In November 2010 Robyn Malcolm appeared on television to say a heartfelt goodbye to Outrageous Fortune, the show in which her character Cheryl West had become one of New Zealand television's most iconic. Cheryl was part of an impressive acting career that stretches over three decades.
Graduating from drama school Toi Whakaari in 1987, Robyn Malcolm began worked extensively in theatre. In 2003 she won an International Actors Fellowship to study at London's Globe Theatre.
Malcolm made her screen debut in 1989, in this episode of Wellington police series Shark in the Park. But she would first catch the attention of television audiences five years later, after joining the staff of Shortland Street. As nursing manager and mother Ellen Crozier, she quickly lost a husband, accidentally burnt down the house, and got caught up in a complicated love-life — not to mention the complications which can ensue when your ex-boyfriend marries your psychotic sister (Elizabeth Easther). In 1998 Malcolm's character also dealt with the cot death of her child Rose.
During almost six years on the soap, Malcolm earned her first screen nomination for Best Actress at the 1998 Television Awards. Six years after leaving Shortland Street she scored her first screen award for a show which surely drew some inspiration from it: satire Serial Killers, in which she played a stressed out scriptwriter.
Post-Shortland Street, Malcolm founded the New Zealand Actors' Company with Tim Balme, Katie Wolfe and future Outrageous Fortune director Simon Bennett. The company produced and toured successful productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Roger Hall saga A Way of Life across NZ, before the failure of King Lear production Leah.
In 2002 Malcolm was nominated for her performance in the title role in tele-movie Clare, based on the cervical cancer experiment at National Women's Hospital. The film's inspiration was Clare Matheson, whose book Fate Cries Enough chronicles how over 15 years she became an unwitting participant in a medical experiment where carcinoma in situ was often left untreated.
In 2005, the same year she was awarded for Serial Killers, Malcolm travelled to France to front documentary Our Lost War: Passchendaele, about the World War I battle in which her great uncle was one of many to lose their lives. 2005 was also the year that she first played Cheryl West, in Outrageous Fortune. Born in the mind of co-creator Rachel Lang as a brasher, more comical take on the white trash family she had created for Mercy Peak, the show would go on to become the longest running drama in New Zealand TV history.
Bringing her substantial experience to the part, Malcolm helped created an iconic character on New Zealand television: feisty, flawed and cleavaged to the hilt, the straight-talking Cheryl battled to keep the West whanau on the straight and narrow, while trying to sort her affections for her criminal husband Wolf (Grant Bowler) and policeman Wayne Judd (Kirk Torrance). By the show's third season, women were turning up in Kiwi hair salons asking for a "Cheryl West". Malcolm argued in 2007 that audiences liked the character "because she's so fallible ... We're not so into that American ideal where everyone must play the hero and act with honour at all odds and be the winner on the day."
When the final episode of Outrageous Fortune aired in November 2010, it rated better than any in the show's six season run. Along the way Malcolm has stacked up an impressive run of awards and nominations, including 2007 Air NZ Screen Awards for Best Actress, and Qantas TV Awards in 2005 and 2008.
In 2010 Malcolm took another centre stage role with The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell, the first feature from award-winning Insiders Guide director Brendan Donovan. Malcolm was nominated for an Aotearoa Film Award after playing Gail, a woman who feels like an outsider in her own family thanks to her husband's obsession with go-kart racing. Gazza Snell debuted in the 2010 round of film festivals.
After Malcolm pitched her idea for Agent Anna, the series debuted on Television One in January 2013. A second followed in mid 2014. Malcolm was intrigued by the idea of basing a show on a middle-class Mum "with no hint of hero about her", who is forced to enter the competitive world of selling real estate. She also appeared in the 2013 season of Jane Campion's acclaimed miniseries Top of the Lake (as an American chimpanzee owner, seeking healing downunder).
Since then — aside from some short films back home, and American fantasy series The Outpost — Malcolm has concentrated on Australian projects. In 2013 she began three seasons of chalk and cheese TV comedy Upper Middle Bogan, in which her screen family is again caught up in motor engines. Her Australian work also includes playing swinging wife to a crime-lord (in hit show Rake), mother to Olivia Newton-John (in miniseries Hopelessly Devoted to You), and a TV remake of Australian outback classic Wake in Fright.
In Malcolm got a memorable role in comedy This Town, the first Kiwi fictional film to hit local cinemas after the Covid-19 lockdown. Malcolm played an ex cop trying to prove that a local man should be in jail. Malcolm described the character as "very serious, obsessed, bull-headed and so much fun".
In 2019 Malcolm was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to television and theatre. She expressed pride in the achievement, but made clear she hadn't done anything special. "I come from a community, a tribe of people who all adore telling stories and I've been lucky to be able to have sustained a career for 30 years now which is recognition in itself."
Profile updated on 5 August 2020
Jane Bowron, 'The crumbs around her mouth' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 17 July 2007, page T3
Diana Wichtel, 'Cheryl and me' (Interview) - The Listener, 28 July 2007, page 27 (issue 3507)
'Robyn Malcolm' Outrageous Fortune website (broken link) Accessed 27 May 2018
'Robyn Malcolm joins TV ONE in Agent Anna' (Interview -broken link) TVNZ website. Accessed 27 May 2018