By GREG DIXON
Leighton Cardno is as nervous as a stretcher case. The Shortland Street actor has followed me into the consulting room — actually the modest but stylish boardroom at South Pacific Pictures — like he's about to undergo a procedure involving a rubber glove and a cough.
His laid-back clobber, a black John Lennon T-shirt with his wrap-arounds hooked into the collar, jeans and jandals, suggests the 26-year-old wants to project a Buddhist calm.
But from the dry mouth — he grabs a paper cup of water before we begin — and the waver in the voice, my diagnosis is that he's feeling otherwise.
I toy with the idea of asking, in my best mock-doc, "So what seems to be the problem, Mr Cardno?" but he tells me without prompting soon enough. It's not an unusual condition for an actor: he hates interviews.
"I'm shit at interviews, I'm shit," he splutters in needless embarrassment at one point. "I try to avoid them at all costs."
Cardno, who's been Shorty trauma physician Adam Heywood for two years now, isn't much interested in the fame game and the media coverage. The irony of disliking the limelight while starring in the country's biggest star factory isn't lost on him.
"Being known — what are you being known for? I don't want people to know what I do in my own life because that drama's just for me.
"I don't ever see myself as a celebrity, I see myself as an actor. What does an actor do? An actor is someone who plays characters and tells stories.
"I really like it when people talk about the stories my characters are involved in, [that] shows they're affected by it. That makes it feel worth it."
Storytelling, then, is what charges him. His face, which off-screen looks maybe five years younger than his years, grows animated and his eyes fire when he talks about it.
"The most important thing out there on that floor [of the Shortland Street set] is telling a story. All the other stuff that surrounds it is irrelevant to that one thing. If we were not telling good stories, we would not have an audience.
"Probably the most important thing I've learned being here is that telling stories is a powerful tool. It goes beyond turning up and doing a part."
He talks of a kind of epiphany when he came to work one sunny day last September. "I walked into a stunned silence of 20 people standing around a TV screen watching atrocities unfold on CNN.
"Then I went on to makeup, put my costume on and the next thing you know we're on set. While what seemed like the end of the world was happening, here we were saying these lines that seemed completely irrelevant.
"It made me think, am I doing what I want to be doing? The answer was 'yes'. Why? Because I'm telling stories and we learn so much from stories. They're such a powerful thing, our culture is based on them."
Acting, then, is a Cardno passion, but one discovered late. He and education were like the plague and good health — indeed his smart mouth helped him to be expelled from secondary school — but when he signed on for a performing arts course in the Bay of Plenty he finally found an education he wanted.
He went on to complete the three-year Bachelor of Screen and Performing Arts at Auckland's Unitec, graduating in 1998.
Theatre work for the Auckland Theatre Company followed, including a role in its production Serial Killers in 2000. In this satire on the world of television soaps, he played a handsome new character who is killed off.
And then he landed the part of a handsome new character, the sanest and most together member of the Heywood clan, in a real-world soap. Dead spooky.
He says he had no expectations about his role when he joined the Street, he just wanted it. He says it has been quite a learning experience since. And that's been helped by Dr Adam's well-scripted transition from supportive rock to scheming wedding-wrecker.
"I've enjoyed this year because all the strengths of Adam that they established in the first year, this year they flipped around and used them against them.
"So for someone who was confident and supportive, he's become controlling, dominant and stuck in his ways.
"It's interesting to move towards playing the dark aspects of a person. I felt like last year I was more or less a function, the nice guy. I felt [this year] like I've been exploring new territory, going into areas that were interesting and challenging. That's when it starts to become fun."
He has, perhaps, been lucky since leaving drama school. Two years out, and round the same time he landed his Shortland Street gig, he was also cast as dopey Ned Baxter in TV3's Being Eve, a teen comedy-drama which was best drama at this year's New Zealand Television Awards. The show, which is also produced by South Pacific Pictures, was recently nominated for another gong at the International Emmys.
Cardno clearly relished having such contrasting characters so early in his career. "It's really f****** bizarre. I left drama school, did a couple of plays and a telly film here and a short film there.
"But I'd never really been involved in the industry enough to understand how the cogs twist and turn and the machine works. And then I end up on two shows and they're are polar opposites in their way of storytelling."
In an interview, Cardno is more than just nerves then. He's earnest, interesting and thoughtful. If he sometimes struggles to find just the word he wants, it's because he knows finding the right one is important.
And he's very much of his generation. He loves skateboarding and distrusts the establishment — he's reading John Pilger's The Rulers Of The New World — but he also lets on that he and his girlfriend have embarked on that most middle-class of activities, building a house.
He differs in another significant way too: he doesn't like talking about himself.
As we walk out of the consulting room through a huddle of office types having a birthday drink for a colleague, he seems genuinely relieved it's over. Visiting the doctor can be like that.