Fight for justice: Catching New Zealand’s Black Widow killer.
A new local Sunday Theatre drama tells the story of Lee-Anne Cartier’s battle for justice after her brother Philip Nisbet was murdered by his wife Helen Milner. Aidee Walker, who plays Lee-Anne, tells Sarah Nealon why this role was a career highlight.
Christchurch woman Helen Milner might have got away with murder if it wasn’t for her sister-in-law Lee-Anne Cartier.
Milner poisoned her truck driver husband Philip Nisbet, 47, in 2009 and made it look like a suicide. But Cartier, Philip’s sister, became convinced Milner had killed Nisbet and set out to prove it.
Cartier, who is in her mid-40s and lives in Australia, spent months investigating the case. As a result of Cartier’s efforts, Milner was charged with killing her husband and, in 2014, was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years.
Cartier’s story is now the subject of TVNZ 1’s Sunday Theatre drama Catching The Black Widow.
“She’s so amazing,” says actor Aidee Walker, who plays the amateur detective. “She didn’t finish high school; she’s kind of like the Erin Brockovich story.
“She was looked down on a bit and no one really listened to her, but actually she’s such a smart woman. It’s a story about a woman who never gave up. I think that’s why it’s an important story.”
Before filming started, Walker, who put on weight for the role, met Cartier.
“There was a lot of stuff I knew but she just came and hung out with me and told me everything, and I recorded her voice,” says Walker. “She’s got a Kiwi accent with an Australian lilt. She’s been living on the Sunshine Coast for about 15 years.”
Walker, 36, who has appeared in Step Dave and Outrageous Fortune, says the drama is a career highlight for her.
“Hands down Black Widow is probably my favourite acting job,” she says. “It was a real-life story that felt really important to tell. It’s probably the biggest role I’ve ever had for screen.”
However, landing the part of Cartier, a mother of four, wasn’t a straight-forward process.
“To be honest, it’s a pretty sexist industry and most of the roles I go for now are older than me,” says Walker. “Up until 33, I was going for younger roles then you hit 33 and you start auditioning for people in their 40s.
“You’re auditioning against your friends who are 10 years older than you and you’re always like, ‘They should get this role’ but I think for this particular role they were having trouble finding a Lee-Anne.
“I had to audition three times. I got taken off a shortlist and put back on a shortlist. I feel like I was trying to find the essence of the character more so than everything else which is cool.”
Playing opposite Walker in the role of Helen Milner is Katherine McRae. She didn’t meet Milner but watched hours of current affairs video clips and also met the real-life Lee-Anne Cartier.
“That was particularly helpful for Aidee and for me. I could ask her certain things directly,” says McRae.
If McRae looks familiar that’s because she is the daughter of ex-Shortland Street star Elizabeth McRae, who played hospital receptionist Marge.
McRae junior made two appearances on the soap playing different characters and has worked behind the scenes as a director. “The first role I played on Shorty
Street was quite early on when I played Marge’s long-lost daughter who had been adopted out. I was only on screen for two weeks,” she says. “I did that and then went away for many years and came back as (nurse) Brenda Holloway.”
Katherine McRae and Walker are both directors as well as actors. Walker recently directed a web series while McRae’s directing experience includes Nothing
Trivial, Go Girls and Filthy Rich’s second season. Based in Wellington, McRae is currently involved in a Circa Theatre production called A Doll’s
House which stars Westside actress Sophie Hambleton.
McRae thinks Black Widow is worth watching because of Cartier’s resolve to seek justice for Philip.
“It’s the story of a woman who had no legal education but she doggedly built up a case against Helen and she used her innate intelligence to do that,” McRae says.
“She was very canny and kept meticulous records of everything. And this has actually changed Lee-Anne’s life. She’s now at university in Australia studying legal systems.”
Aidee Walker as Lee-Anne Cartier
Katherine McRae as murderer Helen Milner