30 Nov 2016

In LA, there are no tall poppies

2:59 pm on 30 November 2016

We talk to the creators of Sitting Room Only, a doco series charting the lives of New Zealand women chasing their Hollywood dreams.

Rose McIvor in Sitting Room Only.

Rose McIvor in Sitting Room Only. Photo: Supplied

A young woman bids farewell to nowheresville, buys a one-way ticket to Tinseltown and, stars in her eyes, is quickly chewed up and spat out. It's a story so clichéd it's impossible not talk about it in cliché.

LA-based Kiwi actresses Hannah Marshall and Fleur Saville know better and with their doco series Sitting Room Only they offer a genuinely insightful glimpse into the lives of those who’ve been brave enough to make the move.

Shot in Marshall’s own blacked out living room by another multidisciplinary Kiwi, David de Lautour, Sitting Room Only is a series of interviews: candid discussions with New Zealand and Australian female performers living and working in LA, including Keisha Castle-Hughes, Zoe Bell, Morgana O’Reilly, Zoe Ventoura, Rose McIvor, Gin Wigmore, Ladyhawke and Antonia Prebble.

The experiences shared in Sitting Room Only are not horror stories, nor are they tales of resoundingly easy assimilation and ascension. This, says Marshall, was the goal.

“I wanted to be honest and I wanted it to be a conversation about it. I wanted to celebrate New Zealanders and these great women who are doing these awesome things, but be honest about it too, not hype it up or anything.”

Upping and leaving your home country is never easy, but the difference between New Zealand and the States is clearly pretty dramatic. Marshall has been in LA for two and half years; Saville for five or six. Both describe the move as a shock to the senses.

“It's been really hard” Saville laughs.“The first, I'd say two years, is just survival, kind of figuring out what everything means, because even though it's still English-speaking it's a completely different language culturally. And then the idea of having to start again is quite shocking.”

Acclimatising, she says, is a slow process.

“Once you kind of go "actually, I love living here" without being defined by career or anything else,  and it's like I just love the weather and I love the country and I love my friends and I love that anything is possible. That's at about year three or four that that happens.”

She laughs again. “And then you just go ‘it’s awesome’ and just get on with it.”

Keisha Castle-Hughes in Sitting Room Only

Keisha Castle-Hughes in Sitting Room Only Photo: Supplied

Marshall, who had spent five years in Australia before coming to LA, says that the network of fellow Antipodeans made her transition significantly smoother.

“Having that community out here, like a home base, makes everything feel a lot smaller when sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Especially when you first arrive, it's very different in a way that you don't anticipate I think.”

Marshall and Saville found that this sense of community not only eased the transition, but that in sharing their experiences between fellow expats they were able to identify common threads that united them. An idea they had mulled over years earlier to share their friend’s stories resurfaced and the concept for Sitting Room Only was born.

“I was excited by the idea of talking to these awesome people and creating something where you got to get a sense of who they actually are outside of promoting something,” says Marshall.

“It was just us hanging out, but then also talking about things that were important to us, and I think all the girls were really excited to talk like that.”

“It makes you kind of just go, no one has the answers, literally no one has the answers. You have to figure it out and that's OK,” says Saville.

Candid as they are, not one of the eight interviews ever veers into pity party territory even when discussing the dreaded tall poppy syndrome, something Marshall and Saville both grapple with.

“It doesn't necessarily feel like it's an overt external thing that's placed on us, but definitely over here there is a sense of self belief that I don't have as a Kiwi and I've had to learn to build”, says Marshall.

"You don't realise” says Saville. “You think it's normal because that's what you've grown up with, right? And then, explain that concept to an American. They're just like: ‘What? What do you mean you don't get told that you can do anything?’”

“They're like” - ever the actress, Saville adopts a perfect American twang -  “'Oh my god, you've done, like, all of this. That's amazing!’ And you're like 'Wait? What? Am I allowed to be ambitious, am I allowed to be good at my art?’”

Marshall says that taking on the American sense of self belief has been a boon to her Kiwi sensibilities. “You have to learn to be able to be confident without being arrogant and believe in yourself, but keep the humility and  that beautiful humble nature that we have being from New Zealand. You can have the best of both worlds.”

Sitting Room Only can be viewed at www.sittingroomonly.com and is available on TVNZ On Demand from December 1st.