After success across the Tasman and chasing stardom in Hollywood, Westside’s Antonia Prebble is home, feeling more settled and sure of herself. The effervescent actress talks to Emma Clifton about the joy of her family Christmas, her surprising new role a
the Westside star’s Christmas at home and change of priorities
In a perfect, happy accident, Antonia Prebble has turned up for her Australian Women’s Weekly Christmas interview in an inadvertently festive outfit. A cherry-red dress with floral appliqué, her short, wavy bob framing that porcelain face. She’s darted home in between jobs; otherwise there was a risk, she laughs, of turning up in the safety-pinned vintage dress she was just shooting in for an ad. Such is the life of one of New Zealand’s most successful actresses; many roles, many outfits to fit into a working day.
But there has been a discernible shift, Antonia says, in her priorities in the past year; a change in the air now guiding her decision for what comes next. The potent combination of restlessness and ambition that has fuelled the 33-yearold for the past decade has softened, and her focus has shifted from the professional to the personal. Spending time with her family, as well as the idea of starting her own, has gone from being an in-the-distant-future idea to a closer reality. And this holiday period marks the beginning of not only being settled back in New Zealand, but also her first official appointment as a wedding celebrant, and her first Christmas as an official extended member of the Royal family. Yes, it’s been quite a year.
The royal treatment
Let’s start with the Princess Diana connection, because why wouldn’t you? We’ve seen Antonia on both the small and big screen in a variety of shows, including the leather-clad Rita West on the television show Westside, where she plays the grandmother of her most well-known character, Loretta West from smash-hit Outrageous Fortune. But there’s another
My definition of success is broadening from what it used to be.
family tree Antonia belongs to that rates even higher on the household name factor. In the TV programme DNA Detectives, hosted by Rocky Horror Picture Show writer Richard O’Brien, well-known Kiwis trace their genetic lineage and visit locations around the world to which they have a surprising link. For Antonia, her episode proved a whisper her grandmother had always insisted upon: their family had royal blood. “It’s the jewel in the crown, so to speak,” Antonia jokes, in a faux-prim royal accent, about the discovery. Her nana had kept a crucial newspaper clipping in her rest home, about the random Lord who was the alleged connection, but the family were never really sure if it was true.
The DNA test confirmed it: Antonia is indeed related to Princess Diana and her sons, William and Harry. This knowledge hasn’t necessarily changed her life – she admits that she usually skips past stories on the royals when flicking through women’s magazines – “but now that I know I’m reading about my relatives, obviously I have to keep up with what’s happening in the family, don’t I?” She likes the soap opera nature of the Windsors, such as Harry’s new romance. (“With that girl… Melissa, is it? Oh, it’s Meghan? Okay, I’m clearly not keeping up that well.”) She is, however, a massive fan of The Crown and, like all of us, busy holding out for season two, with a deep appreciation for lead actress Claire Foy. “She’s just amazing.”
’Tis the season
There will be little time for bingewatching in the lead-up to Christmas however, as she’ll be flat-tack filming the fourth season of Westside. But then the work clouds will part on December 22 and, for a “luxurious” two weeks, Antonia will be joining her family in Wellington for Christmas.
It’s a set family tradition, complete with annual activities. Every year, the group – around 20 relatives, give or take – sings The 12 Days of Christmas around the table, with the different parts all getting divvied up, apart from “Five gold rings”, because Antonia’s uncle is an opera singer and who’s going to argue with that arrangement?
Antonia is particularly excited about this year’s gathering, as her brother Ben will be back from England, with a new girlfriend to meet the family, and her sister Becky will have her two young children with her. After spending so long away from New Zealand – Antonia’s past few years were equally divided between home, Australia and America – that family time is more precious than ever.
“When you pursue something professionally away from New Zealand, yes, you’re in the market for amazing gains, but there are inherent sacrifices because you’re so far from home,” she says. “As I get older, and my parents get older, I want to spend more time with them. I want to see my nephews grow up. So I feel slightly less energised towards fearlessly pursuing a career beyond the antipodes.”
She spent three summers in Los Angeles, chasing opportunities during the famous “pilot season”, when the upcoming roles in television shows are cast. A chance to make it big, or a chance to have the hope knocked out of you on multiple occasions. Remember the scene of Emma Stone crying on cue in La La Land, only to be interrupted because the casting agent wants a sandwich? That’s pilot season. It’s no walk in the park. But despite the potential for heartbreak – and the fact that she once commented that “In LA terms, I’m like 75” – Antonia is remarkably chipper about her years spent chasing the big time. “I found it very satisfying for what I got out of it. Objectively speaking” – she starts laughing – “it was perhaps not that successful, but I really enjoyed being on the hunt, with the shimmer of potential always there.”
Her acting work has been one of the great loves of Antonia’s life, right from when she was young. Very, very young in fact – she was under five when she decided, in a house full of academics, that she was going to become an actress. And there was absolutely no push-back from her parents, something she remains extremely grateful for. “They never told me no, and I feel like I can’t underestimate the significance of that. As a result, I have no internal conflict about being an actor. They never told me to have a back-up.”
