With the sixth series of ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ currently filming, I took the opportunity to put a few questions to New Zealand actress Fern Sutherland. For the past five series, Sutherland has plays ‘by the book’ Detective Kristin Sims opposite Neill Rea’s Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd on the New Zealand detective drama.
In 2014, Sutherland and Rea spoke about playing the lead characters in the then soon-to-premiere mystery dramedy. While there is an element of truth “the guest cast make the show,” it is sometimes difficult to not watch the series for the regular characters because it is how Shepard and Sims solve crimes that make fans return to ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ episode after episode.
Chris Bailey, an executive producer on the production from 2014 to 2017, addresses “getting the right combination” so that it feels real to New Zealand viewers.
Unlike American detective dramas, we are not talking 40-minute episodes (excluding commercials). Even though there have only been 20 instalments of ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ thus far, these episodes are more like television movies because the duration of each one is 90-minutes. This does not include commercials.
Shain Thomas: You have been with ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ from the first episode. Did you have to go through an auditioning process to play Kristin Sims?
Fern Sutherland: The audition process for Kristin was quite a drawn-out the affair. I did an original audition and received a polite, no thanks. I wasn’t their first choice for Kristin, but I think it was just as tricky finding a “Mike” too.
FS: It was about finding the chemistry between Mike and Kristin. Chemistry is everything. If the chemistry isn’t there, it will not work. Consequently, I think they were looking for a dynamic greater than the sum of its parts. So, they went back to the drawing board. Luckily, I got the call up to have second go.
FS: I auditioned with Neill, and spoiler alert, they thought our vibe was good! I audition for roles I don’t book all the time. Thinking about it, I’m quite philosophical about it. But still, when I was first passed over for the role of Kristin, I remember feeling vaguely outraged like … I KNOW THIS CHARACTER AND YOU ARE INCORRECT FOR NOT CASTING ME.
ST: Do you remember what the general vibe was like on location and on set when you arrived for your first day of filming?
FS: On the first day of filming, I remember being really excited and nervous. Mostly, I was nervous about doing the procedural stuff correctly. Playing a cop comes with the pressure to be proficient at a myriad of things. I had never done any of these things before.
FS: Luckily, Kristin had a sense of something to prove and a touch of performance anxiety herself, so my own nervousness was kind of useful. Mostly I just remember it being fun. In the early days, when Mike and Kristin’s relationship was new, it was enjoyable being able to play that “figuring each other out” dynamic. This is where the characters learned about the other.
ST: You played Dawn on ‘The Almighty Johnsons’ from 2011 to 2013. Did if surprise you when fans of ‘The Almighty Johnsons’ launched a campaign to save the show?
FS: The Almighty Johnsons was one of those shows that we had a lot of fun making. It was so unique and quirky. It had so much heart. We all became really attached to the characters, but we kind of understood that it wasn’t going to be for everyone. So, we weren’t surprised that it wasn’t a smash hit in NZ. We were surprised, however, at how many international fans it garnered. They subsequently tried to save the show from being cancelled.
FS: The funding system here in NZ is such that you need to secure good domestic ratings. We seemed to have more fans from overseas than in NZ, although, the NZers that watched the show are extremely enthusiastic and passionate. It’s still the show I am most recognised for.
FS: I was living in Canada recently. People recognised me for playing Dawn in the show. They come up to me to rave about how much they love Dawn and Ty. It’s such a bittersweet feeling because we would have loved to have made more. Having left the show with people wanting more not less, it’s better to leave the Johnsons in a good place in our hearts and minds.
FS: It’s funny cos I think that maybe TAJ was slightly before it’s time and now given the appetite for fantasy and myth-based content, it would be more popular. I’m mostly grateful for getting to meet those actors. We see each other around pretty often. Michelle Langstone is a really good friend of mine who I love to death.
ST: How different is ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ to ‘The Almighty Johnsons’ for you?
FS: Brokenwood is obviously a completely different beast than TAJ. Brokenwood is a whodunnit, which means it is very much plot-based rather than character-based. As an actor, I do miss being able to have a character-driven journey or arc, the kind you would chart the course of in a drama, like what Dawn went through in TAJ.
FS: Kristin has grown and evolved since the first season, but her development is not the main focus of the production. She is mostly the access point for the audience. The audience, through Kristin, is able to engage with the murder and the set of suspects. Dawn was quite similar in that regard too because she was a mortal amongst the immortals. She was trying to rationalise the irrational along with the audience. But Kristin is there to help the audience solve the murder, we don’t want to get too distracted with her private life.
