One could be forgiven for thinking that auditioning for an enormously expensive television show based on a beloved series of fantasy novels would be an exasperating, drawn-out process. But for Wellington-born actress Zoe Robins, landing her role as Nynaeve al’Meara in Amazon Prime’s ambitious adaptation of The Wheel of Time was unusually painless.
“I did a self tape with my New Zealand agent Colin Moy in his garage studio at his house in Takapuna, and I auditioned for both Nynaeve and Egwene, just to have more skin in the game,” Robins tells me over Zoom from Prague, where she is already filming The Wheel of Time’s second season.
“We heard back relatively quickly, which doesn’t normally happen. In my experience, when you send an audition, often it kind of goes into the abyss, and you just assume that you haven’t got it.”
Robins, 28, was then invited on a Skype call with showrunner Rafe Judkins, a screenwriter whose credits include Chuck and Marvel’s Agents of Shield, to discuss the character of Nynaeve and what he wanted from the next round of auditions.
“I taped again, and there was a plan of me going to London to do chemistry reads with other cast members,” she says. “For whatever reason, they didn’t decide to do that, and they booked me. Which was incredible, and also very scary, because I feel like I came to Prague and I was like, ‘Are you guys sure? No-one’s actually met me physically...’”
Robins was at home in Auckland when she got the call. The gravity of the role was not lost on her: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan spans 14 novels over three decades (with Brandon Sanderson co-authoring the final three novels after Jordan’s death), and is one of the best-selling fantasy series of all time. Amazon has made no secret of the fact it wants this show to be the next Game of Thrones.
“It was an amazing moment, but it was one of those weird moments where I was actually rushing off to work,” she says [Robins was filming an episode of The Brokenwood Mysteries at the time]. “So I actually couldn’t stay and chat for long at all. It was like, ‘OK, amazing. Thank you, bye!’ That was two years ago, and then in August 2019, we all got here to start pre-production – six weeks of boot camp, horse riding, dialect sessions, stunt training, all of it.”
Robins grew up in Lower Hutt with her mother, a primary school teacher. She knew she wanted to be an actress from a young age.
“I remember watching Dakota Fanning in something, and I thought, ‘I want to do exactly what she’s doing.’” Robins’ first job, at the age of 12, was in The New Tomorrow, a sequel to The Tribe, the cult sci-fi series that offered the likes of Antonia Prebble, Fleur Saville and Michelle Ang some of their first acting gigs. She attended Auckland-based acting course The Actors’ Program in 2014, and then went on to star in shows such as Shortland Street, The Shannara Chronicles and Power Rangers Ninja Steel.
She has been a working actor for a number of years, but it’s safe to say The Wheel of Time is unlike anything she’s done before. She uprooted her life and moved to Prague, along with hundreds of cast and crew; descending on the enormous sets that were built for the first season. Amazon has reportedly splashed out US$10 million ($14m) per episode – US$4m more per episode than the first season of Thrones – and Robins says arriving in Prague was “incredibly overwhelming”.
“I’ve never been involved in something of this scale,” she says. “And to be involved at the establishing moments too, to be a part of collaborating on costuming, hair and makeup, was something that I had never experienced before.
“The knowledge that this is a beloved fantasy book series was something that was not lost on us either. There are people who have grown up with the characters in these books, and it means a lot to a lot of people. It was a bit daunting at the beginning, but I think we just had to focus on the work and our part to play in it all.”
The series opens in the small village of Two Rivers, where Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), a member of the magical noblewomen known as the Aes Sedai, arrives in search of “The Dragon Reborn,” a young person she believes is destined to change the world.
Robins’ character Nynaeve is the “Wisdom” of Two Rivers: a local healer and the leader of the village’s Women’s Circle. She is fierce, headstrong and loyal, stopping at nothing to protect her friends when a deadly attack throws their lives into chaos.
