Erik Thomson is a Scottish-born, New Zealand raised Australia-based actor who has won numerous awards for his stage and screen work and has starred in several popular television series including Packed to the Rafters, 800 Words and The Luminaries. Erik can now be seen onscreen in the recently released Kiwi horror Coming Home In The Dark.
I was born in Inverness and in May 1974, when I was 7, we made the big move to Upper Hutt, and lived next door to Selwyn Toogood when he was at the height of It's In The Bag. We were a long way from home and I had a thick Scottish accent, but there wasn't too much culture shock. There were gorse-covered hills and, arriving in winter, it was arguably colder than Scotland. Dad was a young doctor, moving around, trying to build his career and my parents thought we'd only be in New Zealand for a couple of years but, when you have a family and meet people, you put down roots and it becomes harder to leave. In the 70s and 80s, they also both knew this was the best place to raise a family. We had a great life, but it didn't ever stop the longing and Dad pined for Scotland his whole life.
I came from a Presbyterian family with a Protestant work ethic. Dad was a working-class boy made good, a Rotary member, a National voter, so when I said, "Daddy, I want to be an actor, I'm going to drama school", you could've heard a pin drop, because being an actor was not a sensible career path to them. It was not solid, respectable or socially acceptable. They'd have thought all actors were dodgy fringe-dwellers and because I never thought of acting as a career, it was never a burning desire. But I always liked being involved with story-telling. Theatre people had an openness and I liked that freedom. Then in my third year at university, someone suggested I audition for drama school. I didn't think I'd get in, but I did. Mum and Dad were quite conservative Scots but, once I was on the television, there was pride, so long as I was playing characters who didn't swear and were decent people with good haircuts.
Over the years I've done a lot of long-running TV shows, things with 40 episodes a year. I've been very fortunate to ride that wave to the beach, but it's so different now, where a series might have just six episodes. It's hasn't been easy either, doing those long runs. When I came over to do the second series of 800 Words, it suddenly became successful and went from eight episodes, or three months' work, to 16 episodes over seven months - and my wife and children are in Adelaide which is a five-hour flight away. Then series three came along and I coped well about 95 per centof the time and 5 per cent of it I fell in a heap. When you're working 70-hour weeks, driving to and from work along windy roads, doing 11 hour days, day in, day out, throughout winter, it's not easy. You're spending all day giving emotionally and it has an effect. And after a 30-year career, the emotional banks start to run pretty empty. But I've since learnt to cope a lot better, simply by making it a priority not to be away too long, so in some ways it's fortunate TV doesn't do those long runs anymore, and I got through the worst of it.
I'm at the point where I might move behind the camera. I'm 54, and I don't get as much satisfaction as I used to from learning lines and not bumping into the furniture. Now I only want to work on things that my soul is invested in, rather than just signing on the dotted line. I need to find a deeper existential reason to do things, or be taken outside my comfort zone. Like going on stage. I haven't done a lot of theatre in Australia, but that was my background and the longer I'm away from it, the more afraid of it I've become - which is a magnet in itself.
Giving up drinking has really helped me. I started that process about 10 years ago, and at various stages of that 10 years, I'd fall back into it as a coping mechanism. But the grey area became much harder to manage. Sometimes I was drinking, sometimes I wasn't, so eventually I had to go black or white, and I don't do it anymore. Life is much simpler without it. I'm happier in myself. I cope better. It's such a cliche, the lonely actor/artist, alone in their hotel room at the end of the day, but it's a dangerous space. Stopping drinking is the best thing that's happened to me, arriving at that point where it doesn't bother me to be a happily sober man. As you age, that stuff gets harder to deal with too, and I'm glad I made the transition when I did and my children are growing up with a dad who is present and healthy.
I went to The Shetland Islands for DNA Detectives. They'd done a lot of research going back several generations. We went to Snarraness, to the house where my mother was born. The house was a Callister Crofts, one of three or four houses grouped together and they found information based on court documents that my forebears many generations back were known to be angry men who were always having disputes with their neighbours. My great great great grandfather, Magnus Sinclair, set fire to his neighbour's house. Mum came from a Brethren family, so quite fundamental, quite austere, so I liked knowing there was a bit of arson. I did ask, how do you burn down a stone croft house? Apparently you set fire to the thatched roof, because you don't want to lose your roof in the Shetland Islands where all it does is rain.
I occasionally make a political statement on Instagram or Facebook. Just before the US election I said: Biden/Harris: Vote! Because 800 Words is quite popular in the US but quite a few of the fans are Trump supporters as I found out. Several said, "How dare you, over there in Australia, tell me who to vote for in my own country? You just lost a follower." So I mostly keep things light or, if I do say something, I have to be prepared to cop the criticism.
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Looking back to when I worked at The Court Theatre, we were all in shared dressing rooms, and everyone was half-naked much of the time. That's just the way things were. I'm not pointing any fingers at The Court, but you could have a field day if you wanted to around certain behaviours. With the current climate, I've looked back and thought about things that were said and done. I worked with Geoffrey Rush on Storm Boy and I knew Craig McLachlan from Rafters, and when the stories came out about them - it was around the same time as Harvey Weinstein - it really affected me. I had to scan back through my career. We all did some soul-searching, but the way I conducted myself, I think I came out all right.
I think about it a lot today, in business. When I was setting up a meeting with the writer of Aftertaste, the show I'm doing with the ABC, I was about to suggest we catch up for dinner and a chat, then decided, no let's meet at the agent's. we need structures where people can relate to each other in professional environments without any fear of being misconstrued. But I also hope we can still have free and open creative spaces where we don't have to censor ourselves too much. So things can be said in exploration of character, particularly in the rehearsal room where you have to feel completely free, but there's a fine line and we all must be aware of it. Looking back, it was far from ideal, and I'm glad things have changed.