Baptism of fire

Ria Vandervis of Shortland St. Photo supplied.
Ria Vandervis of Shortland St. Photo supplied.
Shortland Street's latest star comes from close to home. Nigel Benson meets Dunedin actor Ria Vandervis.

Shortland Street has been a journey, rather than a destination for Ria Vandervis.

The Dunedin actor is not so far removed from her secretive character, Dr Harper Whitley.

She, too, has recently returned to New Zealand, after successfully working overseas.

Yet, Vandervis (28) could easily have had a career in building, rather than building an acting career.

''I did a year at architecture school before I decided to change to acting. I was tossing up between those two at high school, but then I got a scholarship to study architecture,'' she said during a break from filming Shortland Street.

''But most of my friends in Auckland were at drama school, so I changed direction and did a three-year bachelor of performing and screen arts [degree] at Unitec.''

Roles quickly followed in the New Zealand film The Devil Dared Me To and Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive. She then moved to Sydney and won parts in Underbelly, Packed to the Rafters, Rescue Special Ops and Cops LAC.

She returned to New Zealand last year for a role in TV3 drama series Harry, after which she was offered the role of the mysterious and troubled Whitley.

''It's interesting having two series on at the same time. I moved back to Dunedin from Sydney thinking I'd be putting my career on hold. My career hasn't been theatre, so it makes it difficult to get work somewhere like the Fortune.''

Dr Whitley was behind Dr Sarah Potts (played by Amanda Billing) at medical school and, as the rising stars of their respective years, the two became good friends.

However, Dr Whitley left New Zealand for more challenging opportunities in Australia and, ultimately, New York, where she became the youngest doctor appointed as an emergency department consultant.

However, she is vague about why she has returned to New Zealand and many at Ferndale are suspicious of her motivation for moving home from the Big Apple.

''She's an alpha female and uber confident and used to getting what she wants, which causes conflicts,'' Vandervis said.

''She's also hiding a secret and doesn't want that to come up.''

Vandervis was born in Dunedin and attended Columba College, where she first trod the boards in a school production of The Sound of Music.

When not acting, she is a certified marriage celebrant and helps run a screen-printing business, Konstruct Klothing, with husband Chris Ashton, from offices in Kaikorai Valley Rd.

''I got married at the end of December at the Vauxhall Yacht Club and then moved to Auckland at the end of February to start Shortland Street. It's an interesting way to start your marriage. I try to get get back every second weekend,'' she said.

''I'm enjoying it and the family have all been really supportive, but it was a baptism of fire. The thing with Shortland Street is there's no time to do anything. It's all about getting it done. You're bombarded with scripts, so they cast quite close to character type. You get the script a few weeks in advance so you can plot your journey.

''It was terrifying. You get chucked in the deep end. We shoot an episode a day, so you've got 20 minutes to do a scene. You just try try get your words right and hit the mark. You're a little cog in a big machine.''

• Shortland Street screens weekdays at 7pm on TV2.

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