One of our most talented actors, Fern Sutherland has starred in some of New Zealand’s most popular shows but it’s her role The Brokenwood Mysteries, a local show that is most famous overseas, that sees her recognised everywhere but home. With the seventh series about to start on its new home of TV One, Fern talks to Emma Clifton about finding her groove with the show, why NZ is only home half the time and how she’s learning to shut her inner critic up.
If L&P gets the billing as being world famous in New Zealand, then actor Fern Sutherland is something of the opposite. As the co-lead actor of the long-running series The Brokenwood Mysteries, Fern is extremely recognisable in large parts of the world, where Brokenwood is NZ’s most popular television export. When she was living in Canada, up until last year, she was frequently recognised for her role as Detective Kristen Sims – a situation that rarely happens here. “I know New Zealanders are a bit more reserved, so they’re not going to run up to you and be like ‘Oh my god,’ unless you’re Ritchie McCaw,” she says dryly. “But overseas, I had that a lot and it was so weird. They would say, ‘Oh, you must be such a big celebrity over in New Zealand and I would be like, ‘No….’” she laughs. This is ideal, Fern says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to go out and feel all eyes on you.”
The Brokenwood Mysterious started on Prime TV in NZ, has been playing on AcornTV internationally and now is screening, for the first time, on TVOne. As a darkly comedic, quirky murder mystery in a small town kind of vibe, it’s a hard show to pigeonhole. But it sits, alongside Shortland Street, as one of New Zealand’s longest-running dramas and most successful shows. “When we first started filming, we never thought we would get another season – let alone seven, soon to be eight seasons,” Fern says. “It has been utterly mind-blowing.” She says even the cast and crew didn’t really know what kind of show they were making when it first started. “I thought what I wanted to be making was Scandi noir, me in a lot of jerseys, and a lot of very earnest, character-driven storylines about murder,” she jokes. “In my brain, I wanted to be winning awards and be seen as a ‘serious actor’, doing work that was deeply unsettling. It probably took until season three for me to realise ‘Oh, we’re not making that.’” When the show first started screening in 2014, it was around time when jersey-heavy Scandi noir was very much the thing: The Killing, The Bridge, etc. Brokenwood has outlasted all of them and is a particular hit in Europe.
The impact of the show overseas really became underlined during Covid-19, Fern says. “I was getting messages from all around the world, places like Italy where Covid had ravaged people, from people who were like either ‘I have Covid’ or ‘My loved one has Covid and he’s dying and your show is the only thing that keeps me going,’” she recalls. “I was like… ‘what??’ It was staggering to me, deeply sad and it also made me go, Okay, you don’t have be naval gazing and earnest, you can make a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and people can get something out of it, to the point where it’s the only thing keeping someone going.”
For the past few years, Fern and her boyfriend have been splitting their time between New Zealand, for filming, and then other parts of the world. It’s a combination that she likes – “I’ve got quite an avoidant personality, it’s one of the reasons I leave here and go overseas, because I have to start again, I have to set myself up in a new city” – but the transient nature of it sometimes put her at odds with what her non-acting peers are up to. “I spend six to nine months in another country and then I come back and things have moved on, because that’s the nature of life,” she says. “I love coming back and my friends have had another kid or they’ve moved house, these are the life events that go on and I’m really happy for them, but” – she pauses – “they are things that move on without you and they’re also not necessarily things that I want myself. And that also adds to the feeling of, ‘okay, this isn’t where I’m meant to be.’”
“’Should I be getting a mortgage? Do I want a baby’ You just have to listen to yourself and try not to get too caught up in what other people are doing.”
It’s a balance that will be familiar to many women, particularly in their 30s, a decade where a lot of life is expected to happen in quite a short amount of time. “I’m trying really hard not to get caught up in what I ‘should’ be doing, because I think it would be really easy to do the little ‘look to the left, look to the right, see what other people are doing and think should I be doing that?’” she says. “’Should I be getting a mortgage? Do I want a baby’ You just have to listen to yourself and try not to get too caught up in what other people are doing.”
Part of this comes down to taking herself more seriously. “I’m trying to second guess myself less, and be less self-deprecating, because I feel like it really cheapens you. It makes you seem like you don’t care deeply about what you’re doing,” she says. “I feel like I have a lot of self-doubt, which is a weird form of vanity in itself.”
Right from the start, Fern was always interested in acting but was also a very anxious child. She describes the thought process behind this tricky combo as “I love this, if I can just rise above this crippling self-doubt, I think I could be good at this.” It’s a balance she still battles with, she laughs drily, saying that “in many ways, this career path, for me, is absolutely not something I should be doing, because it puts me in the way of those real conversations I have with myself.” In the past, that manifested in not even attempting to audition for acting gigs she might want, because she would immediately convince herself of other actors who could do it better than she could.
“The voice in my head, the one that says ‘that’s not for you, that’s not something you’re good at’… I’m trying to politely tell that voice to f—k off for a minute. Because what if I just allowed myself to give it a go? What would happen?” Surfing has become a hobby that helps her get outside of that inner self-doubt monologue. “I was so sick of being fearful of everything, I wanted to do it for the enjoyment, not the idea that you have to be the best at something to try it.”
Acting is often seen as a very fancy-pants, very pampered area but the reality of being a working actor in New Zealand is very different. Having a regular gig for eight years on Brokenwood has added an element of stability to a job that often lacks it, but Fern says she’s never had any issue turning to jobs like waitressing or bartending to keep the bills paid in-between acting jobs.
Back when she was working in Canada in a shoe shop, it was only when the customers recognised her from Brokenwood that her retail colleagues had any idea that her other day job was as an actor. That’s not always a comfortable situation, Fern says. When people recognise her working in non-acting jobs, “they’re more embarrassed than I am, which then makes me embarrassed, so I am trying to be smarter with my money and squirrel it away when I am making it, because it is hard. But then I’m also like ‘f—k it, that’s the reality of being an actor here and there’s nothing wrong with that work. It’s honest work. I think a lot of who I am has been shaped by my parents.”
Coming from “a severely working class background,” from parents who have worked in blue collar jobs all their lives, Fern says that has to work to overcome her inherent distrust of rich people. “Don’t get me wrong: I love money, and I want more of it. I would love to give it to my parents. But the working class are the nuts and bolts of this country and of the world. They make everything happen.”
Once travel is back on the cards, Fern thinks she and her partner might head over to Australia, or try America for a while. With Brokenwood still going great guns, and potentially about to finally hit the big time in its country of origin, thanks to the switch to TV1, there’s still the possibility of plenty more small-town murders to come. “I was asked recently what my greatest accomplishment was and I thought, ‘I hope it’s something in the future, still to come,’” Fern says.
The new season of The Brokenwood Mysteries starts Sunday 13 June on TV One and TVNZ OnDemand, click here for more information