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Karen Tay comes face to face with the Shortland Street serial killer and lives to tell the tale.
Joey Henderson's had a bad week. He found out that his crush, the beautiful nurse Tania, was secretly romancing his rival, Dr Kip Denton. Detective Lara Wade was still on his tail about the recent spate of murders by the so-called "Ferndale Strangler". He's still working as a nurse when he wants to be a doctor. And to top it off, on Friday he was revealed as the Shortland Street serial killer.
Since the first murder in July four more have followed the storyline has attracted some of the highest viewer ratings ever for the 15-year-old TV2 soap.
Speculation about who, what, where, when and why has divided the nation and even families.
But speaking to him on the set of the show at South Pacific Pictures in Auckland, days before the big reveal, Johnny Barker is unfazed about the possible public reaction to his character's dark secret.
"From my audition they said they were going to put a big question mark over the character Joey because something big was going to happen," Barker says.
"They probably shouldn't have told me that because I figured it out as soon as Claire died."
Claire Solomon (Emily Robins), Shortland Street's wanton receptionist, was the first victim to meet her deadly fate at Joey's hands. Her naked, bruised body was found strangled in a dumpster behind the hospital. These were swiftly followed by the murders of four other female nurses on the show Meg Harris, Jay Copeland, Beth Wilson and Brenda Holloway.
The nation's obsession with the killer storyline has meant that Barker gets little peace offscreen.
"I get harassed by people on the street `Are you the murderer, are you the murderer?' Even my rubbish men as they're driving up the street, they're screaming at me. They stopped and reversed back to me I was standing there with my recycle bin 'cause I was late and they were like `Bro, is it you?' I was like ... `Oh, do you recycle cardboard?' It's pretty funny, they don't reverse for anybody so it's a compliment."
With his soft-spoken manner and puppy-dog expressions, Barker shares a few characteristics with Joey, and is at ease with his character's murderous side.
"It's almost easier because that's when you know you're definitely going into the realm of make-believe. I've always liked playing the insecure character. I'm not that bad in reality, but I used to be. So dialling up all those self-esteem issues, bad confidence and goofiness is more fun to play than anything else."
Neither is he worried about losing the vast female fanbase who were attracted to Joey's geeky charm.
"I'll probably get a bunch of crazy gothic chicks wanting to look after me now," he jokes.
This is Barker's second stint on Shortland Street, having appeared seven years ago as Jed Farris, a love interest for Waverley Wilson.
"It was a nice little story arc just to get in the way of Fergus and Waverley's relationship. I came in and proposed to her, she said yes, then changed her mind. Then I walked off into the sunset with my cheap guitar."
Since then, Barker's appeared on drama series Mercy Peak and Street Legal, and several TV commercials. He's also a musician, having played with bands Jester and Nephew. He's currently working on a solo project under the alias Sleepy Kid.
Although he's slightly disappointed that he has only a few more months on Shortland Street, Barker says that, in many ways, Joey is the best role he's ever had.
"Acting in New Zealand is hard. This is the best gig you can get because it's ongoing, steady work. If I get typecast into playing a killer over and over again, it's sweet because I'll be getting my bills paid."
Keeping the serial-killer secret has not been easy, though. Three endings were filmed with different actors, and the footage ended up going public on YouTube this month. But Barker was not in any of the false endings.
He won't reveal who is next on Joey's "hit list", but does mention that he really was in love with Tania, even if it wasn't requited.
"He was delusional and fell more and more in love with Tania, and didn't realise she was in love with Kip. So when the penny drops, he just has a kill switch and it completely flips on. He sees red and goes after her."
As for his character's motivations for killing, he mentions Joey's "iron code of morals" and his desire to become a world-class surgeon.
"There are different reasons for killing the girls. In the hospital, he [cardiac] arrests these patients so he can work on bringing them back and practising. With the girls, it's a bit more dark and sinister and he's actually taking their bodies. These girls are trash in his eyes, so they're expendable."
And what is the hardest part about playing a serial killer? Barker muses for a moment before answering with a grin: "Not actually getting to make out with any of these beautiful girls that I've got lined up. Such a tease!"
Shortland Street returns to TV2 on January 14, 2008.
- Sunday Star Times