On the wrong side of the gender pay gap

Kiwi actor Ria Vandervis speaks to Teuila Fuatai about life on set, in the limelight, and on the wrong side of the gender pay gap

Like New Zealand, Shortland Street has changed significantly over the years. How have you found being part of the show?

I have been on Shortland Street for nearly five years. As a cast member, I think the show has managed to portray topical issues – which are often confrontational and contentious – pretty well. We have a transgender character, gay characters, and characters from many different ethnic backgrounds. Recently, plot lines have also delved into self-harm and youth suicide, and just this year, my character was involved in an abortion story line. These are big, challenging, social issues, and I am proud to be part of a show which addresses and discusses them.

Do you ever think the show goes too far when portraying certain stereotypes?

I think it has to do that to ensure that issues, which are not well-discussed or even understood by some people, have a platform to be considered. Of course things in soap-operas will be two-dimensional and dealt with relatively hastily, so the point is more to get those often-suppressed issues into the ‘family-living room’ for consideration, and ideally discussion. In a show like Shortland Street, we’re limited with the amount of time we have to dissect complicated characters, so the first step is to ensure that as many people as possible have some representation on air. Next, is normalising those representations. Having Blue, the show’s first transgender character - played by transgender actor Tash Keddy – is part of that. Blue’s storyline isn’t necessarily a deep one, but the fact they’re there, and it’s normal, and they’re not made a massive issue out of, is awesome.

How have you found working in New Zealand compared to Australia?

Work in New Zealand tends to come in ebbs and flows because of our reliance on international productions. Depending on what is happening, there can be a big influx of work, followed by a period of very few opportunities. Part of the problem is the limited infrastructre that exists for production work in New Zealand. For example, a fire at one of the West Auckland studios last year caused havoc during filming for a large production that was underway. While the studio has since been restored, the production company’s search for another filming location took a while because of the small number of suitable places available in New Zealand. In larger industries, those types of incidents would not be a major problem as finding a suitable replacement would be relatively easy.

Are we a realistic destination for large-scale international productions?

We definitely should be. New Zealand has an amazing array of different landscapes, which really helps from a production point-of-view. When I was on the Power Rangers, we pretended we were all over the world – for example, where there’s sand dunes, we could film as if we were in Egypt, and then there’s also dense forest and beautiful beaches for other backdrops. However, places like Chile also offer similar variation in landscape, and more recently, the financial advantages of running a production over here – which had made it a fairly desirable destination from an economic perspective – have come under fire. New Zealand needs to play to its strengths, and promote the best parts about its film industry, which is far more than the beautiful mountains, forests and beaches we call home. We have world-class production work-crews, and a host of talented actors that all need work because there just aren’t enough local productions to sustain them. In addition to this, international production companies have also found working in New Zealand relatively easy because English is the main language.

What’s the deal with male actors being paid more than their female counterparts?

Ha! I believe this is true both here and in Australia. However clauses in our contracts deem it illegal to disclose just how much you earn, shrouding pay rates in secrecy and therefore making it impossible to confirm exactly what's what. Despite that, the pay disparity between male and female actors is discussed and widely-acknowledged in the industry. A while back, I heard of an actor who found out she was earning less than a man with essentially the same job and experience level. When the pay differential was raised, both actors were warned for violating the non-disclosure clauses – and no resolution was achieved. Doing away with the non-disclosure clause in contracts would be the first step in addressing pay disparity between men and women in the acting industry. I also think valuing all time and activities that take place as part of the show – including hair and make-up – should occur. At Shortland Street, women spend, on average, an hour each morning in hair and make-up. For men, this dressing-room time is about 10 minutes, so women are disproportionately affected and do not receive compensation for it. Hair and make-up is also required for publicity and promotional work for the show – another set of events which widens the pay disparity between male and female actors.

Ria Vandervis has worked in television and film in New Zealand and Australia. She also helps run Konstruct, a print apparel and promotional production company in West Auckland.

Her comments have been edited for style.

Read the previous Chatroom column with comedian Angella Dravid here