An unconventional love story
Less than six months ago, Jono Kenyon was just a regular bloke, living and working in Auckland but dreaming of bigger things.
A trained actor, Kenyon was working at a Ponsonby bar, filling in time while waiting for his big break to come along. He says he always knew it would arrive eventually.
"I would walk to the gym every morning and it was a half hour walk and I used to play the same set of songs and I would go over in my head where I was heading in life, what I wanted to be doing," Kenyon says.
"I fantasised about it and I would feel as if I had it.
"I was consciously - and subconsciously I suppose - doing things in my life, setting myself up, ready so that when an opportunity arose I could take it."
Now, the 24-year-old is about to hit our screens as the lead in new locally produced comedy drama Step Dave - a South Pacific Pictures production vying to fill the Nothing Trivial- and Go Girls-shaped hole left in viewers' hearts.
Relatively unknown here, Kenyon - an Essex boy who emigrated to New Zealand with his family when he was 13 - is bound to quickly attract legions of fans. Tall, handsome and a little bit cheeky, his character Dave has "heartthrob" written all over it.
Dave is a 24-year-old bartender, a ladies' man, commitmentphobe, who has been breaking hearts all over town. His carefree single life quickly changes when he meets Cara, a gorgeous blonde escaping a disastrous blind date in his bar.
The two are thrown together through a series of comical circumstances and the attraction is instant. Only problem is, Cara is 39 and a single mother of three kids.
Age gap aside, the pair can't deny their feelings for each other, and embark - cautiously - on a new relationship. But, both coming with their own sets of baggage, Cara and Dave have many obstacles to face on the road to love.
"This show is not a piss take," says 34-year-old Sia Trokenheim, another relatively new face, who plays Cara. "We want to portray these two people who just have
got the most incredible connection, that also come with their own baggage. Their feelings are genuine and absolutely real for one another."
Competition was fierce for the parts of Dave and Cara - many better-known actors auditioned too. But during the final callbacks, producer Mark Beesley says the on-screen chemistry between Kenyon and Trokenheim was palpable.
"They were outsiders when we called them back," Beesley recalls. "It wasn't until we saw them play a scene together that we saw a relationship come alive. And it was probably because they were strangers and were nervous and weren't sure that they had much of a chance.
"But when they did their scenes, when you saw them together you suddenly believed that relationship would be a relationship that we could follow and believe in."
It's a big risk, Beesley admits, casting two unknown actors in a brand new show. But it's one he believes will pay off.
"When you have lead characters that don't bring any baggage with them from past roles . . . that's one less barrier for the audience to connect with those people and believe that Sia is a 39-year-old mother of three and Jono is a player about town and believe that they could start to fall for each other," he says. "We weren't expecting to be casting these two. But . . . once we [saw them] together there was just chemistry and I wanted to know what was going to happen next."
The two actors met for the first time at the final call back and Kenyon says they were thrown in at the deep end.
"[The scene] ended in a kiss," he laughs. "There's two ways of approaching that. Getting overwhelmed by it and scared by it, or going ‘awesome, this is exactly what I want to be doing'. It's these kind of high stakes situations I want to be in. And the beautiful thing about Sia is that as soon as I spoke to her, I could just tell she was a woman that was super professional, super generous as an actress and was totally with me the whole way.
"I said to myself, if I get this role I know exactly who I want to be cast as Cara and that, without a shadow of a doubt, was Sia."
Trokenheim is equally complimentary about Kenyon.
"I was so pleased by his generosity and his willingness to just give everything a shot, and it made me feel comfortable and confident in what I was doing," she says. "He wasn't afraid to just have a good time."
Both are entirely aware of just what a great opportunity Step Dave affords them.
The production has been fast-tracked to bring the series to our screens as quickly as possible, and they describe the past few months as "intense". But neither would have it any other way.
"Pressure has been high for everyone but everyone has stepped up to the mark and everyone is just great," Trokenheim says. "We're very lucky to do this . . . I'm extremely grateful for the challenge."
Since working on Step Dave, she says she has been surprised by how many "Caras" she's met in real life.
"Women in their mid- to late-30s, dating men - for genuine reasons, for love - men who are in their early 20s. So it's not just a fling, but they keep it quite hush hush, because they feel like it's frowned upon," she says. "It's just amazing how all these stories have popped into my life ever since I started working on the project. So it just goes to show that Cara exists - it's just we don't often hear about those stories."
Step Dave's writer Kate McDermott says the original idea for the show came from real life, too.
"I know a lot of friends who are pushing 40, single, and are having flings with younger men. It's definitely a point of interest."
So is Trokenheim prepared to be held up as some kind of poster girl for single 30-something women embracing their inner cougar?
"I don't mind being that ambassador," she says, "because I don't think there's anything wrong with being what some people may call a cougar. At the end of the day, as long as no one is being hurt, as long as everyone is aware and comfortable with what's going on and everyone becomes better people for it, I don't really see the problem."
Trokenheim is a similar age to Cara, but her home life is quite different.
She's engaged to partner Andre, with a stepson, Bruno, 7, a son, Terenzo, 18 months, and a dog. "It's a full house," she laughs.
"What's really nice is that I'm at a stage of my life when I do feel like I really can relate to Cara . . . I understand quite a few bits and pieces about motherhood, obviously, and the highs and lows you might go through, and the issues and joys that come with that."
And Kenyon, of course, has experience of being a single man, working in a bar. His former place of work - Ponsonby Rd's Chapel Bar - has a reputation among some as a bit of a pick-up joint but Kenyon says he used his time there as "a study of life".
"[You'd see] people at their best, at their worst. Guys thinking they're Superman, women thinking they're Tyra Banks. It's nice being behind the bar because you've got that unseen wall of safety that you can just separate yourself from it all and just take it all in."
He says he hasn't had a girlfriend in about two years, preferring instead to commit himself to his acting career. But he's open to the idea of dating an older woman - it's simply all about the connection.
"If she blows my mind and challenges me and we . . . click and have an awesome time and energetic spark off each other then man, if she's 18 or 35, why does it matter?" he says.
"I think love overrules everything, right? And sometimes you've just got to ride the wave and let the flames burn for a bit. If they fizz out, so be it. But if they turn into a furnace, then why not?"
Step Dave, Tuesday, 8.30pm, TV2
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