In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today, we chat to Brynley Stent.
Billy T Award nominee and actor Brynley Stent is one of our best and brightest comedy stars, and she stars on the new series of TVNZ’s Taskmaster NZ. She talks to Capsule about living in a flat full of comedians/artists, handling double lockdown and how therapy and drama school helped her deal with loss
How are you today, Brynley?
I’m good, I’m cold – I’m in Christchurch today. When I woke up it was six degrees, it’ll be down to four degrees tonight. But it’s nice to be home, I’ve got all the nostalgia feels.
Have you been down much this year?
We came down with Snort – which is the improv company I’m with – for a couple of months and my sister had a baby at the start of the year, so I’ve been trying to come down as much as I can to see my nephew. It was a little bit of a surprise as my sister is 10 years younger than I am, so my dad’s and grandma’s eyes were all on my brother and I for babies and then suddenly, she announced she was. Which really takes the heat of us!
Oh, that’s very exciting! How has this year been in general for you?
I’m feeling that same way I think a lot of people are feeling, that weird rollercoaster feeling. Some people have said it’s a horrible year in general but in my case, I think I’ve just had very high highs and very low lows, which is very unsettling. I live in a flat with six artists, which is very cool, and when lockdown #1 happened, we were all hanging around and someone suddenly yelled ‘Come to the lounge’ and we all ran in and found out what was going to happen.
At first, for us, it was really exciting in a weird way – in the way that non immediately life-threatening emergencies are; you’re hyped up on adrenaline. The first week was the funnest time – our flat is so good; with six of us, we were doing painting nights and arts and crafts and little shows. And then the reality sets in and it’s like ‘I can’t go to work, what am I going to do with my life?’ Week three was a dark time [laughs]. I had a few projects burning away before the lockdown that were moved, so in between the lockdowns I was all right work wise. But the second lockdown was truly grim. Even in the flat, people weren’t really talking to each other – not because we were fighting, but because we were all just trying to get by.
Lockdown #2 was VERY demoralising and it felt like all of that ‘let’s band together’ mentality was a little lacking in energy this time around.
Completely – and I forgot that it was only in Auckland. I would see friends posting photos of themselves going to the theatre in Wellington and be like, ‘Hang on, you can’t do that!?’
But’s pretty universal – the first question you ask any friends when you see them is ‘how was your second lockdown?’ and all of them were like ‘worse than the first time.’ I will say, what I did love about the first time as it was an enforced break. As a contractor, there’s really no down time, even in the school holidays, because you’re always hustling for work and sending funding applications. So, the first one was nice in that way. If we did that once a year for four or five weeks, I would love that.
That’s such a good point – what would it be like if everything had to shut down for a month a year?
You’d just go back to basics for that month. I mean, I’m very lucky in that I don’t have kids and that was a huge stress for all of my friends who have kids; they like ‘when will this be over?’ because it was never-ending, even if looking back, they now look fondly on that time in a way, because they got so much family time.
You talked before about the hustle that comes with freelance life and that is something I’m now adjusting to as well. How do you work out that balance and set up those boundaries so that you don’t burn out?
Honestly, it took me a long time. In the first couple of years after drama school, my mentality was to just say yes to anything, even if it’s was going to make me feel sad or I wasn’t getting paid and they were just saying ‘We’re going to pay you in exposure.’ Part of me thinks that that’s okay if it’s short term, because there is a sense that you have to get your name out there – not that I think people should do things for no money! When you’re young, you have the stamina. I was working in a gym from 5am till midday and then I would go and do rehearsals and then I would do shows at night. But I was in my early 20s, so I could. But nowadays, you have to set boundaries because otherwise you’ll burn yourself out and that’s not going to help any of your jobs. It’s a practise – and I’m still working at it. Also, with things like negotiating pay – I’m a people pleaser, like a lot of people are, and you just don’t want to say no.
I totally relate to that – I think for a lot of women as well, that mentality of asking for what you want when it comes to money is something so many of us are still trying to work out.
I had a job that I’d done previously that I went back to do some temp work for and the boss said to me, ‘Are you fine to be on that same rate you were on before?’ and I sort of stared at her and then said ‘Yeah, yeah, of course!” and then I went home and I talked to another friend of mine who used to be a lawyer about it and she said ‘Give me your phone.’ She drafted an email about why I deserved a higher rate and said ‘Do you want to look at it or should I just send it?’ and I said ‘Just send it.’ And my boss came back and said ‘Yes, that’s totally fine.’
That’s so wonderful, to have someone take the emotional load of that out of your hands.
That’s why I really do think we should be talking about money more and how much everyone is getting paid. It’s a weird hang-up from the generation above us that you should never talk about your money but I think the more we talk about our money, the more we can help each other collectively to deal with it. It’s one of the best parts of living in this flat, two or three of us will be sitting down and then one of us will walk in, either full of sadness or fury, and be like ‘What do you think of this?’ and the rest of us, collectively, will be like ‘No, you’re worth more, don’t do it!’ It truly is amazing – to be an artist or a contractor by yourself would be dire, I think.