ST: Was there instant chemistry with Neill Rea or is this something that grew over time?
FS: Neill and I are great buddies. We knew each other as acquaintances before we got the job. It’s been really cool to get to know him better over the course of six seasons. I sometimes forget that he’s older than me and that he’s a dad. He’s so playful and goofy at times. He’s also got an amazing work ethic and an ability to focus. It keeps me on the straight and narrow!
FS: It’s hard work and it’s nice to have someone who gets it. Because you sometimes want to vent, it’s nice that you can have someone there that isn’t judgemental.
FS: His wife Ali Bruce is an actor too. They had a scene together in the season five episode ‘Dark Angel.’ She played Fiona. She’s great fun too!
ST: Do you recall, when you look back at reading the teleplay for the first episode, what you thought of your character?
FS: I remember reading the teleplay for the first episode and being in awe of Kristin and what she had already achieved. Kristin was a Detective at such a young age. She had basically graduated police college and consequently had no life for five years.
FS: I loved that it was set in a small semi-rural town because those places are where I grew up – my parents were shearing contractors. So, I loved the character, the setting and the idea of playing someone who wasn’t as put upon as Dawn was in TAJ.
FS: I had a lot of empathy for Kristin because she was so intent on being taken seriously. Consequently, because she was so intent on being taken seriously, it lends itself perfectly to comedic moments. And I understand what it feels like to be a young woman around older men and trying to make yourself feel heard and respected.
ST: You have worked as both a thespian and an actress of film and television. Which one do you gravitate towards? Theatre? Film? Television?
FS: I have worked in both theatre and telly, but I’ve never managed to make it into film. Because you have more time, film work is something I would absolutely love to do. An aspect of film production you do not typically see with television is how one can paint with a bit more nuance. It allows the characters to breathe. I think TV is becoming a bit more like that, but our Brokenwood filming schedule certainly doesn’t allow for it!
FS: I love theatre because it makes you feel vital and alive when you are engaging with the audience. It’s like you’re a conduit for character and subsequently the play itself.
FS: I love television work because there is something cool about filming something, hoping that it was OK, forgetting about it for months, and then seeing how it comes out of the wash months later.
FS: It’s not just the actor that has interpreted the script. It’s heaps of departments and an editor. An aspect of the process I like seeing is how a script goes from initial concept to the final version. It’s this transformation process that I find fascinating. Sometimes the outcome is completely unexpected.
ST: You moved to Canada shortly after filming was completed on ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries’ fifth series. How are you finding life in Canada?
FS: I moved to Canada after filming on the fifth season was completed. The difference in winter in NZ to that seen in Vancouver was hard going, but I enjoyed my time in the Canadian city. During my time in Vancouver, I’ve met some awesome people and started kickboxing at a really brilliant gym. The thing I miss the most about Vancouver is the gym. Haha!
FS: When we started filming the sixth season, I returned to NZ. This meant another winter in NZ and a readjustment. Basically, I’ve had three back to back winters in NZ. After this season of Brokenwood wraps, my boyfriend and I will move to Toronto to check out the east coast.
FS: I’m also looking forward to exploring Quebec and the Maritimes! We have had a ball heading down into the States a fair. Coming from New Zealand, it’s a real treat to have quick and easy access to so many amazing places!
ST: Stage fright is something that prevented me from perusing an acting career professionally. It’s not something one can overcome easily. I understand you have experienced stage fright. Do you still experience it?
FS: I did get stage fright when I was doing theatre. Because I’m too caught up with my vanity and ego, I am pulled out of character and the world in which the story is set. It makes me question whether I am any good. Consequently, I question my ability to recall my next line or any number of irrelevant unhelpful things. Once I am in this place, it’s like having an out of body experience. Naturally, I find it difficult to recover. It’s almost as if I am sabotaging myself. While I have it under control most of the time, there are occasions where it gets the better of me. It’s a work in progress.
FS: Even though I have not done theatre in quite some time, I feel it would be interesting to return to the stage to see how it would go. I sometimes get stage fright when I’m filming, but it is not as prevalent as when I am on stage.
Sutherland, along with Rea, Nic Sampson, Cristina Serban Ionda, Pana Hema Taylor, Colin Moy and Rawiri Jobe, returns to New Zealand television screens later this year in the sixth series of ‘The Brokenwood Mysteries.’