Kerry Fox: ‘I still see myself as a teen: pot, joyriding and trying to have sex’

The Shallow Grave and Intimacy actor on driving at 15 in New Zealand, her parents’ disco dancing and starting an Abba fan club in her shed

My brother’s orange beach buggy

I grew up in Lower Hutt in Greater Wellington. Lower Hutt is considered a bit of a national joke in New Zealand. It’s extremely suburban, not particularly picturesque and has a big river, but no real beaches. Apparently, my high school has a drug problem. I didn’t realise when I was there.

The highlight of my teenage years was when I got my driver’s licence on the day I turned 15. My older brother had built a beach buggy – like you’d imagine from the 80s – out of orange fibreglass, with big wheels and roll bars to go over the dunes. When he was at work, I used to steal it and pick up my friends. I usually managed to get to where I wanted and back again without him knowing. We’d hang out at Petone beach or at Eastbourne, where all the posh people lived – I always fancied myself as a bit of an artist.

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977 when I was 12. I was too young to see it at the cinema. In New Zealand, you could drive when you were 15 then, but you couldn’t see Saturday Night Fever. My parents were really into ballroom dancing, so they got their dancing teacher – James from James Dance Studios; they called him Jimmy – to teach them how to disco in their kitchen to … I don’t think it was the song [Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees], but one of the songs from the soundtrack.

It’s probably why I still love dancing in my kitchen. A friend from drama school, Robin, came to visit me recently with her two sons. We were having a really kiwi evening, with lamb and tons of roast potatoes. Her two sons went to my two boys: “Do you know that your mum’s dancing in the kitchen?” Very wisely, my son said: “Oh yes, she always does that.”

Dowse Art Museum

Through university, I worked at the Dowse Art Museum. New Zealand is quite culturally advanced in that it recognises and embraces its multicultural Māori and Samoan past. There’s no Ikea in New Zealand. All sorts of people buy art. Farmers buy great New Zealand art.

I worked in security – a bizarre job for a teenager – just standing around, making sure that nobody nicked anything or touched the art or knocked it over, because it was really expensive. Mainly, I’d observe people. I knew I wanted to be an actor, so I’d follow people around and mimic how they moved and behaved. I’d eavesdrop on their conversations and mimic the way they spoke in my head. It wasn’t much use for accents: we didn’t have any foreigners. I remember learning French at school and thinking: “I’ve never met a French person. Or a German!” The idea that you’d ever go to France or Germany was completely otherworldly. But I learned to recognise different personalities by the way they looked; I tucked their beings somewhere at the back of my brain for later use.

Olivia Newton-John in Grease

Grease was only PG, so I got to see that. Olivia Newton-John was so cool and it was fantastic that she – an Australian – went on to be so successful. A friend and I used to do all the moves and act out all the scenarios. We loved Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee, when they’re dancing on the bed, and Beauty School Dropout, where they’re all doing their hair.

We loved the transformation from good girl to bad girl – it was amazing that you could transform yourself, if that’s what you really wanted – and, of course, the hair. I was about 13 and my brother’s girlfriend did my hair with a mad, late-70s perm, because I wanted to be Newton-John. It started my bad girl phase, of wearing tons of makeup, really tight trousers and impossibly high plastic heels, and set me on the path of smoking an enormous quantity of cigarettes, stealing my brother’s beach buggy, wagging school and desperately wanting to have sex with any boy that I could find.

Jethro Tull

The other way I desperately tried to have sex with boys was when I went camping, aged 17. I drove everybody in my father’s car. The boys must have been in one tent and three of us girls in another. We were drinking ouzo and – what’s that one with the worm in it? Tequila? I’ve never been able to drink tequila since – and listening to Jethro Tull on our Walkmans and pretending we were really cool.

I remember lying back in this remote campsite near the seaside, getting really stoned, pretending to like Jethro Tull to impress the boys. Really, I was far more into Split Enz – the band the Finn brothers were in before they were in Crowded House. They wore white makeup and red lipstick with spiky hair and skinny ties and were the most famous group in New Zealand in the early 80s.

Split Enz.
Split Enz. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

I also loved Abba. My parents thought they were super cool when they were dancing to Abba. Me and my friend had our own Abba fan club in the shed. I can’t remember lyrics and I can’t hit a note to save my life, so I wasn’t a very successful fan club member. I took six months of singing lessons over lockdown, because it’s always been on my bucket list. I worked really hard, but I can’t say that I improved. I always refuse whenever I’m asked to play a character who has to sing.

The Downstage Youth Theatre

My first acting job was on a TV family drama called Country GP. I was still in my teens, so I must have got the part through acting school. I went to the Downstage Youth Theatre in Wellington for three years. I drove myself and my friend Cameron Rhodes from the Hutt to Wellington in the evenings after school and at weekends. It’s hard to imagine that as a 15-year-old I was driving for half an hour, parking in the dark, going to a youth theatre class, piling out at 10pm and driving home again.

I play Billie Piper’s mother in her film Rare Beasts and I’m shooting a film in Birmingham called The Colour Room, where I play the mother of Phoebe Dynevor from Bridgerton. So I’ve been thinking a lot of my own mother and looking through all these old photos of the Hutt valley. It’s just seems weird to be playing mothers – even though I have two sons myself. I still see myself like a teenager: smoking pot, stealing cars and trying desperately to have sex with boys.

Rare Beasts is released in cinemas and digitally from 21 May


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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