By REBECCA BARRY
There's nothing as enticing as a love-hate, will they/won't they? TV flirtation. Shortland Street doctors Sarah Potts and Craig Valentine are no exception. Even during their fiery feuds you could cut the sexual tension with a scalpel.
In real life, actors Amanda Billing and Renato Bartolomei share more of a comedic chemistry.
"One of the things Sarah finds really attractive in Craig is that he's a dad," says Billing, over a drink at the Shortland Street studios' cafe.
Bartolomei: "Really? What else?"
Billing: "That he's Australian, he's really good-looking, and he looks like he might be a great kisser."
Bartolomei: "What do you mean, looks like a great kisser?"
On-screen, the couple aren't quite so complimentary. Sarah has been getting up Craig's nose since the day she smashed into the back of his car; the rivalry turned nasty when he tried to dissuade the CEO from hiring her.
"I think you can find someone physically attractive but hate their guts," says Billing. "Someone can irritate you heaps but you still find them a lovable rogue. The two characters are a lot alike, and that's why they spar. They're both headstrong and think that they're right more often than not."
Adding to their romantic complications is Judy (keen on Craig), Andrew (keen on Sarah) and Craig's daughter Scarlett, who seems intent on sabotaging her father's burgeoning romance.
Then there's Sarah's son Daniel to contend with. He grew up believing Sarah is his sister.
Billing and Bartolomei are coy about how far the relationship could go, or whether it's over before it has begun, but there's no denying the attraction that has been keeping online fans guessing for weeks.
(Warning: romantic spoiler ahead.)
According to the rather excited Shortland Street publicist, Sarah and Craig's first kiss brought the entire building to a standstill.
"We have monitors through the whole building and everyone was going, 'Bloody hell!' Their chemistry is quite extraordinary," says Billing.
"I wasn't uncomfortable kissing Renato but initially I was thinking, 'There are all these people watching and everyone's going to be quiet and I know that everyone is watching the monitor'. And that sort of got in the way of my head for a little while. Kissing your friends is weird. It's weird."
Like Potts, who has worked in London, New York and Africa, Billing is a vivacious, adventurous type. At 28, this is her first major TV role after years teaching high-school geography, social studies and
Aside from a few theatre roles and TV ads — "I'd turn up to class and the kids would go, 'It's the Lotto lady!"' — she did a complete about-turn when she packed it all in for acting this year.
"It was scary making a decision to change my life like that. It was enormously intimidating as I have quite a few friends who are actors and they were looking at me as if to say, 'What do you think you're doing?'
"But I thought, 'I'm in my 20s, why the hell not?' I didn't have anything to lose."
Bartolomei, on the other hand, is used to puckering up with his co-stars ("On the job, of course"). He has built up quite a resume, from Aussie dramas such as Flying Doctors, Blue Heelers and Water Rats to award-winning Kiwi drama Mercy Peak, which wrapped late last year.
As for playing Craig on Shortland Street, Bartolomei says he is a different kettle of fish to his character.
"We've led enormously different lives. I've done a lot of different things in my life, travelled the world a lot. For someone to be a doctor in an emergency department, he must have spent years at medical school and has always led this very dedicated, motivated life. Craig's a bit grumpy.
"He' has a lot of pressure on him. He's got Jake who's driving him nuts and he's virtually unbearable a lot of the time, and then he's got 70 or 80 hours a week of hospital life. I don't have that weight about me. I'm pretty easy-come, easy-go I suppose."
When Mercy Peak wrapped, he could have found the perfect excuse to pack up and move back to Australia. Easy-come, easy-go.
But Bartolomei had other ideas. After five years in New Zealand, he wasn't ready to move on.
"My girlfriend and I went, 'Oh right, so this time we really go back and stay there'. But we didn't want to do that. We're lucky enough to stay here and work in Australia so we thought 'Let's give it a go and see what happens'.
"Shortland Street is a hard beast because it's demanding. It's very different because we're producing 21/2 hours of television each week versus one. It's a lot faster, there's a lot more pressure. But I was very happy to come back and work for South Pacific again."
Two days before signing his contract with Shortland Street, he and his partner bought a 2ha lifestyle block overlooking the Kaipara Harbour.
So life's still easy-come, easy-go?
"You've got the chickens," says Billing. "It takes a bit of gravitas to be able to take their eggs away every day."
Bartolomei: "It's awful because four of them are brooding at the moment. You're taking their children away every day."
Billing: "To eat."
As talk turns to farming and life outside Shortland Street, Billing says she'd like to visit the school where she used to work.
Suddenly Bartolomei gets a cheeky look on his face.
"I think Craig kept his school uniform."
"Well I started teaching after they phased out corporal punishment," says Billing, slyly. "But I'm sure we could improvise."
Get a room, guys.
The stars: Amanda Billing and Renato Bartolomei
The show: Shortland Street
The time: weeknights, 7pm
The place: TV