One day a middle-aged former PA walks into an office in Auckland CBD to deliver a package. The last thing she expected to hear was, “Oh you look like that actress Judi Dench. We want to sign you up”.
That’s how it began. Since then, Mary has become the longest serving extra on New Zealand’s longest running and most beloved soap opera.
While Shortland Street’s famous for turns, trysts, births, deaths and marriages, one of its most enduring features is the female doctor who’s been there to see it all, but never interfere with the story.
That day when Mary walked into the casting agent’s office to deliver a package, she wasn’t expecting a job offer from it. The agent talked her around, Mary was looking for a new direction in life, this could be it. It was a challenge, what did she have to lose?
Within a couple of days, she was on Shortland Street. Within a couple of months, she got a promotion. Mary became a doctor. She’s Doctor Mary Tomkins. Originally her name was Dr Direta Peters and she didn’t like that name very much. A while later, they decided to change her name to something a little closer to home, so things worked out.
There were two years where Mary was the only woman doctor on Shortland Street. But she stresses she’s a doctor on set, and not a doctor off set. She’s even starting to get a little recognition, with selfie requests from diehard fans spotting her at the supermarket.
It’s not all fun and games. A moment of method acting for Mary really hit close to home. Not long after her husband died they asked her to do a scene where one of the main actors was going to pass away on the show. Mary was scared, she was working with and dealing with real emotions. She made it through, in doing so it made her stronger to be able to give something to the show, to play her part.
Has Mary wanted to be one of the featured stars? No, she laughs, because they might kill her off.
And she doesn’t want to be killed off just yet, she’s very happy to do what she does. The main actors will readily admit the background actors have a very important job. It’s good to feel appreciated for being there. And probably for handling all those bedpans.
It's been an amazing journey for Mary, she’s saved many lives on Shortland Street and hopes to save a few more in the future.
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