Hollywood was beginning to feel like home for North Shore actor Julie Collis last year, after achieving a late-in-life breakthrough in the States before Covid hit. Heather Barker Vermeer met Julie and her ceramic artist husband Peter at their Birkenhead Point home.
Chatting to Michael Keaton outside a café on Santa Monica Boulevard, meeting Gary Oldman on set, being snapped up by Hollywood agent… If you’d have told a young Julie Collis this is what life would look like for her in her mid-60s, she’d likely have laughed out loud. But the former Westlake Girls’ teacher found herself in all these crazy-good scenarios last year for real.
Many Auckland theatregoers will recognise Julie; she’s trod the boards in local productions for years with Company Theatre and Tim Bray Productions, and is a familiar face beyond theatre, due to commercials and television appearances, including the Kiwi acting staple, Shortland Street.
Julie developed a love of acting at primary school in Banbury, England, where she grew up. “I was always in the school productions. My first show was Cinderella at primary school, I must’ve only been about six years old. I remember I ripped up my best party dress to look like Cinders! My mum wasn’t happy!”
She doesn’t come from a family line of performers – her dad was a butcher in England. “I remember dad having a poster of New Zealand on the wall of his butcher’s shop, with a Waikato farm on it. He always wanted to come here.”
Julie moved to New Zealand in 1968 with her family and finished her secondary education at Mount Roskill Grammar School, where she met her husband (and fellow prefect), Peter Collis. Both pursued arts careers; Peter becoming a renowned ceramic artist and Julie became an art teacher, as well as a practising artist, following her studies at Elam. Julie taught at Westlake Girls for 25 years, acting and creating art alongside teaching.
When Julie secured a role on TV’s Mercy Peak, she was in her late 40s and decided to leave teaching to concentrate on her art – performance and ceramics. A chance conversation with fellow Tim Bray Productions’ actor Katie Burson led to a break Julie could only have dreamed of. Katie was producing and directing a monologue for Short & Sweet – the ten-minute theatre production competition – and Julie performed the piece at Short & Sweet Sydney.
“Someone told us there was a Short & Sweet Hollywood event, so we thought, let’s go!” A Boosted campaign was set up to fund the trip and Julie soon found herself winging her way to California to perform the monologue production, Slow Dating. In a Californian accent, Julie elaborates, “And there I was! Performing at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard!”
Performing near the start of the six-week competition, Julie and Peter enjoyed a memorable four-day experience in the movie capital of the world. After landing back home, news broke that they’d made the final of the competition, so they made the call to return to Hollywood. It turned out to be worth the trip. “I won the overall prize for best actress and the play won the award for best script,” smiles Julie.
What followed was like something from a Hollywood movie itself. “We were sat having drinks in a bar after I’d won the award, and this woman came up to me and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Michele Largé, from Epic Talent Management and I want to represent you!’ She gave me her card, as everyone does in L.A., and I thought it probably wasn’t for real. I think I just replied, ‘Oh that’s nice!’ And smiled politely.”
Back home in Auckland, she had a niggle about this woman and asked her agent to find out more. “My agent at Auckland Actors, Graham Dunster, arranged to go over and meet her and, since then, Michele’s turned out not only to be a great agent, but a great friend!”
After arranging visas, on August 12 2019, Julie and Peter set off back to the Hollywood Hills. They rented an Airbnb and Julie got stuck into the acting life. “As far as work was concerned, I really hit the ground running! I started getting a lot of in-room auditions right away.”
She found the high-tech, high paced world of Hollywood auditions challenging at first. “The people there live on their phones 24/7! My manager would send me notifications at all hours of day and night, and I was expected to respond immediately, print out scripts from my phone and be ready to go at the drop of a hat. It was a very different system to here in New Zealand!”
Having perfected the Californian accent, Julie was comfortable auditioning for parts that required that but had to learn many other US variations – and fast! She relished the opportunity to be auditioning alongside big-name actors and meeting influential directors and writers. At one audition, for Amazon series The Boys, fronted by Kiwi acting royalty Anthony Starr and Karl Urban, Julie was pleased to be able to tell the director she’d played Anthony Starr’s mum on Shortland Street some years earlier.
Julie and Peter integrated themselves into the Hollywood scene. A former colleague from Westlake Girls’, Linda Cornfield, was among the Kiwi expats. “Linda told us to come and meet her friend Michael for a coffee, so we did,” says Julie.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when we walked around the corner to the café and, sitting there, was Michael Keaton! He was nicest guy. He loves New Zealand. He told me he’d been here several times and looked forward to coming back.”
As Julie was beginning to ensconce herself in Hollywood, the global events of 2020 began to unfold. “The Governor of California came on the TV and gave a stay-at-home order. We lived with that for a couple of weeks and, the longer it went on, the more we started to feel ‘this is a bit scary!’”
The couple decided to return to New Zealand when it became apparent that flights home would become scarce. "We had a lovely apartment over there. It was shame to have to leave. But we had no doubts that we had to come back when we did. We thought Covid would be over in a couple of months, so we sub-let the apartment for a few months initially, but eventually had to let it go.
“In Hollywood, I’d just built up a plan with my agent to secure a job on a national ad campaign, from which the residuals would be enough to carry me through the year. We were looking at spots on some of the big shows, like NCIS, and I had been offered a guest spot on a movie, which I was really excited about.”
Before leaving LA, Julie won a small role playing a ‘Hollywood starlet’ on a big budget, Oscar-winning movie, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Netflix movie Mank is set during the golden age of Hollywood, centring on the making of Citizen Kane at MGM film studios. Mank was filmed at these same iconic studios, now named Sony Pictures Studios, and stars Hollywood heavyweights Gary Oldman and Amanda Siegfried. It was the most highly Oscar-nominated film of 2021, with ten nominations, picking up two for best cinematography and best production design.
“It was filmed in the exact same lot where Citizen Kane had been filmed all those years ago. They’re as big as a football field, those jolly lots!” Julie scrolls through images of her on set in full costume and make up, wearing a pair of blue leather shoes that were handmade especially for her to wear in the film.
“It was great to meet Gary Oldman on set. He was very unassuming – a really friendly guy. I didn’t want to appear like a starstruck fan but felt I had to say hi and take these opportunities. It was fabulous!”
And while the Hollywood Hills may call them back in future, for now, they are enjoying being near family. Their son Elliot, a university lecturer, and daughter Sophie, a theatre nurse, both live on the Shore. The joys of new grandparenthood are written all over Julie’s face as she shares the news that she and Peter became first time grandparents just three weeks ago.
“When I came up with this crazy idea of going to Hollywood, people said, ‘just watch, you’ll meet a Hollywood agent’ – and I did. And people said, ‘you’ll end up in a Hollywood movie’ – and I did! And, you know what, if I never do another thing, well, I did that!”