When it comes to looking after your mental health, when was it that you became aware that mental health was something you need to look after or work on?
I’m going to go real dark here – when I was 18, my mother passed away. I was in high school and she had been sick for a long time with cancer, about four or five years. So that entire time – and I think this very common – I just wanted to be a normal kid and I didn’t want to be treated as ‘the girl who had a dying mum.’
Through all of my high school years and then late into my twenties, I was still that person who was like ‘Brush everything aside and just make people feel comfortable, because nobody wants to talk about death.’ So, I didn’t properly mourn for so long. I have vivid memories of being sent to the counsellor at school and just telling them what they wanted to hear: “it’s fine, I’m talking to my friends, I’m crying at home, I’m talking to my dad.”
I spent so long pushing those emotions down. When I went to drama school, that was the very cliché drama school journey where they touched on it but I still wasn’t really ready to go there. it was later, when I was in the industry and realised I was getting burnt out and emotional on stupid, small things that wasn’t even related. At the time, I couldn’t really afford to go counselling even though I knew I really needed to, so I put it off until a friend of mine recommended a place called Home and Family Counselling, which is a charity where you pay what you can afford. You apply to get on a waitlist and it was a huge breakthrough for me, both the therapy and also having this male comedian help me out by saying, ‘Hey, I’m sad too – it’s totally normal, I went and did this thing and it’s cheap and you can do it too.’ Then I did it and it was awesome and now I’m totally an advocate for therapy and that there shouldn’t be a stigma and we shouldn’t wait until we’re at our lowest to go and get it. Nip it in the bud!
Especially this year.
Especially this year! We just need to allow ourselves to go ‘this is a really shitty year’ and just feel sad and confused about it when we need to.
What are some of the other tools that you use to keep yourself well?
For physical health, I love walking. I used to treat exercise for punishment: “I have to go to the gym five times a week because I have to lose weight because I’m an actor and to be an actor, you have to be skinny.” I mean, that thought is still lurking in the back of my mind, but Chris [Parker, Brynley’s flatmate] and I used walking for our cardio during lockdown, instead of smashing it out on the bike or on a run. Every morning we would go for a walk and I’ve continued it on and I love it – it’s nice to be in nature.
How has it been wrangling the body image side of your job?
Oh it’s been really hard and it’s still hard. I still struggle with it. the industry is getting better but it’s still slow, it’s not moving fast enough. We are slowly seeing a range of different bodies and ethnicities and genders being represented and it’s so awesome to watch – even with the last funding round, you look at what got funded and there is so much more diversity. But body diversity… I don’t want to read some of our most popular shows on television at the moment but you go ‘Okay cool, there’s ethnic diversity and there’s representation of people with disabilities and that’s amazing, but there’s still not a fat girl as a romantic lead.’ It’s still not quite there. and I think every actor is a hypocrite – you tell your friends, ‘you need to go out there and you need to be comfortable in your own skin.’ Someone might say ‘I look fat in this dress,’ and you’re like ‘who cares! Why is fat bad?’ but then when it comes to your own body, you can’t say it to yourself.
Oh, absolutely. It’s incredibly easy to be like “yay, body positivity” for everyone in the world… but when it’s just you and a mirror, it’s not happening.
Totally. My biggest one that I’ve been most proud of is that I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which means I have excess body hair… I have a little bit of a moustache which shows up in certain lights and when I was on Shortland Street, I was like ‘Oh, I need to go and get my moustache threaded,’ and then I was like ‘No! Some people have moustaches and it’s okay for other people to see that!’ That was my first step in breaking down my own boundaries.
I love that! And yes, I have often felt that we’re so good at diversity but fat, or plus size, feels like the final frontier.
They’re starting to do it in certain shows, like Shrill, which I haven’t watched but I’ve heard it’s great.
And it’s great, but that’s still its own show about that topic. The people who are going to watch that show are people who are already going to be pretty accepting about that stuff. Whereas, wouldn’t it be nice to see an Avenger who is a plus-size woman? Wouldn’t it be great to see it front and centre on a mainstream show or movie, rather than ‘oh, we gave you funding for your body positivity show,’? It’s like no, just put normal-looking people in there. Like how Rihanna put all body shapes in the Savage X Fenty show. But it’s hard. I spent so much money a year trying to be skinny – and that’s part of my other journeys, not just acting. And as a comedian, you never want to be completely hot or Botoxed up to your eyebrows because you don’t want to be perfect, you want to be yourself to be funny.
But this industry, you can’t just be one thing. I want to do everything – I would love to be on a drama. But then you think, are they going to cast me on that show if I look a certain way? There are demons, and I still need to do a lot of work to get me to the place that I think my friends should be at about their bodies, you know what I mean? I heard the most beautiful thing the other day, my friend said to me ‘When your friend talks down about themselves, the best comeback ever is you turn to them and say, “Don’t talk about my friend that way.”’
I love that so much. If I have a friend that says “I look ugly” or something, I say, “Don’t talk to my friend that way!” and it makes them realise how they talk to themselves. It’s gentle but it gets the point across!
Taskmaster NZ starts Wednesday 21st October, 8.30pm, TVNZ 2.