She was always firmly goal-orientated. “I’ve been ambitious for most of my… well, I was going to say adult life, but actually for probably most of my life. I wanted to be an actress when I was three, so maybe I just have to admit to being ambitious since I was an infant.”
Restlessness, she admits, combined with that ambition, made her someone who was always in forward motion, always looking for the next thing.
The fact that she has been working consistently since she was 10 years old in a field where funding, roles, and storylines are never a certainty is not lost on her. “I’m so grateful for the gifts I have received and I’m very aware that, for some rhyme or reason, others aren’t given those same opportunities. I’ve seen some of the best actors in my life in acting class in Los Angeles and some of them are still cleaning toilets.”
But that relentless momentum has started to soften. “All that energy, all that internal combustion, has compelled me to do lots of travelling and have lots of experiences and thrive on novelty and variety, but I just feel, in the last year or so, an internal settling. I’m not looking at the horizon so much any more,” she says. “I feel like my definition of success is broadening from what it used to be, which was focused on professional gains. Whereas now I want a full life, and that means my family, relationships, friendships are all more of a priority.”
Antonia won’t be drawn on her personal life currently – she is extremely, extremely polite in declining to talk about it – but does say that she’s very keen for children of her own one day. “Seeing my sister with her
children… it looks really intense and like a lot of hard work, but amazing! In the past it’s always felt like a really ephemeral concept; something I’m not quite ready for. And I still think I’m not quite ready for it, but I’m moving closer. Partly because almost everyone I know is pregnant or having a baby!”
A few years ago, Antonia had said that she found playing Westside’s Rita West a challenge, because the character was “this grown woman, who’s really sure of herself, and I’m not quite there in my own life yet”. When I ask if she still feels this way, Antonia is pleased to say she’s changed since then.
“She was one of the first characters I had played who was an absolute woman: she owns her space, and doesn’t take any nonsense, and she says what she means. Her energy is all woman, whereas I think I have quite a girly energy. But now I do feel differently. I feel more sure of myself.
“I’m better about standing up for myself than I ever have been before,” she says thoughtfully. “If something isn’t quite right, or if something has been unclear or unjust, I normally would have said nothing because I don’t like conflict, or someone thinking I’m difficult. And I still don’t like it, but I feel more confident in my right to have an opinion, and also more confident in my judgement.”
Surrounding herself with like-minded females who are equally keen on telling interesting, real-women stories has been an important part of Antonia’s career for years, and the industry seems to finally be mirroring this as well. South Pacific Pictures, the company behind Westside, is making a concerted effort to help close the gender gap when it comes to television production, and is bringing in female directors. And Antonia has just returned from three months in Melbourne, shooting the new show Sisters, created by the same team as the hit series Offspring. The first episode has had strong ratings in Australia, and there’s the hope it will be brought over to our screens as well. She said the experience was a dream: “I’ve never been in a production where so many of the key roles were held by women. I felt like I found my tribe!”
One of her fellow cast members was Aussie icon Magda Szubanski, who Antonia worked hard to keep her cool around. “I tried not to be a fan girl – I loved Kath & Kim. She was lovely, smart; had us all around for lunch.”
The harsh Melbourne winter took its toll on Antonia, who fell sick constantly and was in turn looked after by the cast and crew like a makeshift family. “I was bedridden for five days at one point and they took me to the doctor, brought me soup, looked after me in a really lovely, genuine way.”
There’s no word yet on a second series of Sisters, but Antonia is well-experienced in the fleeting world of acting. It’s one of the reasons she’s always worked hard to add more strings to her bow. There’s the Bachelor of Arts she completed in 2014, she’s currently studying Spanish, she’s the ambassador for upmarket Auckland department store Smith and Caughey’s – “very handy for Christmas shopping!” – and, oh yes, she’s just got her official licence to become a marriage celebrant. It’s a long process: character references, letters of support, criminal record check, official interview. But, all going well, her first wedding is lined up for the first week of January. There’s just a tiny, emotional hurdle yet to conquer: when it comes to weddings, she’s a real weeper. “I cry a lot at weddings,” she laughs. “However, I have found that when I’ve been a bridesmaid, I’ve cried significantly less. Because I have a role that I’m focused on! So… I’m relying on that.”
She’s at a very happy time in her life. “I do feel like I’m going in the right direction, so I can confidently keep stepping forward, and trust that life will unfold as it should,” she says. “I’m excited about what the next step is going to be in many dimensions of my life, and for an increased sense of self-confidence, and self-awareness.”
And, at the very least, she can now spend Christmas warm in the knowledge that she’s legitimately related to the royal family; perhaps enjoying the Queen’s Christmas message on an extra special level. Is it exciting to think that, as much as she’s thrilled to be related to Prince William, he might be just as thrilled to have a family connection to Outrageous Fortune? She laughs long and hard at this. “Imagine if they were secret fans! Well, Buckingham Palace keeps sending back all my airmail packages,” she jokes. “I’ll keep trying – there are six seasons for them to get to. I should have knocked on the door when I was in England for DNA Dectectives: “Do you see the resemblance? Do you?”
DNA Detectives starts on TVNZ 1 on November 7. Antonia features in episode 2, which airs on November 14.
Antonia going West – as Loretta West in Outrageous Fortune (top) and a young Rita in Westside (above).