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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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