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Brothel saga's star Peta Sergeant hooked on acting

PETA Sergeant had more riding on her first drama audition than most actors.

The Malaysian-born, Brisbane-raised star was desperate to get into the Queensland University of Technology's drama program because it was where the love of her life, an older boy she'd pursued and lost in high school, had gone.

"He was the first boy I ever kissed and I loved him so much and he broke my heart and I always kind of thought if I get into QUT we'll get back together," Sergeant recalls with a laugh.

"My drama teacher said you might get in, you might not and because you've never had an audition before you should just have a test run somewhere else."

Sergeant, who began her senior school studies with dreams of becoming a marine biologist, chose a tough pond to get her feet wet — the National Institute of Dramatic Art.

"I literally got off the bus from Schoolies and did my NIDA audition. I was kind of prepared, but not really at all. I didn't think I would even make the first cut because I only had two monologues — you're supposed to have three."

A month later, while working for a catering company in Brisbane, Sergeant got the call — she'd been accepted into Australia's most renowned acting school.

"The ironic thing, which just feels so destined, is I didn't even get into QUT — I didn't even make the first cut, but I got into NIDA," she says.

"The morning of my QUT audition I woke up and I had acute tonsillitis and I couldn't talk and I went to the audition and they went, 'Well, this is it. You can't come back after this because this is the last day, so see you later'. I was heartbroken. It was like it was the end of my life."

While NIDA turned out to be a good consolation, Sergeant, 28, admits she struggled with being an actor for many years.

"(Drama) was something that I always liked. I did it at school and it was fun but it wasn't ever something that I would have considered on my own or would have even thought you could do outside of school," she says.

"I was 20 when I came out of NIDA so I was pretty young and was not quite sure where my head was at and not quite sure if I really wanted to be an actor.

"I kind of just fell into NIDA. I didn't have any intentions to go there so I hadn't ever really made the decision, 'This is what I want to do'."

Despite landing television roles and even producing a play fresh out of drama school, Sergeant decided to abandon the industry and travel for 18 months.

She says the experience, which took her through Asia and Europe, gave her the perspective she needed to make a commitment to acting.

"That was kind of the turning point. Up until then I'd just been lucky, I suppose. But if you're going to be in an industry like this, you really have to know that you want to do it because it's really hard.

"I feel like I've really only been an actor in my mind and my heart since about 2004, four years after I graduated."

While her overseas travels proved to be an eye-opener, they weren't always a picnic. Sergeant was often short of cash and once, in Italy, had no accommodation.

"Basically I'd miscalculated all my money and when I got there I just became a vagrant until this family picked me up and took me in," she says with a laugh that suggests she's no stranger to bizarre situations.

"I was actually sleeping on the beach and starving for about 10 days. I tell people and they're like, 'Why didn't you just reverse-charge home?' It never even occurred to me. I don't know why. I guess it's just how my DNA is. That's kind of how I've always been. I like to be a pioneer, I suppose, just do it on my own."

It's a trait she shares with her character, Heather, in the critically acclaimed pay TV series Satisfaction.

The show, set in a Melbourne brothel, returns for a second season on December 2 with all of its leading actors including Madeleine West, Alison Whyte, Kestie Morassi, Diana Glenn and Bojana Novakovic.

While 30 per cent of men have experienced a brothel or escorts, it is female viewers who have connected most strongly with the characters and storylines of Satisfaction.

In the second series, the writers focus on peeling back the personal rather than the physical layers of the girls.

Heather, a lesbian escort, is still reeling from a miscarriage and the breakdown of her relationship and doing "a terrible job of dealing with it", according to Sergeant.

"She's really not taking anything that seriously because she's afraid if she thinks too much about it, all of this stuff is just going to come like a big tsunami."

Signs Heather isn't coping surface early in the series when a client asks her to make "house calls" while his wife and kids are away.

"If married men come in (to the brothel) and take their wedding rings off, there's an element of illusion that I think protects both the client and the worker," Sergeant says.

"Heather kind of gets put into this position where that illusion gets shattered and I think because of what's just happened to her, with her own loss, and the kind of things that she really wanted, which was a family and this long-term relationship and this child and a house — everything she's lost, subconsciously, gets too much for her."

While Heather may be struggling, Sergeant seems perfectly settled.

She married her long-term partner, actor Rohan Nichol, earlier this year and has recently set up house.

"We've never lived together so it's really nice, really exciting."

As for the boy who broke her heart in high school?

"He's still an actor but I think he's mostly directing now," she says.

"He came to the wedding."

By Erica Thompson
November 25, 2008
The Courier-Mail