The Maverick Physician of Ward 17

Erik Thomson:
The Maverick Physician of Ward 17

Erik Thomson is the newest cast member of All Saints, and he’s made quite an impression as Dr Mitch Stevens, former lover of Ward Unit Manager Sister Terri Sullivan (Georgie Parker), who is now a nun, and Ward 17’s resident maverick.

Mitch appears to have a devil-may-care attitude which belies the fact that he’s a committed physician whose patients are of paramount concern to him. The actor who plays him has an impressive pedigree that includes several turns on the stage and, most recently, a stint as Hades, God of the Underworld in the worldwide smash TV series Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. But New Zealander Erik gave up Hades’ leather gear and crossed the Tasman to take up the role as Mitch.

Being involved in the medical world is not entirely unfamiliar to Erik – his father is a doctor and his mother a nurse, and other family members also work in that field. So Erik knows who to turn to for advice on how realistic his character is!

We chatted to Erik recently about his roles as Mitch and Hades, and covered a few topics in between… including a website set up in his honour!

How do you feel about having your own website? []
It’s pretty bizarre, because in Hercules and Xena I’ve really only spent about three and a half weeks in total working on it over the last four or five years. But it’s such a big phenomenon in America – people become obsessed with it, like Trekkies, they pick people. I played a different character on it before I played Hades, and that happens quite a lot in New Zealand – they don’t actually cast a lot of people from outside New Zealand, other than they bring in the occasional guest from America. It’s great for the locals, because you have people there who have played four or five characters and they put a beard on them, change their hair colour, change the costume, put a prosthetic on them. So these people take a lot of pride in picking the ones who have actually done it before. It’s amazing, I’ve actually been in contact with her [the website coordinator] a couple of times, written a couple of emails to her, and she seems committed to doing that so… Just to keep it up, because she keeps it up and it just looks after itself and people can tune in. There’s a woman in Germany saying she’d like to set up a German fan club for Pacific Drive, and Hercules and Xena.

How did you like working on those programs?
It was great, because all the crew and pretty much all the cast… especially Xena, and Lucy [Lawless, who plays Xena] is a relatively old friend of mine. So it’s just like going to work, it’s not daunting to anyone really. It’s a big production and everyone’s walking around at lunchtime in leather and bits and pieces with prosthetics and Kevin Smith, who plays Aries, the God of War, he did this thing recently where he played another character, Bacchus, which is half-goat and half-man, and he had a goat’s head and they put in on in the morning and he had to sip through a straw all day, just energy drinks. That’s something that they have to do sometimes with that, they get someone in who they know can do the role, they’ve got to wear prosthetics, and the audition is putting the mask on and seeing if they can handle it. One guy I know couldn’t do a role because he got claustrophobic. I didn’t have to do any of that – but [there was] a lot of leather. Love the leather.

How have you found All Saints?
Great. I’m really enjoying the consistency of the work and the quality of everyone involved, it’s really good working as part of an ensemble of nine or ten people who you work with every week and you get a rapport going with people and we know the style of the show and I’m really beginning to get into a rhythm. I’m really enjoying it and very happy at the moment.

Is Mitch as much of a larrikin as he seems?
I think he’s pretty lonely. He is a loner. They said in his character background that he’s a Leo and a number one in numerology, which means that he comes first. He’s at a point in his life where he’s realised that he’s burned a lot of bridges and he’s pissed a lot of people off. He went off to Africa, and that was to do with a lot of stuff – the thing with Terri was one of them but also having to work in a hierarchical environment and having to get through hospital policy and bureaucracy. He thumbed his nose at that and went off and worked in the middle of this big, huge, wild continent all over the place and saw a lot of misery and death and everything, and I guess I think one day he woke up and said, ‘What have I got? What have I actually got?’ And he’s come back, and I don’t know whether he’s come back to try… and he’s come back and Terri’s still in the church and so he’s no further down that track, but I think secretly he wants to be… he wants to find someone to love, and his bravado and his ‘bolshyness’ is hiding a big insecurity; to a certain extent he’s insecure and all he really does want to be is accepted, but he’s still got this attitude problem. That’s the great journey for the character – whatever way they go, as the audience gets to know him they’ll begin to see why he acts like he does, what motivates him, what is behind that exterior arrogance or cockiness… I don’t think he’s had many women – that’s over ten years since [Terri]. But I think that, being the first love, that’s always been the benchmark that no one’s ever lived up to.

