By REBECCA BARRY
It's not easy being a scumbag for a living. Ask Shane Cortese, who plays Dominic Warner on Shortland Street.
"Bars are the worst place," he says. "I tend not to go out very late because people get very drunk and, when they're drunk, they're bulletproof and they think 'I'll have a crack' and they do. It's not nice."
Neither is "the Dominator". Last year he poisoned his wife, had an affair with vulnerable teenager Delphi, then took off under a cloud of controversy when her brother, Geoff, was murdered.
Six months later — in the momentous 3000th episode — he showed up again, shacking up with Chris Warner's love interest, hi-jacking his beloved plastics unit and framing Victor Kahu for Geoff's murder.
"Dom is a crafty sort of character," says Cortese, his brow furrowing as it does in a particularly venomous scene. "He always tends to be one step ahead of everybody.
"But the thing about Dominic is he believes he's doing everything for the right reasons. He's done everything he can for Delphi — that's his main reason for coming back. When he's got this plastics unit up for Chris he actually believes he can make money and do good for him.
"On the outside looking in he's an absolute scoundrel but people who are playing bad characters have to totally believe they're doing things for the right reason. And I do.
"Every time I walk through the studio doors I am Dominic. There's no way I think I'm an evil, vindictive, malicious, horrible person. I just feel as though I'm misunderstood and right."
As we sip flat whites in the South Pacific Studio cafe, he assures me the only thing he and Dom have in common is their physical appearance.
Cortese lives in a comfortable central Auckland house with his English fiancee and his "beautiful cat". He is a family oriented man who watches the rugby and the cricket.
The reason he finds it easy to walk on set and yell and scream is because "I don't do that in real life. It's refreshing. It's like going to rugby practice and getting everything out of your system".
The baddest bone in his body appears to be the fact he is lead singer in rock'n'roll band, Class of 58.
Three weeks ago they performed hits by Johnny Be Good, Elvis and Eddie Cochrane in front of 12,000 people at the Queenstown Winter Festival.
"That's my release. It's my hobby. I get to play this dark character that's doing all these horrible things and then get up on stage and play guitar and sing and have a good time.
"Then, I'm just being Shane. It's good for me because it shows these guys I'm just an actor."
It wasn't always the case. For seven years Cortese worked as a travel agent. The little acting experience he had was in amateur productions, and he became involved only because he liked a girl in a show.
At 24, he decided to make a go of it professionally, and moved to England to train. He ended up doing "very little" but after five or six months was offered his first part.
That led to work in the West End, including a part as Barnum the clown, for which he learned to "walk a tightrope while singing and riding a unicyle".
But he revelled in rock'n'roll musicals and gained parts in Elvis, The Musical, Joseph, The Buddy Holly Story, Grease and The Rocky Horror Show. In Grease he met his dancer fiancee — "Talent is a great aphrodisiac" — and the pair began planning their life together.
After working in England for almost a decade Cortese was feeling the itch to come home.
A part in the Auckland Theatre Company production Into the Woods brought him back briefly, and while he was here he auditioned for the part of Geoff Greenlaw in Shortland Street, making it to the top three. The role went to Andrew Laing but more than a year later, back in England, Cortese woke to an email offering him the part of Dominic.
"I was desperate to come home and lay down my roots again," he says. Problem was, he was scheduled to finish another show the first week of shooting and his producer refused to let him leave early.
Trusting his instincts, Cortese left anyway. The producer sued him but Cortese says it was worth it.
"I always wanted to play the nice hero until I got this job," he says. "He started off that way and he became this villainous scumbag. But there is something ever so slightly endearing about him. And I've changed my tack. I really like playing the darker, more interesting, antihero types, the ones who lose."
Add to that the moral nature of the soap opera and it seems inevitable Dom will eventually be written out of the script as good presides over evil.
But Cortese says the insecurity of the job is what he has come to love about it. His contract is up in a year and what happens after that he finds exciting. When Shortland Street breaks for Christmas this year he will return to England to star as Prince Charming in Sleeping Beauty, a part he says he could never get away with here.
"I've forged a career in England so it's going to be much easier for me but I would much rather walk into a television job in New Zealand. I think it's going to take a producer with guts and foresight.
"Dominic will be always seen as the evil guy."
At least scumbags have all the fun.