Despite a 20-year hiatus from Shortland Street, most people still know actress Elisabeth Easther as nasty nurse Carla. Ahead of her shock return to our screens, she lets us in on her killer storyline.
“Where do I know you from?”
I’m asked that question fairly regularly, but rather than reel off the handful of possible places the enquirer might have seen me, and not wanting to sound like a wanker by asking if they recognise me from the television, I invariably say, “Oh, I have one of those faces.”
Or, if I’m feeling especially daring and the person seems agreeable, I might ask if they ever watched Shortland Street on TV2 in the mid ’90s. Interestingly, most people say they’ve never watched a single episode, as if there is some shame to admitting a penchant for the soap. But if they do say yes, I will then confess to having played the show’s first ever murderer: Evil Nurse Carla, as my character was affectionately known.
I was 25 when I was cast in that role, and I never could have imagined how deeply I would penetrate the nation’s psyche, yet this dubious claim to fame has dogged me for the rest of my days because, 25 years later – literally half my life – I’m still jogging people’s memories.
To recap, for those readers who weren’t glued to their televisions back then – or weren’t alive – my character, Nurse Carla Leach (nee Crozier), arrived in the mythical suburb of Ferndale back when New Zealand viewers had just three television channels to choose from.
Seemingly stable in her opening scenes, Carla arrived at the clinic to take up a nursing position, but the look of horror on the face of her sister, Ellen Crozier (played by beloved actor Robyn Malcolm) said it all: Nurse Carla was not to be trusted.
Yet, in spite of the writers creating a pretty villainous villain, I saw Carla as misunderstood and tried valiantly to come up with valid reasons for the choices she made and the naughty things she did. I believe an actor simply has to find their character’s humanity, their inner conflict and motivations, if they want to portray them with genuine heart.
I vividly recall my first day shooting at South Pacific Studios. The writers had sent the hospital staff into the countryside to participate in team building exercises. I was nervous, of course, and excited, but my first challenge was not to get lost while driving in Auckland looking for the location.
My second was to fall down a steep bank and make it look as if my screen sister had pushed me. We were doing a blindfolded trust walk – Ellen was leading and being quite unpleasant to her long-lost sibling. When things became especially heated, I pulled off the blindfold, said something dramatic as if Ellen had wounded me deeply, then tumbled down the cliff, accidentally on purpose.
Because I’d just spent two years at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, I was delighted to sink my teeth into such a meaty role. My only previous professional acting gig had been playing Victoria the dinosaur on Australian kids’ show Johnson and Friends, so Carla was a big step up and I was committed to milking every drop of drama from my time on screen.
From the very get go, Carla took every opportunity to make mischief and, not only did she steal her sister’s boyfriend, Bernie, she married him. Carla then lied to Bernie about being pregnant – not her finest moment – and he subsequently beat her when he discovered the lie. To cut a long story short, Carla bludgeoned her husband to death in the aftermath of an earthquake. During the seismic shift – the earth moved for both of them – Bernie-Bear (that’s what Carla called her late spouse) was knocked on the head by a falling pewter candlestick. Carla was thrilled to discover her errant spouse had been killed, but her joy turned to rage when she saw the injured Bernie stir, which is when she finished him off with the same candlestick.
As the episodes progressed and Carla’s behaviour began to point to some sort of psychosis, it became harder and harder for me to justify her poor choices by claiming she was misunderstood – because it’s never OK to bludgeon people to death with an ornate prop, even if there are extenuating circumstances.
But in spite of Carla’s dubious morality, I had a most excellent time being part of the cultural institution that is Shortland Street. And no matter what I’ve done since or ever after, Shortland Street will be the focus of my obituary. Even when my dear old dad died just three years ago, aged 90, the headline of his obituary read: “Shortland Street Actor’s Father Dies”, in spite of his many achievements.
Blast from the past
Last year, one afternoon in spring, my agent called me on the telephone (a rare enough thing in itself ) and she asked what I would say if Shortland Street asked me to make a comeback. I couldn’t have been more surprised, because for over 20 years I’ve been happily self-employed, and returning to Shortland Street couldn’t have been further from my mind.
I really enjoy my work-life balance and my working life that is made up of three main parts:
1 Writing, everything from journalism and script writing to copy creation.
2 Performing voiceovers for advertisements, documentaries, audiobooks and video games.
3 Unexpected extras. This is the icing on the cake and includes all sorts of things like making documentaries, MCing events, radio and a little bit of acting – although acting is the thing I do the least of.