Playing such a fiery character doesn’t come naturally to Robins. “What was really apparent to me in the audition was that I was more hesitant to audition as Nynaeve than I was with Egwene,” she says. [Egwene, played by Australian Madeleine Madden, is a more timid villager who Nynaeve invites to be her apprentice.]
“I think that’s purely because of who [Nynaeve] is as a person. She’s so headstrong and forthright and self-assured, and that can be quite scary, which is a big tick for an actor.
“But as time has passed, I’ve come to learn that we’re actually quite similar. Playing her has been quite therapeutic for me too, because of the way she is just so in charge of her emotions. Kiwis are very good at being passive and polite, when sometimes we’ve got a whole eruption happening underneath us. It’s been really nice to play with how fluid she is, in terms of what she feels and thinks. She does not care what anybody thinks of her, which has been wonderful.”
As a leader in Two Rivers, Nynaeve initially bristles at the arrival of Moiraine and, in the first episode, the two have a fractious conversation about her intentions in the village. The scene required Robins to go toe-to-toe with Pike, an Oscar nominee best known for her acclaimed turn in Gone Girl, and the most recognisable face among The Wheel of Time’s cast.
The scene was filmed within her first few weeks of shooting. “Rosamund is just such a generous and caring person and actor, she’s an absolute joy to work with,” says Robins. “But I was incredibly intimidated – she’s such a force, and she just is on her s.... She raises the bar for everyone, which is an absolute blessing.
“I was still finding my feet as Zoë in Prague, on the set and in Wheel of Time, and I was still kind of catching my breath, so it’s interesting when I watch that scene back. I can go back to those feelings: I was absolutely petrified. But I think in a way it works too, because as self-assured as Nynaeve is, she’s also incredibly insecure, and that balance is really important to juggle.”
Then again, you wouldn’t blame Robins if she had completely forgotten she was speaking to Pike the actress during the scene; given the extraordinary world-building on display in the show. “There are still days where I walk on set and I gasp, because the level of artistry and detail and specificity on this show is just next level,” says Robins. “You get transported into a completely different world. I’ve had a lot of pinch me moments, and that’s a joy to be able to still say, two years into this show.”
Is she tempted to hold onto any of her medieval-inspired costumes and weapons? “Yes and no,” Robins says with a smile. “The sheer amount of time that we wear some of these costumes made me want to have a burning ceremony for some of them. And yet, they are so incredibly informative of the character. There’s something about putting on shoes that aren’t yours that helps you navigate how one should walk and how one should feel in their bodies. But I can’t say I’ve taken anything from set. The costume department is safe for now.”
Production on The Wheel of Time began more than two years ago but was shut down twice because of the pandemic, “completely changing” the experience of working on the show, says Robins. “We were able to bond quicker in a way than I think we would have, because we really had to rely on each other as a second family,” she says. “We were filming in Prague, unable to get home and in complete lockdown, but it was a blessing in disguise, because we came together in a way that I don’t think we would have.”
Production shut downs also provided some much-needed breathing space. “It afforded us all a little bit more time to get our heads around the job and the project that we were involved in,” she says. “It gave the writers more time to just go back and play around with the storyline, and it gave me as an actor a chance to breathe, because since August 2019, it was just go-go-go. There was a relief, in a way, that we could all go home and have a bit of time to decompress, because it’s very easy to get swept up in this world.”
Despite knowing they were working on one of the largest television shows ever mounted, the madness of the past two years has been strangely private for the cast and crew, “like our little secret,” says Robins. But as the release date finally approaches, the reality of what might be to come is settling in for Robins and the rest of her young castmates.
“When we signed on to this, there was that knowledge that no matter how well the show does, people will see it, purely because there is a built-in Wheel of Time fan base already,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s any way that we can prepare for what’s to come. It’s still a giant, big fat question mark. But we’re lucky that we, the cast, have bonded how we have, and I think we’ll all keep each other pretty level-headed and look after one another, which is what you want, really.
“I don’t think we’d allow any of us to change at all. We’re like family now.”
The Wheel of Time streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday November 19.