Erik Thompson: The Packed to the Rafters star on being a TV veteran at 50
We loved him in Packed to the Rafters and have quickly warmed to his solo dad role in 800 Words. Erik Thomson talks to Wendyl Nissen about his pleasure at being back in his home country and why, at not quite 50, he is happy to be called a veteran.
He’s known as television’s favourite dad both here and across the Tasman and that’s a role veteran actor Erik Thomson is quite comfortable with. After nearly five years playing father Dave on Packed to the Rafters, Erik is now happily ensconced as widower George Turner, who leaves Sydney with his two children to live in a quiet seaside town in New Zealand, in the popular TVNZ drama 800 Words.
But few people realise that he is also a bit of a dad to the cast and crew on the show, ensuring that everyone who works there is looked after and made to feel part of the group.
“When we first started shooting I got some wine and beer and had everyone around for a bit of a party. It was something I learned from Rafters, that it’s incredibly important to form bonds with the people you work with and have a sense of ownership of the show, so that’s what I wanted to do from the start. In some ways it was a bit self-serving of me having the party, because I was putting a lot on the line for this show and I guess I really wanted it to to work.”
Erik says when he worked on Rafters it was fellow Kiwi actor Rebecca Gibney who was the mum and had a lovely social warmth with everyone.
“We had a very tight group of people on that show and we always welcomed guest actors, who might only be there for a few days, as part of the team. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so I like to make sure these actors aren’t just filling a spot, they are actually part of the whole thing.”
These days Erik and Rebecca keep in constant touch, messaging each other once a week.
“We’re all interlinked, we know where we all are in the world and we’re only one little message away.”
Erik also doesn’t mind taking on the role of the more experienced, older guy on set.
“I was called a veteran recently in the paper and I was a bit shocked. So I googled it and found that veteran actually means experienced, not old, so I’m happy with that,” says Erik, who is talking to me on the phone while standing under a gum tree in McLaren Vale, South Australia, looking out over the vineyards.
It’s where he lives with his wife and two children, even though the actor still misses his childhood home of Tauranga. “It was a beautiful little town back then, not the one big super city it is now,” he says. “The Oceanside Hotel was a two-storey art deco hotel at the base of Mt Maunganui and I would ride my bike across the Matapihi Bridge and jump off the rail bridge into the water. We’d go up the Wairau River and jump off bridges there, swim down rapids – all those things you can’t do these days because it’s too dangerous.”
He left New Zealand for Australia when he was 28 years old but says he still has a very deep connection with this country.
“I love falling back into the New Zealand way of life; it is so effortless,” he says. “I like the real appreciation of Maori culture, which has been so beautifully respected here, which you don’t get across the Tasman. And I think that has made New Zealand a much richer place. In 1975 it was a colonial outpost, now it is a Pacific Island nation and there’s a real celebration of what has been achieved.”
It was this love of the country and his desire to spend time back here that led Erik to work hard to make 800 Words happen. He was essentially the matchmaker in the production process.
“I really wanted to do some work in New Zealand, so I had been coming over and talking to South Pacific
Pictures about what we could do together. And then James Griffin and Maxine Fleming came up with this idea of a widower making a real life change and taking his kids from Sydney to a small Kiwi town and I knew we had to do it.”
But to get it off the ground something needed to happen that had never been done before. They needed Channel Seven in Australia to do a coproduction with South Pacific Pictures.
“Rafters had just finished and I knew this was the next project I wanted to be involved with, so SPP did a buzz reel and I sent it off in emails to people I knew at Channel Seven.”
He says initially Channel Seven was nervous about shooting it in New Zealand, but eventually the planets aligned and it all came together, making 800 Words the first trans-Tasman co-production set in New Zealand.
Despite Channel Seven’s initial issues with the show being shot here, Erik’s persistence paid off – 800 Words became Australia’s top-rating drama for 2016, with Aussie audiences warming to the show very quickly. Erik also won the 2016 Logie Award for Best Actor for his work on the show.
So what was it that the Australians warmed to about the series?