It’s true, there is virtually no stability to this three-pronged assortment of professions. I’ve not only learned to live with that, I’ve come to embrace it. I never know what’s around the corner, but I also have the freedom to play tennis when it suits me, or go for a run or a bike ride if a story is not writing itself – note to aspiring writers, writing is hard slog and solutions to problems can often be found while in motion in the great outdoors. And, best of all, I’m home and ready to down tools when my son finishes school, to provide a reasonably proficient parenting service. Although that said, Theo has recently turned 15, so coming home to have me ask if he wants to bake muffins or go to the park to catch Pokémon isn’t quite as attractive as it used to be. Which is a whole other poignant story.
To answer my agent’s query, how would I feel about returning to the soap opera that has been inextricably bound to everything I’ve done ever since, my initial reaction was lukewarm. Because I enjoy my life the way it is. I might not make a killing, but I’d rather not have people in the supermarket accuse me of being a killer either. I’ve conveniently forgotten a lot of the viewer abuse I received back then, but almost everyone who knew me in the ’90s has a story about some whacko fan approaching me out in the wild. And of course it was grating.
I might not make a killing, but I’d rather not have people in the supermarket accuse me of being a killer either
Even though I’ve suppressed the bulk of those memories, that was the thing that most concerned me about making a Carla comeback – because being recognised for playing a role in a soap opera has no value whatsoever. There’s nothing to be gained from people pointing at you, then whispering to their friends something like, “Don’t look now but there’s that psycho bitch from Shortland Street.” Or words to that effect. And it’s even worse if they think you’re a bad guy. But there’s also a part of me that really enjoys playing dress-ups and spouting fabulously arch dialogue – the sorts of things one can only dream of saying in real life.
Still in two minds, I asked to learn a bit more about what plots the writers were cooking up. It turned out they planned to reinvent Carla – now Dr Summerfield – as a psychotherapist. After the husband vs candlestick incident, she studied psychology to focus on helping people, and perhaps to compensate for her wicked ways. She also has some confusion about what really happened all those years ago, which is why she returns to Ferndale – to come to terms with her murky past, because Carla’s subconscious has suppressed some of the finer points of Bernie’s death.
And half my life later I’m back in Ferndale, older, wiser and with much better costumes. Why, I ask myself, have I never explored the possibilities of the chic ladies’ pantsuit before?
Since I’ve returned, people have asked me what’s changed out at Shortland Street. What’s different?
It turns out the business of making fast turnaround television is much the same, and the people who make it are still lively souls. It’s fun and silly and full of surprises, but it’s also bloody hard yakka – 12-hour days, not including the prep. So if you don’t like it, whether you’re in wardrobe, make-up or you’re a third assistant director, you won’t stick around. In fact, some of the people who were behind the scenes in my day are still there today. They might have gone away for a spell, but they keep returning, which speaks volumes about it as a workplace.
It turns out, the thing that has changed the most since I was last on Shortland Street is me, and I’ve come into the gig with entirely different expectations: to have fun, to enjoy the ride and the community, to make a few bucks, then go home.
I still hope that Carla has been rehabilitated; that time has mellowed her into a helpful caring counsellor, a woman of wisdom and compassion who works hard to be the best she can be. But this is a soap opera.
I have to confess, to begin with I resisted the badness. I pushed back. I spoke to the writers and was rather defensive when I saw my dear old Carla described as dangerous in an early scene. Now, as I write this story, I’ve been shooting for three months and I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that Carla might not have been reborn. Each week, a new set of scripts comes out and sometimes I laugh because Carla does say some fabulous lines, using them to cut through certain characters like a scalpel. Sometimes I cringe because she has to say or do things I would never dream of doing in real life. And sometimes Carla is just plain naughty and, when I can’t create a rational reason for the really bad stuff, I remind myself it’s Ferndale.
Sometimes I laugh because Carla does say some fabulous lines, using them to cut through certain characters like a scalpel
But the thing that finally eroded any residual hope I held on to – that Carla had returned as a benevolent pantsuit-wearing goody – those fantasies were properly put to rest when I received a message via mobile phone. And no, it wasn’t a text message; it was more of a metaphorical message courtesy of the art department.
When the standby props woman handed me my character’s phone, I must’ve looked a little dismayed to discover the sort of phone Carla carried. I presumed she’d have an iPhone 12 Pro – she’d surely earn enough to afford one. But apparently, characters with questionable morals can’t be seen on screen with iPhones, as it’s a breach of some deal with Apple.
So, thanks to a single prop, my hopes for Carla’s redemption vanished in the blink of an eye – and if the good people of Ferndale know what’s good for them, I’d suggest they hide those candlesticks.