Robyn Malcolm: On writing her own rules

From It's Personal with Anika Moa, 5:00 am on 5 March 2024

In this episode of It's Personal, Robyn Malcolm talks to Anika Moa about her latest role in After the Party and how she's managed menopause and mental health setbacks as she continues to break barriers in the entertainment industry.

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Finding her place

"I wasn't finding my tribe in Ashburton, that's for sure. I was doing a lot of music, so I was disappearing into music a lot, into classical music. And I painted and I was disappearing into that. So I liked disappearing into a creative world. And, I also wasn't very happy with myself at the time, who is at that age. So I liked disappearing into other people.

"There was a moment I entered into a talent quest when I was 14, and I made people laugh. And I remember, you know, how those very key moments in your life, it's like you can remember the smell of things. You can remember detail. And I remember I played Miss Piggy. I remember looking out and everyone was pissing themselves. I was on my bicycle, and it was a warm northwesterly in Ashburton, and the sun was down, and I had my Miss Piggy wig on a polystyrene wig block on the handlebars. And I just remember that bike ride, and I laughed all the way home. I was so happy. It was just glee. It was pure glee that I had managed to galvanise an entire room with laughter."

The beauty of the stage

"I find it one of the safest places to be. Being a character on stage, telling a story in front of a bunch of people. I don't know. There's something about it that is so, safe. There's something glorious about it. Even if you're playing the villain, because you're in the middle of story. And everybody connects to story in some way, and everybody has their own journey with it, and you're all experienced, because we live lives that are so singular. Right. And when you're in a place of story with other people, it's a beautiful collective experience."

"I liken film and television a bit more to something like painting. So you're making the work before you show it to the audience. And there's nothing you can do once it's out there. It's a real gift. It's like, here it is. This is what we made, and you let it go, and then you go, and you can take it however you want to take it. I can't control whether you're going to like this or not."

After the Party, TV series written by Dianne Taylor, starring Robyn Malcolm

Robyn is super proud of the TV show After the Party which she co-created with Dianne Taylor. Photo: Mark Rogers

After the Party

"I'm really, really, really proud of it. And I'm really proud of it for Di [Dianne Taylor]. She's phenomenal and she's so thoughtful. And her and I just had the most brilliant collaborative relationship. I mean, we fought hard, but just, this is her voice."

"Never at any point did Di and I go, 'we need to make this successful'. We wanted to make it good on our own terms. And I remember having arguments with people going, 'look, if we're going to f*** this up, I want to f*** it up on my terms, not yours'. And that became the thing that we held onto, and I think that's part of it. There was a greater risk for us with this. It could have gone down like a cup of cold sick."

"We pitched [a menopause documentary] once and we were told that it was too female-centric. So we made After the Party instead, which is my version of female menopause. That's what it really looks like."

Robyn Malcolm

 Robyn jokes that After the Party is her take on what menopause really looks like. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Aging and aspirational casting

"I was auditioning for stuff and it was going to actresses, very good actresses, in their late 30s, and yet the character was my age. And I was like, ‘what the f***?’ And Di was feeling the same way. And we both went, okay, let's make something where the character has to be played by somebody of real age.

"The other thing we used to talk about a lot is, if you play an older woman who is romantically engaged with somebody, it's just going to be gross. So what we have to do is we have to put you in a lot of white linen, we have to surround you with a lot of very rich kitchen porn and then you also have to giggle and laugh a lot. And those actresses are all like, ‘I'm so cute and old’. And it's like, no, you're not. Nobody, when they get old, is cute and old. We're angry and we're fucked, up. And we've got history and we've made mistakes and we're probably going to make more. And we think we're grown up and we're not. And we think we're wise and we're not.

"I thought as I got older that I would get less busy, but I'm getting more busy. Which is a good thing, because actors aren't meant to retire. We can't, because we don't get superannuation. Well, I don't know about you, but my mortgage, when all the interest rates went up, it was just like, whoa, I'm going to have to work now till I'm 160. There's no way. So it's quite good that I'm busier now than I was."

Robyn Malcolm

Robyn said there's a zeitgeist thing happening around aging actors at the moment. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Solo parenting

"I was the caregiver and the financial caregiver, really. There was a period just after Outrageous Fortune when I wasn't getting any work here and Sam Neal said to me, 'You've got to leave'. And I was tearing myself in pieces going, if I want to get my career going, I've got to get out of New Zealand. And Dad said to me, 'To be honest up until your kids hit about 11 or 12 you can go anywhere and do anything because their main attachment is you. But the minute you get to that age my advice, if you can, stay put. Because their world starts to open into their community and their friends, and that's where their anchors are. And I decided in that moment, right, I'm just going to hope that I keep getting work and if anyone's going to be under stress, it'll be me. So if I have to leave the country to earn the money to keep us going, I will. But they're not moving. And touch wood, they're remarkably normal."

Actor Robyn Malcolm said she helped create a new TV series because she was sick of being passed over for younger actors.

Robyn's only regret in life is not getting into dogs earlier. Photo: Jae Frew


"My doctor said, 'oh, yeah, they saved the worst for last, buckle up'. And then I read this piece by Mary Ruffle, who's an American writer and she wrote a thing called Pause, for Granta Magazine, about menopause. And it's the only one that has actually expressed, deeply and truthfully, really, what goes on with menopause, because you lose your f***ing mind."

"Things like sudden physical anxiety all of a sudden, like walking over rocks in a river. I remember going, 'I feel less stable, I'm more scared physically than I used to be'. Emotionally far more reactive. That was all the sort of the perimenopausal stuff. Getting angrier than I used to, getting sadder than I used to, and joints starting to hurt."

"A therapist years and years ago had said to me, 'you need to be careful because you're living on adrenaline and cortisol and you're going to hit menopause and you're going to have', it sounded so dramatic, 'an endocrinal meltdown'. And that's sort of what happened, is that I just couldn't get up. One day I just cried and cried and couldn't stop crying. And I remember going, I don't even know why I'm crying. I'm just in a state of intense despair and I can't work it out. And I ended up getting medicated because I was not functioning."

"And then I went on hormone replacement therapy and I was scared of that because of blood clots and all the rest of it, but that has made a big difference too. And actually the dogs, I got them in the middle of it and I think that helped too. And then it just starts to, we're so adaptable human beings and so a lot of that awful stuff you just start to integrate into your life."

Robyn Malcolm

Robyn's advice to younger women heading into menopause is to listen to your body. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Robyn's advice

"Trust your body. Talk to friends. Get your girlfriends around and compare psycho stories so that it starts to feel normal. Try HRT because it really is a game changer. So there's a lot in the kit that you can use to help: HRT, antidepressants, walk, dogs, therapy, meditation, yoga, cold swimming, laughing. Don't give up alcohol.

Putting the men in menopause

"Back in the day when I was getting the hot flushes, I would make my partner and whatever other male friends there were around come out with me into the cold because I'd be f***ed if I was going to go out there by myself just because I was having a hot flush. And I used to announce it, it was probably a bit much, but I'd be like, 'right, I'm having a really menopausal day today. So just, this is me'. Because no one would talk about it."

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