By FRANCES GRANT
The first fright is the sheer bulk of the hand-knitted jumpers. Next comes the scarily adhesive name. Ian Hughes, the brave actor bringing the geek back to Shortland Street, has much to contend with.
This week Dr Martin "Sticky" Stickwill blundered in from the country, bringing a blast of fresh air to our sudser. He's an
awkward, homespun kind of person, just the sort of socially inept and badly clad character sadly lacking on the soap in recent, more serious times.
It's a comeback long overdue on a show which has produced such memorable bad-hair-and-glasses boffins as Leonard Dodds and Emily Devine. Is Hughes feeling the pressure to produce another classic nerd?
"Definitely. In fact I bumped into Michaela [Rooney] who played Emily the other day and she said, 'I heard you were on the show'. When I explained the character she shook my hand and said, 'I'm now passing the mantle of geek to you'.
This is Hughes' third time on Shortland Street. The 34-year-old actor had a "two-line" role right at the start of the soap, then a short stint as a Westie in a wheelchair about five years ago. While it's great to be back, he says, there are times on set when he feels the real heat and weight of his responsibilities. Sticky's clothes, for example, could be classed as unnatural cruelty towards an innocent actor.
"I have the jumpers I don't mind wearing through to the jumpers I absolutely hate. There's this giant green one that makes me look like this big fat pea. So yes, they've inflicted some pretty terrible knitwear on me — but it's all part of the biz."
Hopefully once Sticky decides to stay in town, he'll get some big city threads. "I'm watching for the makeover storyline — the Pretty Woman thing — but I don't think so somehow. Everytime I go in I ask, 'So can you give me a really nice haircut and clothes now?' And they go 'no' and hand me another jumper."
The clothes are an impediment but viewers should look beneath the daunting layers of natural fibre to see the warm and
genuine character Sticky really is. "There's the obvious [label of] nerdy or dweeby guy but I think he's a bit more. He's a really nice guy. He's got a really strong moral code.
"A lot of the characters, they've got subterfuges going on, they're a bit Machiavellian. Sticky's a lot more like, 'No, I must tell the truth'. And they keep throwing storylines at him where he gets tied into other people's deceptions and he hates it. He's so nice and true, just a really lovely character to play."
Hughes, born in Canada and raised in west Auckland, began acting after gaining a fine arts degree at Auckland University. "I'm actually a qualified sculptor so if the whole acting side of things falls down, I can always go into the lucrative sculpture business."
He has an impressive list of theatre and screen credits, which include the film and telly series Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, Xena, Hercules, Lord of the Rings and Toa Fraser's hit play Bare, in which he played nine different characters. Hughes has also directed his own short film, worked as set designer, producer — the works.
"You've got to stay on your toes to work in this country," he says. "Getting a long-running role on Shortland Street is
something everyone talks about, it's fantastic to get consistency of working and income and those kinds of things."
But is he worried about playing a character named Sticky, the kind of handle an actor could find hard to shed without industrial solvent?
"Oh well, it's one of those things ... in the past I've had a character called Turnip, I've played Dog, I've played all sorts of mad names."
Hughes' entrance into the action tonight, however, could have a whole new sector of the medical profession up in arms. Sticky is not the glamour stud that rural GPs might be keen to call their own. "I think like most people in the medical profession they'll hate it. I'm sure there'll be people out there I'll incite to violence with my portrayal of geeky GPs."
Another challenge of the role for Hughes is coming to grips with the medical side. "I had this scene this morning where I had to cut someone's throat open with a scalpel and insert a tube and administer 2mg of — see I've forgotten already — and I had to do CPR on someone the other day and look like a complete professional. They [medical scenes] are the most nerve-racking — apart from having to kiss people."
Kissing? Yes, the geek has romantic prospects. "He's definitely someone very keen to be in love. It's one of his big driving forces, he wants to be with someone and part of a relationship. That's something that he wants more than anything and it's the thing that gets him into the most amount of trouble. He's desperate to open his heart to someone and you know what kind of trouble that can bring."
Especially when the someone the newcomer instantly falls for is the wife of one of the more possessive husbands on the show. "Yes, that's a great opening gambit, that one."
The women of the cast are safe from Sticky's advances for the next hour or so, however. Hughes is off to a photo shoot, another wool-filled encounter with the lens no doubt.
"They talk about the camera adding 10 pounds. It's like those jumpers add another 25," he says. "I can hardly put my arms down the side of my body because I've got so much wool there."
Surely Dr Sticky might make it into some cooler clothes in the not-too-distant future. "Well," he says without much hope, "we'll see."