On the record: Home to play

By Michele Hunter

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Erik Thomson
Erik Thomson

He may star in the top-rating television drama in Australia, but Erik Thomson's real life more closely resembles that of the down-to-earth dad characters he portrays than an instantly recognisable A-lister.

The Scottish-born father of two, who grew up in Tauranga and was head prefect at Tauranga Boys' College, lives at Port Willunga, a seaside enclave in South Australia, with his wife of 18 years Caitlin and the couple's two children, Eilish, 8, and Magnus, 4.

After 20 years in Australia, Thomson says he finally feels at home in a place that reminds him of Tauranga.

"It's the closest to Tauranga that I've found in Australia. It's quite provincial so it's got quite a similar vibe to Tauranga. I'm beginning to feel very much at home down here," he said.

"It's probably not that dissimilar to living at the Mount really. It's not as zhush-ey as the Mount, not as upmarket. It's a pretty simple and lovely little community."

After a dream five-year run on the hit drama Packed to the Rafters Thomson's now back in Kiwi lounges starring in 800 Words playing a widower who gives up his job as a newspaper columnist in Sydney to move his two teenage children to a beachside backwater in New Zealand.

Thomson spoke to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend from Port Willunga this week, where he'd been out paddle-boarding and doing the school run, enjoying a break before he returns to New Zealand in January to start filming the second series of the show.

This time he will bring his family with him for the first school term to spend time with family in Auckland and Tauranga, where he has fond memories of his own beachside childhood.

"Long hours spent swimming at Omanu, and swimming at Main Beach, just busy summer days on the main beach and getting milkshakes."

He also spent hours swimming with friends at McLaren Falls or in the water-hole near the Ruahihi Power Station.

"Cycling my bike across the Matapihi Rail Bridge and riding my bike to the Mount occasionally, before the other bridge was in. That's my kind of memories. Doing a milk round in Merivale. I used to be on the back of a milk truck when I was 12 years old racing around. He'd be doing 60km down a hill with a couple of 12-year-olds on the back."

Despite being a recognisable face across Australasia, Thomson says fame hasn't changed his outlook.

"It's a strange thing because I don't actually feel any different to that guy. I still live a pretty normal, humble life. I don't live in a mansion or some kind of penthouse suite. I live on a quarter-acre section near the sea and our house is nice but it's not extravagant by any means and I just feel normal.

"I get to meet a whole lot of people because they all think they know me. They don't know me at all but I just pretend that I know them as well, and instantly I've got a new friend."

Thomson on the set of 800 Words with his co-stars Melina Vidler and Benson Jack Anthony.
Thomson on the set of 800 Words with his co-stars Melina Vidler and Benson Jack Anthony.

Thomson is diplomatic when it comes to trans-Tasman loyalty. He's a New Zealander and an Australian.

"I'm both actually, I'm a Scotsman as well. I've got three citizenships. New Zealand was my whole childhood, I did all my schooling in Tauranga. All my formative stuff and all my childhood memories and early adult memories are all New Zealand so that runs very deep."

Rugby loyalties were clear during the Rugby World Cup final - Thomson supports the All Blacks.

"I was a rugby player in Tauranga, you live and breathe rugby there when you're a kid. The All Blacks were your team. Such a long time of cheering on the All Blacks, you can't suddenly just turn around mid-stream and go 'no, I'm not going to support you guys anymore', it's kind of in your blood."

His children have also developed an affinity with New Zealand.

"They love getting back there.

"Both of them have been round the Mount. Neither of them have been up it but when we get back next year my daughter's old enough now so I'll make sure I take her up for the first time. "That's always a momentous occasion in any child's life.

"I do it every time I get back - I try and do it every day actually. It's such a great climb. The view's worth it, I get to look around at all the places I used to hang out, see how far the Mount and Papamoa have extended, whether they've met up with Whakatane yet. Every time I get up there, there's more expansion going on. It's crazy."

Erik Thomson featured in the 1984 debating team at Tauranga Boys' College. Back row: (l-r) B McCracken, C Ford, M Dobbs, B Dale. Front row: M d'Young, P Green (teacher), B Marris, E Thomson.
Erik Thomson featured in the 1984 debating team at Tauranga Boys' College. Back row: (l-r) B McCracken, C Ford, M Dobbs, B Dale. Front row: M d'Young, P Green (teacher), B Marris, E Thomson.

Thomson's acting career had its humble beginnings at Gate Pa School play readings followed by drama classes at Tauranga Boys' College and "a couple of things for the Tauranga Operatic Society".

"I enjoyed it so I just did it and I played rugby as well so I was kind of like a jack-of-all-trades really."

During his time at Tauranga Boys' Thomson also performed guitar and vocals in a band called The Gonads which also featured former Otumoetai College head boy-turned actor, Tim Balme.

He studied drama and English at the Victoria University in Wellington.

"Then someone mentioned I should audition for drama school. I thought 'oh, I wouldn't be good enough', but I did and I got in. Then I went straight from that to work at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin.

"It kind of just naturally happened and then before I knew it I was a professional actor with a career. Here I am 25 years later still doing it. I've always been in work. I've put in the hard yards."

I don't kind of play too far away from myself. With these long-running roles I don't want to put on funny walks or be a baddie.
Erik Thomson

Thomson's big break was when he moved to Australia to work on late night adult soap, Pacific Drive. He then worked on medical drama All Saints for four years.

"I won a Logie award for most popular actor on telly in 2003.

"It was really All Saints that got me into the 'known' phase."

He started Packed to the Rafters in 2007 with fellow Kiwi actor Rebecca Gibney. While Thomson has played the odd bad guy on stage, he prefers roles he can relate to.

"I don't kind of play too far away from myself. With these long-running roles I don't want to put on funny walks or be a baddie."

He also hosted the travel show Getaway for a year. Thomson's advice for other young Kiwis with a dream to act is simple - chase it, but be realistic.

"If you've got a passion for it and you want to pursue it, get some tertiary education. If you keep auditioning for drama schools and you don't get in maybe you don't have what it takes.

"If you love it, you'll do it whether you make a living out of it or not. Don't be so blinkered that you don't pursue other stuff and keep getting an education. Just give yourself a lot of options."

Acting success was a combination of hard work and raw talent, he said.

"I don't know what the ingredient is but people are just that kind of person and if you're not that kind of person it's just not ever going to change really. "

Thomson on the set of 800 Words.
Thomson on the set of 800 Words.

Meanwhile, Thomson's 800 Words , which is filmed at North Piha (renamed Parata Bay for the series), has met harsher critique in New Zealand than it did in Australia.

"I think the critics have been a little bit more lukewarm about the show. The Aussies love the fact they're getting taken to New Zealand, the opportunity to sort of see this little country that they all want to come to, that's been one of the big pluses and I think from a New Zealand perspective you don't have that element."

With 800 Words a collaboration between New Zealand's South Pacific Pictures and Australia's Seven, Thomson is not adverse to further work in New Zealand - but possibly not on Shortland Street.

"I don't know about that, I haven't got anything against Shortland Street but that kind of work's really hard. I'll never say never; obviously you've got to keep all your options open. I've been asked to do it a couple of times (work on Shortland Street) and both times I've just not been available."

As with many actors who have made their mark in front of the camera, Thomson is keen to get behind the scenes as a producer. He is also associate producer on 800 Words and says more acting work would mean additional time away from his young family - something he isn't keen on.

"I'm in the number one drama series in Australia at the moment. I don't really need to run around doing anything else; that'll do."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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