sister and neighbours to help me perform these shows that I devised, which were often a mixture of pop culture - there were often references to Baywatch and bad TV, all just mishmashed together. "I foisted this all on my good-natured family members of an evening, you know: 'Turn off the TV guys, because have I got a night of entertainment in store for you.'"

She was never particularly extroverted at school, certainly not the class clown, and not that involved in school productions. But there was one woman who took the after-school drama classes at Sacred Heart High whom Sutherland hugely admired, and who sent her down the acting path.

"I just thought she was absolutely amazing, Sarah Ashworth was her name, and I just thought, whatever she did to be like this, I want to do that, and that was when I decided I was going to go to drama school at Unitec when I finished high school."

So she went to Unitec, did her degree, came out the other side, and found herself getting theatre roles, working with Silo Theatre, and slowly finding her way. She never really considered TV or films at that point.

"To me it seemed quite inaccessible to get into screen work - I never thought I had movie star looks or was conventionally beautiful, and sort of thought, 'Ah well, I'm just a bit overweight and I eat too many fries and I drink too much liquor, and so TV and movies probably aren't the path for me.' And theatre was a good time, I really enjoyed it."

But then the producers of The Almighty Johnsons decided to take a bit of a punt on an unknown actress, and things have just kept rolling from there.

She has an appealing, eye-catching screen presence, but Sutherland credits her characters with her success so far.

"Both Dawn and Kristin are strong-minded females, they're both perfectionists, they're quite driven and they're both kind of funny but severely uncool at the same time - so that's sort of why they're funny.

"It's been great to play a character like Kristin though, because I think as females we're probably a bit sick of seeing the downtrodden females behind the guy. The great thing about Neill Rea's character Mike is that he is the leading man but he's not an arsehole, he's not a misogynist, and he totally trusts and respects Kristin's abilities.

"So it's great to play a character who doesn't have to use her sexuality to get what she wants, and has a really dynamic interesting relationship with a guy, an older man, that isn't romantic or sexual, it's totally platonic, they're just colleagues."

Continued below.

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In season one there was a bit of early tension between Mike and Kristin, as Mike was used to working on his own, and Kristin was slightly put out at having a new detective sent to work in her patch, but in season two they've grown more accustomed to each other, to their individual quirks and their strengths.

"I think she's still got a lot to learn from Mike. Kristin's pretty impulsive and a bit bolshie and she's not very good with people, she just wants to solve the crime.

"Mike's been around for a bit longer, and he's a bit more observant of human behaviour, and gets a good read on people.

"Kristin's good with the details, and being methodical, whereas Mike thinks about the big picture and is always noticing people's behaviour."

Despite Kristin's flaws, Sutherland loves playing a young woman who's punching above her weight, and has come so far in her short career.

"I really admire her because I don't think I'd be capable what she does - to be a detective at her age, she would have to be so good. So she's clearly very disciplined and hardworking and focused, which is something that I'm not," she says with a laugh.

"I really enjoy playing her, because she's kind of the conduit for me to be this quite impressive person, I think, which is really enjoyable - and then at the end of the day I go back to being Fern, which is slightly less impressive."

Sutherland is certainly self-deprecating when it comes to her own talents, but she's happy to talk about the wide-ranging appeal of Brokenwood, and why the easy-going small town drama has become a bit of a sleeper hit.

"It's a bit more relaxed as a TV show I guess, and it doesn't have the smugness of a CSI-type show. It does have a small amount of the procedural element, and people are interested in that, but the reality of police work is that sometimes it is actually pretty low-fi and not overtly sophisticated in the technological department - my friend is a constable in New Plymouth, and she says, 'It's not all test tubes and luminol!'

"And I love the humour. It's a tricky balance, you have to be careful about presenting these people as being too flippant and casual about what they do. But that is the reality of how they work - the ones I hung out with to do research were always making bleak jokes about dead bodies! It's just how you cope."

It's also the fact the drama is set in a small rural community that has made Brokenwood relatable for people across the world. Even if the storylines seem quite specifically Kiwi at times (this season they delve into the world of the local rugby club, the amateur dramatic society, the politics of the local fishing industry, and a dysfunctional country band) they connect with small communities everywhere.

"When it initially did really well in France I was like, 'There's got to be some kind of mistake - the French know how to make TV, what do they like about our show?' But the more I thought about it, France actually has many similarities to us.

"If you leave Paris aside, the rest of the country is a provincial heartland place with little pockets of communities and towns, and they all like to think that they farm better than the next town over, and that they grow the best grapes, and they have all these characters among them.

" There's plenty of people in the world who live in smaller towns and small communities, and they want to watch their story on the TV too."

Lowdown

Who: Fern Sutherland

What: The Brokenwood Mysteries season two

Where and when: Screens from Sunday, September 27 on Prime at 8.30pm. Encore episodes screen the following Saturday.

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