From her time as a projectionist working at Hoyts Woden while at uni in Canberra, to in-demand television writer with credits including Underbelly, The Hunting, Janet King and the new Tim Minchin project Upright, it seems Niki Aken has always been destined for a career in entertainment.
"I just want to write and create my own stuff," she said, of the future.
And she's not stopping with only writing.
Her aim is to be a show runner, the person who has complete creative control over an entire television show, think legend David E. Kelley, most recently from Big Little Lies, or Hollywood's current It Girl, Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Fleabag. That's a big deal when her first TV writing role came only seven short years ago.
Not that Aken's success feels overnight to her.
"I was 28 when I wrote and saw my first TV script go to air, in 2012. I started in the TV industry in Sydney in 2008, when I was 24. So a decent apprenticeship," she said.
At just 35, Aken is on the cusp of even greater things, her role with Upright, was as script producer, a major position, being in charge of the writers' room, supervising the series storyline, character arcs and ensuring the tone of the show remained true throughout the series.
Which might seem kind of daunting when dealing with such an extraordinary wordsmith as Minchin, who wrote the Upright series with a stellar team that included co-creator Chris Taylor, best known from The Chaser.
"I was very respectful," Aken said, with a laugh.
"I was not telling them how to suck eggs. But with four different writers, you're trying to ensure the episodes are as dramatic and compelling and funny as possible without distracting tonal variance.
"It was also very collaborative. This was a labour of love for Tim and you wanted to help see it come together."
And Aken seems to have struck a chord, if early viewings of Upright, which debuts on Foxtel on December 1, are anything to go by.
"After a screening, one of Tim's agents grabbed my hand and was actually crying and telling me to ring my mum," Aken said, remembering the effect the poignant, bittersweet series has already had on people.
Upright follows the story of Lucky Flynn (Minchin), who sets off to drive across Australia to see his dying mum, packing only his cherished upright piano. His plans soon go awry when he meets rogue teenager Meg (Milly Alcock). That sets up an unlikely friendship and a rollicking road-trip across the Nullarbor.
"Making Upright was a complete joy and a massive privilege," Minchin has said.
"After living overseas for more than a decade, I couldn't have hoped to come home to a more fun and inspiring project: an original Australian outback adventure story, full of heart and laughter, made by some of most talented and dedicated creatives in the country."
So what was it like to work with Renaissance man Minchin, not only an actor and writer but composer, lyricist and director?
"It's really fun," Aken said. "He's a very entertaining fellow. It goes without saying that he's very intelligent and very sharp and has a unique view of the world.
"He has very exacting standards and I actually found that very reassuring because I have extremely high standards as well.
"We had lots of very philosophical conversations because something quite major happens in the series, revealed in flashback, episode by episode, and it really goes to the psychology of the two characters. And that was my thing, that was my background, it was one of my superpowers that I could use on this series."
Because when she was studying at the University of Canberra, Aken was focused on psychology and believed throughout her studies she would pursue a career in that field.
Even though she was "obsessed with movies" and her part-time job as the projectionist and manager at Hoyts meant "it was a great way to see lots of movies for free".
"It also made me swear like a trooper. And then I had to learn to un-swear," she said, with a laugh.
"Because you're working in a completely soundproof room and it's such a high-stress environment, I would just yell the f-word when a film snapped and the boss is calling the radio asking when the movie is going to go back up."
Eventually, in her honours year, Aken recognised where her true passion lay, where she could marry her fascination with human behaviour and her desire to tell stories.
"In fourth year at uni, I finally did scriptwriting," she said.
"That's when it crystallised. I thought, 'I don't want to help people in the way that psychologists do' but I do want to inspire and connect with people in a creative way, by storytelling. To make sense of the world through writing."
Her first job was as a script assistant on Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, the incendiary Channel Nine mini-series which explored real-life stories of drugs, crime and corruption in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, and beyond.
