From a small farm in Makarewa to the mean streets of Los Angeles, one Southland actor’s star could soon be on the ascendant.
Invercargill-born and educated Bonnie Soper, well know to domestic television audiences through her work on Shortland Street and, more recently, Filthy Rich, recently relocated to California, with ambitions to make the step up to Hollywood.
It’s been a bold move for the self-professed “little southern girl”, but get talking to Soper for any length of time, and you gain the impression the stage gods might just have their all-seeing eye set on her successful progress.
Despite rising to public prominence through Shortland Street, Soper had already been gaining plaudits prior, receiving the Best Supporting Actress award at the Qantas Film and Television Awards for her role in 2008 indie feature The Map Reader.
That award, and her earlier work for Auckland’s Silo Theatre, had led to the call-up to New Zealand’s longest running soap opera, she believed.
“When I got that call from my agent saying Shortland Street were offering me the opportunity to play this character they were writing, without even having to audition, I felt so blessed, and that all my hard work had paid off. Having the opportunity of long term consistent work as an actor is a rare thing, and being on such an iconic show was one of the coolest experiences ever.
“My family and friends also got a kick out of it, which was really rewarding.”
More recently, Soper has been back on our small screens in the shape of hothead temptress Annabelle Maxwell, in Filthy Rich.
The drama, detailing the skulduggery ensuing after three illegitimate children discover they each have a claim to a fortune, has been described by its award-winning writer-producer Gavin Strawhan as a “dirty great soap”, and is New Zealand’s most expensive television offering to date.
Somewhat polarising of critical opinion, but beloved of audiences, the series is expected to enter a third season later in 2018, much to Soper’s delight.
“I love that Annabelle is a bit wild and kind of crazy. It’s so freeing and challenges me as an actress not to play things too safe. I’ve never really had the chance to play such a glamorous, vivacious character before and I love it – particularly when I have my wardrobe fittings,” she said.
Criticism of the show – with The Listener’s Diana Wichtel declaring Filthy Rich merely “empty calories” – might have missed the point, Soper believed.
“I always felt that the burden was a bit misplaced – the show was bigger budget but also more episodes, so if you break it down per episode it’s less expensive than people think.
“I think they continue to do a great job pulling off a glamorous show on a budget, and it’s another example of just how talented and hard working Kiwis are. It’s never going to be everyone’s cup of tea but there are a lot of people for whom it is,” she said.
Soper wasn’t giving anything away about what further surprises the show – or the unpredictable Annabelle – might have in store.
“I love that Annabelle has been finding her strength and, although she has the best of intentions, she’s just so flawed, which makes her very real for me. She’s so volatile she could turn on a dime. I guess you can keep expecting the unexpected,” she said.
Outside of her existing New Zealand commitments, Soper was looking forward to gaining a foothold in the Hollywood scene, and was busy building the networks necessary to forge a successful career stateside.
“As much as I love New Zealand and the work it produces, I’ve always had a goal to get work over here in America too. That would be a huge achievement for me, coming all the way from a small farm in Makarewa.”
Although acutely aware of the hazards of the casting couch culture – as brought to dramatic light during recent months – her own experiences in Hollywood to date had been positive, albeit with exceptions, she said.
“I’ve learnt the hard way how to avoid [negative] situations and to be on the lookout for them. I can’t say I’ve always been successful, but I’ve learnt to surround myself with good, strong people with the right values and be very, very cautious. It’s an adventure.”
Not entirely the anonymous “stranger in a strange land”, Soper had enjoyed an accidental taste of celebrity culture the very moment she arrived in the US, she explained.
“I moved to LA after winning the Green Card Lottery. When the day came, I left for America by myself, having never set foot anywhere further than Sydney. As we were arriving I was so nervous and exhausted from all the delays, I got a bleeding nose and the crew recognised me from Filthy Rich, so they wanted to get their pictures taken with me.
“When I finally got off the plane there was a crowd of people waiting to find out who I was. I hid in the bathroom until they left rather than tell them I’m nobody they’d know!”
Although the classic Hollywood trappings of fame and fortune might have their appeal for Soper – she talks enthusiastically of “dipping her feet in George Clooney’s pool” – it was the challenge of continued personal growth that had drawn her to the US.
“I am ambitious, but essentially I feel like I’m just always looking for that role that takes me somewhere I haven’t been before. I’m still learning so much from being here in America as a person and an actress, and I find it to be a really supportive environment if you’re creative.”
In the meantime, her Southland family and roots helped provide the essential anchor to keep her feet on the ground.
“When I left Southland I really pushed my comfort zone. I want to keep doing that to see just how much I can grow and accomplish,” she said.
“I try not to compare myself to anyone else, I just know how far I’ve come, what I’ve overcome, and want to see where it takes me. And always, always come back home to remind myself of what’s really important.”