You think he’s still carrying a torch?
I think so. You know, when a relationship’s broken up and you get hurt by it, you always remember the good things, you don’t remember the bad, and it’s the good things that you pine for, and I think that if you… the longer he’s been away, all he can think about is this woman that he had something really special with. So I think he really is secretly hoping, but it’s a very complicated situation, and that’s the great thing about the situation is that it’s not easily solved, it’s very difficult; it’s going to involve a great change for her, it’s going to involve him being… I mean, what can he do? He’s got to respect her, he’s got to respect her decision, but at the same time he doesn’t want her to be a nun and he wants her to come back to him. So he’s got her to win around, she’s got to become available from the church, all that sort of stuff, so I think at the moment it seems like a mountain too high to climb. So I think at some point he’s going to have to come to terms with that and try and move on, and what it’s going to be then is a case of how Terri copes with him moving on in front of her, because I think she still feels the same way about him as well. It’s the same situation as a first love going away and coming back and the person’s married and they’ve been married for a while, and perhaps the marriage isn’t going so well or perhaps they never really gave up loving that first person, and now he’s back in town and it suddenly makes Terri’s dilemmas as a woman – about her life, about her biological clock ticking, the choices that she’s made – it’s throwing it all up for her as well.

What role did you have on Wildside?
I played this guy – I can’t even remember his name – I had two scenes, one with… it’s Mary Coustas’s first episode and I had one scene with her and one with Tony Martin. It’s only really a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it couple of scenes. It was really quite bizarre coming in. They do a technique called the Meisner technique, that’s why they repeat themselves and get really aggro. It’s a difficult technique just to walk into when they’ve been doing it for ages. It’s even more difficult when you’re a guestie, you walk in there and you’re supposed to use this technique that people have been using for ages. They’re established, they know what they’re doing and you don’t. Tony Martin especially threw the gauntlet down to me in the first run and I went right, well, bugger you, I’m not going to sit here and cop that attitude, you know. And it was good, and maybe that’s exactly what he was doing, so I dug deep and said right, take this, and I went back. And that was good, but to me it promotes competitiveness between actors as opposed to generous assistance and going ‘You and me have got to get through the scene and tell the story together’, which is more the school I come from – it’s not a competition. As soon as it becomes competitive – unless your characters are in competition – but I think that’s a different thing as opposed to actors becoming competititive and wanting to win scenes and wanting to put the other guy down so that they look better at the end.

For you, is telling the story the primary motivation as opposed to, say, explaining the character?
Tell the story. Character is… You get a string of scenes, say, 20 scenes in an episode, and each scene has a purpos:, to further the story. Now, all you have to do is further the story, and if you further the story in each scene, then after the 20 scenes that’s your character. There’s no point in spending every scene filing your nails or combing your hair or whatever that’s detracting away from the story. Your primary purpose is to serve the story and the lines that you’re given… People say they change lines a lot, they go, ‘My character wouldn’t say this.’ I tend to go, ‘Well if my character does say this, how does he say it?’ Not, ‘He doesn’t say it’, because then you limit yourself and you have to find a way that… You can never say ‘That would never happen’, because bizarre things have happened in the world and to people, so I tend to keep things as open as possible. But I’ve been up to [All Saints producer] Jo Porter’s office a couple of times and said, ‘What do you want me to achieve here?’, because it hasn’t been clear in what they wanted to do, and we’ve had to do a couple of tweaks because I didn’t have a clear idea of what the story was or what the character was.

You studied quite extensively…
I didn’t quite complete my Bachelor of Arts, I have a couple of papers to go. The BA thing was literature. And then two years of drama school and then I went and worked in theatre and did a lot of Shakespeare and contemporary and classical plays and worked in a much more English… We had a guy who trained in England at the Court Theatre in Christchurch, and various directors in Auckland who were very much of the British acting thing as opposed to the American, that Method and stuff like that. I feel much more at home with it about technique, using technique to access the emotions as opposed to forgetting technique and just accessing the emotions – America is much more emotion based, and I can see the thing where we have to do both, to work in this part of the world we do American television and Australian and New Zealand television, and we do British plays and we do American plays, so you’ve really got to have a pretty good cover of all the different acting things; but ultimately my basic bottom line to serve the script and that’s all I’m there to do… I’m not there to serve myself or the character… [But] each to their own as long as the product’s still there and as long as they’re getting work, you know. If they keep getting work then they’re doing something right. People say ‘the Method’, but everyone’s got their own method to get from there to there. I’ve had time to think about it and done so many different types of things and worked with a lot of different people with different attitudes, and I know what I like and what I prefer and how I prefer to work… [T]he dilemma of being an actor is that you want to work and to work you have to have a profile, but when you get a profile suddenly sometimes it can detract from the work you want to do. You just go with the flow. You really can’t be too concerned about it. Actors say, ‘I’m not going to that because I’m going to get too recognised with the whole thing’, and then they sit on their bums doing nothing for two years.

Your father’s a doctor, isn’t he?
They’re all medicos except for my younger sister.

