The diminutive New Zealand actress plays hot rod driver and mother Julie Wheeler in Upper Middle Bogan, ABC’s new comedy from Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (The Librarians, Very Small Business).
“She’s a good, solid working-class Mum, married to Wayne (Glenn Robbins) when they were young and had a menagerie of children. Just a big, chaotic, scrappy, crazy family in a big house in the suburbs of Melbourne. They’re obsessed with drag racing but she’s the smallest so she’s the one who fits in the car. But she has a gammy knee because she’s the eldest,” she recalls.
“What I love about her is her toughness, but she’s funny. And the kids are hilarious.”
The comedy centres around Bess (Annie Maynard) who discovers her mother Margaret (Robyn Nevin) adopted her when she was younger. Suddenly her lineage is no longer so well-heeled, but from the opposite side of the tracks.
“Annie Maynard is a complete star. Such a wonderful comedian, she reminds me of Tina Fey with a lovely, light touch,” says Malcolm.
“Robyn and Wayne are such wonderful people I just loved working with them. They’re so intelligent and joyous and playful. It didn’t feel like going to work.”
Malcolm is best known for her powerhouse matriarch Cheryl West in the hit NZ dramedy Outrageous Fortune, a role she almost declined.
“I thought ‘Oh well it’s just a 13 week gig.’ And then six years later…” she laughs.
“But it was a magnificent journey with a rich, multi-faceted, glorious character to play. Script after script was marvelous. But we ended it when we should have which I think is really important, to leave the party early. Don’t be a stayer!”
The show about a criminal clan was so successful adaptations were attempted overseas, including failed attempts in the US.
“There’s something particularly Kiwi about it. The dryness and the very dark comedy. The Aussies get it because we’re very similar,” she observes.
“(America) ballsed it up twice. They don’t need ours. They’ve got Arrested Development, Modern Family, they’ve got lots of telly!
“We have such profoundly different sense of humour between Australasia and America. It’s really different and difficult to translate.”
Malcolm has also appeared recently in Rake and the acclaimed Top of the Lake by Jane Campion.
“We had a month together shooting the Women’s Camp and it was like we were on holiday together. It was just brilliant. When I read the script and read that monkey speech I just about fell to my knees and said ‘Thanks!’ She was such a bonkers woman!” she says.
“It was so bleak and yet hilarious. I’ve been reading some of the Brit reviews and they had an expectation it would be like The Killing and you could see them getting slightly annoyed because it had more humour in it, and they didn’t quite know what to do with the characters who were a bit icky and feral. But as time has gone on they’ve gotten into it because it’s so uniquely told.”
With other credits in both television, film and theatre, Malcolm now happily straddles roles in NZ and Australia in both drama and comedy.
“It’s been drama for a really long time but in the last wee while it’s been more comedy. I like doing both, and I love when the two meld together. Straight drama that has not sense of comedy I think loses a sense of humanity. They always say comedy is more difficult, and some dramas get so far up their own arses with their own seriousness that you’re like ‘Ohh for god’s sake!’” she sighs.
“I love it when there’s a sense of self-irony in the characters. I love it when there’s a sense of ridiculousness or absurd.
“But it’s weird that historically I’d always considered myself a dramatic actress. Probably because I’ve got a big voice! I can shout a lot!”
Soon she returns to film Rake‘s third season while her NZ series Agent Anna has been sold to Seven. But if she has her way, Malcolm is secretly hoping for a stint in Wentworth. She auditioned for the premiere season but wasn’t successful.
“Hopefully there will be something else for me. I’ve seen a couple of episodes now and thought it was fantastic.”
Meanwhile she’s hoping for more of Julie Wheeler, her hot rods and crazy family.
“It’s a sweet, funny story that’s got some drama to it. Some juice under it.”
Upper Middle Bogan airs 8:30pm Thursday August 15 ABC1.