Erik Thomson on 800 Words

Benson Jack Anthony, Erik Thomson and Melina Vidler star in the new trans-Tasman drama 800 Words.
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Benson Jack Anthony, Erik Thomson and Melina Vidler star in the new trans-Tasman drama 800 Words.

Erik Thomson is a smart man who has made a career of playing men who are less smart than he is. This week that will change.

Thomson is best known as the amiable Dave Rafter in the most popular Australian drama of the 21st century, Packed to the Rafters. He's next-best known as the obsessive Mitch Stevens in the most popular Australian drama of the late '90s, All Saints. Those roles, he says, put him happily in the shadow of wonderful women – Rebecca Gibney in Rafters and Georgie Parker in All Saints.

This week he'll step out on his own as thoughtful George Turner, who decides to move his two teenage children to the coast of New Zealand after the death of his wife. The series is 800 Words, on which Thomson was also associate producer.

"Dave Rafter and Mitch Stephens – they've got to bumble along, because the woman will ultimately show them the way," Thomson says. "I've tended to play that kind of role against very strong central female characters. I think it's nice to be doing something where he's still bumbling along in his own little way but he's having to do it on his own.

"Dave Rafter was your suburban everyman. He was from the classic outer suburb – cricket and cold beer after work, a tradie, been married to his wife since he was 18; he lived this kind of idyllic Australian life. George is more inner suburban. As opposed to living in a house with a backyard where you could play cricket, he lived in a house with a courtyard. A bit more cafe, a bit less barbecue, if you like.

"Pretty quickly you get an idea of the kind of mother that his late wife was. She energised the family, she was the battery, she was the principal earner. He was very happy to play that second-fiddle role, but now that she's gone, he has to embody both her energy and his and still be a complete family with his kids. That's the struggle he has."

The series was created by New Zealand's top screenwriter, James Griffin, who wrote the internationally sold series Outrageous Fortune and The Almighty Johnsons. He sent Thomson a script soon after the end of Packed To The Rafters, which turned out to be the ideal moment.

"I love fish-out-of-water stories, starting-over stories," Thomson says. "I found it warm, engaging, heartfelt, fresh and different, but not too different. I would say to people not to expect Rafters 2.0. It's a vastly different show. But if they liked Rafters, and if they liked SeaChange and Always Greener – I know that is esteemed company – this is the kind of show that fits into that family."

What Thomson particularly enjoyed was the opportunity to stretch himself as an actor. The first episode looks like comedy, but by episode three 800 Words is clearly a drama.

"After two or three episodes the grief catches up with George," Thomson says. "You can't run away from grief, it's within you. He loved his wife to the very end and he misses her deeply. It's a very attractive quality and it keeps him intact morally and allows the female audience to become champions for him and care about what steps he's going to make."

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800 Words 8.30pm, Thursday, TV One

 - Fairfax Media Australia

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