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Olive Kitteridge, Mare of Easttown and… Penny Wilding? In ‘After the Party,’ Series Mania Winner Robyn Malcolm Joins the Ranks of TV’s Most Beloved Anti-Heroines

“After the Party” came from anger, says co-creator Dianne Taylor.

“It came from a lot of anger.”

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“Robyn delivered an amazing audition for something I wrote, and the director said ‘no.’ He said she was ‘too mature’ for the role, even though it was written for someone her age. We decided to make something together, where a 50-year-old isn’t played by a 30-year-old.”

“For the longest time, we didn’t have a character and we didn’t have a story. All we had was this rage. Then we decided to use our own lives and own experiences, and in the meantime, this anger just went away,” Malcolm says at Series Mania.

Penny, played by Robyn Malcolm – who also co-created the miniseries – is a high-school teacher. Years ago, during a party, she accused her own husband of sexually exploiting her daughter’s drunk teenage friend. Now, he is back, and many people – including Penny’s own daughter – just want her to move on.

“The thing with Penny is that she’s always on the edge – she just can’t let go – of anything. Even though it would have made her life so much easier. She is unable to do it, even during what we called ‘porngate,’ when she’s discussing porn she found on her student’s phone. The only time you see her sitting still is when she is posing and even then, she can’t fully relax,” observes Malcolm, awarded for her turn at Series Mania as best actress in the festival’s International Panorama section.

In between fighting her many, many battles, Penny poses nude for a drawing class.

“We show a middle-aged woman and we show her middle-aged body. It’s there, front and center. Robyn was so brave,” adds Taylor, who wrote alongside Sam Shore, Martha Hardy-Ward and Emily Perkins.

“It’s true – Penny can’t stop herself, whether it means calling someone a ‘cunt’ or graffitiing a boat. There is a moment, later on in the show, when she literally punches someone. You can’t stop this flow: It’s all just pouring out of her now. But it’s not just about what happens in that marriage. It’s about so many things: about her relationship with her mother, with her daughter.”

And about women who actually feel real.

“We realized that so many middle-aged women we see in movies or shows wear a lot of white and giggle, and have these enormous kitchens – like Meryl in that film with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin [‘It’s Complicated’]. I don’t know women like that at all!,” laughs Malcolm.

“Instead, we thought about ‘Olive Kitteridge,’ ‘Mare of Easttown.’ I actually said: ‘Fuck, they also have a basketball scene! Is it going to be a problem?!’”

“Or this Icelandic film ‘Woman at War’ [by Benedikt Erlingsson about a choir conductor-turned-eco-terrorist]. We loved it. With someone like Olive Kitteridge, there is something refreshing about the fact that she just isn’t nice. She doesn’t care! I just hate that word, ‘likable.’”

With her friends and family members asking Penny to let go of the drama and accept Phil’s (Peter Mullan) return to the community, she needs to make difficult choices again. But is she telling the truth?

The show’s ambiguity already drove local viewers insane, laughs Malcolm.

“My tax accountant called, saying: ‘If you tell me what happens, I will reduce your mortgage.’”

“She was winding me up, but people would stop us on the street, worried they have ‘invested’ in Penny for nothing.”

Taylor adds: “Someone literally said to me: ‘I am so worried. If I’ll find out she wasn’t telling the truth, I will be so, so angry!’ This guy, Phil, used to be the star in this relationship. He was the one entertaining people, reciting poems at parties. We needed someone like Peter to make him feel charming.”

“This last scene in the first episode, when he lies in bed with this boy, looks at Penny and presses his finger to his lips, asking her to be silent – Peter came up with that. At first, I wasn’t convinced, but now I look at it and it can mean so many things.”

“With Peter, we get along like porkchops. He is such an amazing actor. We wanted the audience to have doubts,” adds Malcolm. But they also wanted them to have fun.

“It is fun – fun like Chekhov. Sometimes, you go to see his plays and people treat them so seriously. They forget there is humor in the middle of all this darkness.”

“It’s my first TV show. I’ve never ‘learnt’ how to write for TV, I never followed that one pattern, so we did what we wanted to do. Only to then hear people say that it’s’ the best TV show from New Zealand,’ ever. It created this huge conversation at home,” says Taylor.

“When you watch something like ‘Expats’ with Nicole Kidman, all of a sudden you realize there is an episode [number 5] that lasts an hour and a half – they are basically adding a whole movie! There are no rules in TV anymore. That’s why it’s fun.”

Broadcasted by TVNZ and ABC – Channel 4 has recently acquired U.K. rights – the show was produced by Australia’s Lingo Pictures and New Zealand’s Luminous Beast in association with, and distributed by, ITV Studios.

“My niece would text me, saying: Penny Penny, Penny, no, no, no!,” says producer Helen Bowden, founder of Lingo Pictures. Admitting she loves “making stories about women with women at the center, for women, created by women.”

“I was incredibly drawn to this very strong, determined and uncompromising person. It’s somehow much harder to believe somebody we like less or who is behaving badly.”

They also “got lucky” with Peter Mullan, bringing “real complexity” to the role.

“His [character’s] return to Wellington is either the act of an innocent man or the act of a narcissist. It is something we tease out through the entire series and Peter can carry that incredibly well, keeping the audience in the palm of his hand,” she notes.

“It’s hard to describe why these scripts make you laugh. They ought not to, with that dark material. I think they are beautifully observed, but also, Penny is such a real character. She just cannot, will not go along with anything – just for the sake of it. Her authenticity is the hill she will die on. And we love her for that.”

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