Cape Town – Behind the gates of the prestigious all-girls school, St Agnes, lies a deadly secret.
When the body of student, Lexi Summerveld (Jane de Wet) is found lying at the base of the mill, her drama teacher Kate Ballard (Nina Milner) sets out to find out if her death was just an accident or something more sinister.
Nina, best known for her work as a top fashion model and her earlier roles in M-Net’s Ella Blue and Innocent Times, takes on her first lead role in years in Showmax’s second original show, The Girl from St Agnes.
The 30-year-old actress’ first attraction to the show was that it is "bloody well written," she tells Channel24 during an interview.
Produced by Quizzical Pictures the show draws on producer Harriet Gavshon’s own private school experiences, which sparked the original idea. Catharine Cooke co-directed the shoot with Cindy Lee, a commercials director helming her first drama series, having previously worked as the social media director on the Emmy-winning Black Mirror. Double Safta-winner Gillian Breslin stepped in as head writer.
This makes Girl from St Agnes a rare TV series commissioned, produced, written, and directed by women.
PACKED WITH SURPRISES
Nina herself is a self-confessed murder mystery fan and says the script ticked all the boxes when she first read it: "I have watched so many whodunits that I was literate to the way stories usually unfold. This show hit every mark but it never felt predictable. How the story unfolded was very surprising to me."
When Nina discovered that her character would have to solve a murder, she jumped at the chance to play Kate: "I have always been obsessed with murder mystery from Agatha Christie, Murder She Wrote to Columbo the whole thing. I live for it and so does my family, we have done a lot of bonding around sleuth stories. So when I heard that I get to solve a murder, my family and I were just like, ‘awesome’!”
Her character, Kate, comes from a different background than the world of St Agnes. Having gone to a public school, she struggles to fit in with the rest of the staff at the school. On the flip side, her relationship with the learners is one with mutual respect, and zero boundaries.
For Nina, it was quite hard to fall in love with her character right from the start: "On paper, she is really hard. You’ll see she is very beautifully set in the first episode but the way that she goes about piecing together her version of what happened, and how everything unfolds, she makes very destructive decisions. A lot of it was really difficult for me to get behind. She says and does things that are just shocking."
Halfway through shooting, Nina gained a deeper understanding of her character, and this is where her love for Kate was formed and amplified.
Her approach to playing the drama teacher was to draw on her own real-life experiences: "Everything you see of Kate in the Girl from St Agnes is very much my own private material. I tried to bring her as close to me as I could while allowing some spaciousness for her own reality distortion fields. I think I fell in love with her during that process. It was challenging for me, but we were in it together."
Playing Kate has been a big learning curve for Nina, both personally and professionally. Early on in her career, she wasn’t very proud of the work she had done: "Everyone else was really excited and I was just like embarrassed and I was too young to know that I need to grow up. I stopped acting because I wasn’t learning it was just making me self-conscious. With the Girl from St Agnes, it felt like my very first time, this is a project that I had a lot of emotional responsibility and I am so proud of it."
Personally, playing Kate has taught her how to start and finish something, how to do something with purpose: "She has changed me in the sense that if I can do Kate, I can do me. Interacting with Kate has given me the tools to examine myself like I have examined her. She has given me a literacy that I look forward to living with."
And what does Nina hope viewers take away from the show?
"I really want people to hold teenagers and their psyches with extreme delicacy and just understand that the forces are invisible and that we will never understand them. They are changing and growing more rapidly than our understanding of them.
"I hope society can start learning from teenagers, they are also going to become our teachers. I hope that teenagers and adults and everybody can just start looking at that period of life that deserves respect even if they are being assholes - they are doing that because they are pushing boundaries and forming their identities. To hold them to standards that we sort of crystallised in our adulthood is just so unfair. If people think hard about this show after watching it I really hope that there will be some kind of shift there."
Binge all eight episodes of The Girl from Saint Agnes on Showmax now.