So coming into a medical show environment is not entirely unfamiliar.
It feels really comfortable because I grew up around hospitals, and it’s my opportunity to have something with my father and my brothers-in-law. I’m not a doctor, I’m only pretending to be a doctor, but I know what they do now. It increases my empathy for their work, and probably them for my work, so we suddenly have this thing in common that we can… I can talk to dad and tell him the problems I’ve been having with my patients – albeit [in] fantasy land – and he can have a laugh, and I’m getting a basic knowledge of medicine. I’ve had to do things in this that, if I really had to do them in real life, it was an emergency situation, I actually feel quite confident that I could do it. I certainly absolutely wouldn’t try to do it if I didn’t really really have to but there are certain things… it’s like I said to Dad, if I’m ever in a situation where a woman’s giving birth, what are the three basic things to watch out for, and he told me so I know that if I had to do it the basic thing is make sure the baby’s head doesn’t pop out too quickly, because that can cause brain damage, and stuff like that. I would never have known that, but now I know that if I’m in that situation – it’s like, if I had to intubate somebody so that they could breathe, I pretty much know what I need to do. I might stuff it up, but they were going to die anyway! I think secretly Dad would have liked me to have been involved in the medical field because he came from a fishing family, as did my mum, and he’s the first generation of as many generations to have got away from the sea. And I think that the idea that I’d continue that tradition, but at the same time it’s such a… especially in his specialty, obstetrics and gynaecology, it’s a really demanding profession… plus I wasn’t too good at science.

You said your father was from a fishing family – did you grow up by the sea?
Yes, in a place called Tarong in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. It’s like a little peninsula within a natural harbour and there’s ocean beach and islands and estuaries and sailing and surfing and swimming.

Isn’t it too cold for swimming?
It’s not cold – that’s one thing about New Zealand, people tend to think of the South Island and they think cold, mountains, snow, rain. But a lot of New Zealand, particularly the northern half of the north island of New Zealand, is basically subtropical. It’s sort of like Sydney, the temperature of Bega, Eden – that area, southern New South Wales. That’s where you’re at. It can be cold but it can also be really nice in the summer. It’s a temperate country, always green. It’s a beautiful place. I think Australians have the wrong idea about New Zealand’s climate, and that’s fine, because I like the fact that it’s quiet too.

Do you miss New Zealand? Would you rather be working there if you could?
I think so… I’m an immigrant to New Zealand from Scotland and now I’m an immigrant again in my life, twice in one life, and all you ever want to do – and all anyone wants to do – is feel like they belong somewhere, and I really felt like I belonged to New Zealand, and I sort of still do, but now I’m here and I’m going to be here for at least another five years. I think ultimately I’d like to move back there, but I don’t see it as a geographical problem – it’s two and a half hours to Auckland, it’s four hours to Perth, and it costs more to go to Perth than it does to go to Auckland but there’s just a bit of water in between. But personally I prefer the sea to the desert, so there’s this big psychological thing that Australia has with New Zealand. And also I need to live in a… I can live in Sydney and I can audition for everything that happens in New Zealand as well as everything that happens in Australia, whereas if I live in Auckland I can only audition for things in New Zealand. So Sydney’s the place to be , and that’s just the way that Australians have made it and New Zealanders have made it.

Is the film industry in New Zealand healthy?
I don’t even think about films because I think they maybe make five feature films a year worth mentioning… The Piano was made by Australia in New Zealand with French money and New Zealand claimed it as its own because Sam Neill was in it and Jane Campion directed it, but Australia made it possible, so I’ve go to back Australia on that one, because I don’t think New Zealand really put their money behind the people that they need to put their money behind, and of all the films that come out of New Zealand that you hear about there’s a whole lot of other ones that don’t because they’re crap. It’s an uphill battle, because it’s a country of three and a half, four million people so it’s not really… the population of Sydney lives in New Zealand, so financially is the big problem… But if the money was there – and Hercules and Xena have proved that if you through money at the NZ film industry they can come up with world-beating TV and film, but there’s no money there. Well, there is money there but it’s all caught up in bureaucracy and favouritism and stupid things like that.

Is there a drain of talent to Australia?
Well, yeah. I can do one, maybe two, plays at the York Theatre Company a year, as I did last year, and I did one the year before. I could do two at a push, one preferably, because then you’d become ‘oh there he is again’. There’s only really one soap opera, called Shortland Street, which I never really wanted to do because it’s just – I just had to draw the line somewhere, at doing 30-minute-a-day TV. I mean, I do 15-minute-a-day TV here and that’s fast enough, and the product’s really good, whereas I just drew the line at that. There’s only really maybe two or three roles a year that are good enough and worth doing in New Zealand, and the chances of you getting it are maybe one in five. So maybe a one-in-fifteen chance that you’ll get something worthwhile. So you really can’t sustain yourself, whereas in Australia there are more opportunities – there’s more competition, but there are also more opportunities, there are more lotteries you can buy a ticket in.

[originally published at the Seven Network website here, 1999. Copyright held by the Seven Network.]