“I think people intrinsically like starting-over stories because it gives them an opportunity to live vicariously through someone else’s bravery. And I think everyone has a fantasy now and again of wiping the slate clean and pushing the reset button, which is what this family did after the tragedy
I think everyone has a fantasy of wiping the slate clean.
of losing their mother,” says Erik.
“But it’s also a beautiful series to look at. It transports the Aussie audience to an exotic location like New Zealand and they see a part of the country that hasn’t been celebrated much – the sub-tropical north with nikau palms and stormy west coast beaches, rainforest and black sand. People in Australia tend to think Kiwis ski everywhere on our mountains and there are lots of sheep and green fields.”
The production team was careful to make sure there were plenty of Australian actors the audience recognised, such as Erik, with other key roles played by Bridie Carter
(McLeod’s Daughters) and Rick Donald (Underbelly, Home and Away).
“And then there are all these amazing New Zealand actors, like Michelle Langstone, Anna Jullienne, Jonny Brugh and John Leigh, to name a few of the great talents on the show, who are familiar here but new, fresh faces for an
Australian audience and I think they really warmed to them.”
The show has surpassed the traditional Australia-New Zealand rivalry that occurs between the two countries.“In my experience,” says Erik, “when there’s no one else around, we have a go at each other, a bit of friendly ribbing, but there’s always a big brother, little brother fondness. Anyone who has travelled overseas knows that when there’s an Aussie and a Kiwi in a room full of foreigners, we stick together – that Anzac spirit comes out.
“Having said that, I have to admit I was very relieved when the show was so successful in Australia, because it was a big risk.”
Erik is not just the lead actor in 800 Words but also an associate producer, which is a role he describes as being a bit like a gummy shark.
“I don’t have a lot of teeth, but because I’ve been here from the beginning in a senior position as a cast member, I can bring up something if I think there’s a problem with the tone, and I’ll either get listened to or ignored,” he says with a laugh.
For his role as George, Erik had to pretend that he couldn’t surf, which was a lot harder than it sounds for someone who grew up on a surfboard on Tauranga’s beaches.
“We shot a lot of the surfing stuff at Muriwai, which is a wild west coast beach, so I was pleased that I had confidence in the water. But on the first day I had to take quite a few big falls down some fairly big waves and I did question my decision to do my own stunts after that. But so far, with two series down, I haven’t drowned yet.”
Erik is looking forward to coming back to New Zealand in February to shoot another season of 800 Words. Last time his two children Eilish (nine) and Magnus (five) and his wife Caitlin came with him to New Zealand. They all stayed at his sister and brother-inlaw’s house in Remuera in Auckland. But this time he’ll be coming on his own because he doesn’t want to take the kids out of school.
“They enjoyed it last time but it was for two school terms and, particularly for Eilish, she’s coming up to 10 with good mates and is doing really well at school, so it’s just one of those difficult things we have to deal with. But it’s a bit of a first world problem,”says Erik.
He’ll see his family in the school holidays and on weekend visits, but he says he works so hard on set with long hours that he doesn’t get to see a lot of them anyway. But he has good friends in the crew and cast.
Erik has two sisters in New Zealand – one in Auckland and one in Tauranga, who lives just around the corner from his mum; his dad died three years ago. So he’s looking forward to more time back here, but also to a special birthday in April when he turns 50.
He plans to go surfing in the Mentawai Islands off the coast of Sumatra with some New Zealand friends he’s had since the early 1980s.
“It’s a mecca for surfers because it’s 100 miles off the coast of Sumatra and there’s nothing there except waves, some accommodation and lots of Western surfers like us ruining the serenity,” he jokes.
“I feel good about this birthday because I’ve never been fitter or healthier, my career is going well and I’m very content with my life, so there’s cause for celebration.” AWW
800 Words screens on Wednesday nights at 8.35pm on TVNZ1.
CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT: Erik Thomson with his Best Actor Logie Award for 800 Words. The Packed to the Rafters family. As George Turner with children Shay (Melina Vidler) and Arlo (Benson Jack Anthony) in 800 Words.