I was 28 when I wrote and saw my first tv script go to air, in 2012. I started in the TV industry in Sydney in 2008, when I was 24. So a decent apprenticeship.Niki Aken
She had a fine mentor in Felicity Packard, a creative writing lecturer at the University of Canberra, and award-winner writer on Underbelly, as well Aken's supervisor in her honours year. Aken later sent a short film she made to Underbelly producer and writer Greg Haddrick. That, along with an endorsement from Packard, was her break into the industry.
"Greg rang Felicity and it was the okay from her that was key, 'Yep, she's reliable, she's hard-working'. It was a big tick of approval," she said.
Aken would eventually write whole episodes in the fifth instalment of the franchise, Underbelly: Badness, including the finale.
Underbelly: Badness went deep into legally sensitive material, focusing on how the NSW Police Strike Force Tuno finally nabbed murderer Anthony ''Rooster'' Perish in 2008 after years of investigation. Aken actually sat in on the ensuing legal proceedings to help bring the script alive and remain true to the voices of those involved.
She shared an Australian Writers' Guild award with Packard for their work on Underbelly and they also later collaborated on Screentime's ANZAC Girls.
Yet, Aken was still worried she could not make a career from writing.
"There was about a two-month period when I thought, 'Well, I've been really lucky for the last four years. But oh, I've run out of luck. That's it. I'm done'," she said, with a laugh.
That's turned out to be hardly the case, one of her major recent projects writing the SBS series The Hunting, with co-creators Sophie Hyde and Matthew Cormack. Starring big names Asher Keddie and Richard Roxburgh, the four-part series followed the aftermath of a nude teen photo scandal while also showing a modern, multicultural Australia.
"It was a very special project," Aken said.
"It had me written all over it. There was a diverse cast. There was a terrific idea. I'd never been able to write teenagers before and now here was my chance. I wanted to show these young girls who had a lot of spark and humour with each other, as well as intelligence."
Last year, she secured a producer placement with Create NSW which led to her working with Helen Bowden at Lingo Pictures where she got to see first hand the company work on a range of projects including On the Ropes for SBS, Lambs of God for Foxtel, as well as Upright. She saw production work at its busiest, literally in the room when Bowden was on the phone to the UK securing finance for Upright.
That placement led to Aken to being appointed script producer on Upright.
Bowden said Aken held her own as she worked most closely with Chris Taylor, who was experienced in comedy but not drama, and the mercurial Minchin, helping make his "fabulous ideas" a reality.
Bowden says Aken's strength in her writing is creating authentic characters who ring true and are not obvious. Her burgeoning producer talent is in helping foster a genuine collaboration of creatives that leads to something even better than imagined.
"She's absolutely going to go from strength to strength,"Bowden said.
"She's got a lovely confidence and that works in her favour. Tim, particularly, responds to that, he loves confident people who talk directly to him and challenge him and take his ideas to the next level."
Aken is a born and bred Canberran and she credits the national capital with help shaping her career.
Her parents Maria and Kron, and her brothers James and Joel, still live in Canberra.
She was educated at St Clare's College and Canberra College before starting at UC.
Her mum is Australian and her dad Malaysian. They met at the Australian National University where her mum was studying English and her dad forestry.
Aken now lives in Melbourne but is a staunch defender of her hometown.
"I think, to a fault, I'm very pro-Canberra," she said.
"It's something with other people I've worked with in Sydney or Melbourne, I'll find out they're from Canberra, and I'll say, 'I didn't know that! You kind of hid that'. I'm very open about it.
"I love the clean air, the friendliness, there's not as much stress. And Canberra is also very progressive."
Growing up on the southside, in Red Hill, Lyons and Mawson, Aken said she spent a lot of her Canberra childhood "heading for the nearest hill".
It was walking up places like Mount Taylor or Red Hill reserve that she got time to think and dream. And perhaps lay the foundation for all that lay ahead.
"I got to go to so many places in my head," she said.
- Lingo Pictures' mini-series Upright, starring Tim Minchin and Milly Alcock will premiere on Fox Showcase on Sunday, December 1 at 8.30 pm.