May 7, 2021
People & Places

Erik Thomson: No more Mr Nice Guy

Erik Thomson has stepped away from his funny dad persona to embrace his latest role as a maladjusted, moody chef. Here, he talks television, family life and his love for the Fleurieu.

Erik photographed in the rustic shed at Penny’s Hill winery where his wedding to actor Caitlin McDougall was held in 1999.

We’re not used to seeing Erik Thomson angry and argumentative. Audiences know him as the middle of the road Mr Nice Guy, television’s affable dad from Packed to the Rafters and 800 Words. But the likeable actor’s latest role is less Dave Rafter and more Gordon Ramsay.

Erik plays volatile celebrity chef Easton West in the new ABC series Aftertaste. To prepare for his role in the six-part black comedy, Erik studied Gordon Ramsay videos, eager to master the angry chef schtick.

“If Ramsay has an issue with someone in his kitchen, he doesn’t just make some kind of remark and move on, he really lasers into them and actually shames them,” Erik says. “He is the archetypal guy who’s made a living out of abusing people and audiences love watching it because you never know when he’s going to blow.

“My character Easton just has no filter. He says to his niece, who he’s only just met, ‘one thing I don’t like is fat girls playing their wacky zany card to cover up for their insecurities’. I mean, who would actually say that?

“The whole celebrity chef thing, we’re all very aware of that narrative so this is a bit of an opportunity to hold that guy up and have a bit of a laugh at him, strip him back, that’s why it was fun to do. It’s very human and a bit irreverent.”

The series co-stars Rachel Griffiths and television newcomer Natalie Abbott, who played the lead role in Muriel’s Wedding The Musical.

Aftertaste was the first South Australian project to recommence production after months of COVID-19 delays and implemented new COVID-safe industry guidelines including an on-set COVID nurse, mandatory masks for cast and crew and daily temperature checks.

“We were the first show in Australia to start filming post-COVID so we had to convince investors that it was safe to go ahead and we were all walking on eggshells a little bit,” says Erik, who was involved in the show “from conception to birth”, including storylining, casting, editing and location scouting.

Channelling angry chef Easton West in the ABC series Aftertaste.

The series was filmed around Adelaide and the Adelaide Hills including Uraidla and Kangarilla and Erik was thrilled to show off his adopted home state of South Australia.

The series explores the notion of the “middle-aged entitled white guy”, and the surrounding issues across age, gender, position and power.

“Like every industry, 10 years ago or even five years ago you could get away with whatever you wanted, but Harvey Weinstein changed all of that,” Erik says. “When we were writing all of this the Weinstein thing was at the forefront because we wanted to do a comedy about the chef but after the initial laughs were over the question was ‘what do we really want to say?’

“So, we thought about the gender politics, about power, and how that’s changed and how the angry white guy, the white middle-aged entitled man can no longer operate the way he did. So, how does it look for him now? It’s not a serious drama, we’ve got enough of that in our present-day life as it is. We just want to have a laugh and be reminded about the fun side of life, while still having a social comment.”

In the months leading up to shooting Aftertaste, Erik did step back into the role of much-loved dad Dave Rafter in the revival series, Back to the Rafters co-starring Rebecca Gibney and Hugh Sheridan.

They had filmed four of the six episodes when COVID hit last year, giving Erik the opportunity to come back to SA and concentrate on Aftertaste.

“If I just went back into Dave Rafter it would have been all I’d be doing, in terms of what the public see, and that’s boring for me and boring for them,” he says. “It was really nice to play the flip side of the coin and be able to tell people what you really think; as opposed to being mild mannered, be ill mannered.

“The day after I finished Aftertaste I flew back to Sydney to finish Rafters for another month.”

With his Aftertaste co-star Rachel Griffiths.

Amazingly, in between all the filming, Erik also managed to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree that he began in New Zealand in 1986. He wrote his final paper in his trailer on set and says, while it was a busy juggle, he received an A+ for his final assignment. He will return to New Zealand in May this year to be “capped” at Victoria University of Wellington and in the meantime is considering what to study next.

Born in Scotland, Erik was seven years old when his family – mum Barbara, dad James, an obstetrician, and sisters Helga and Ingrid – migrated to New Zealand.

The 54-year-old says he never really intended to become an actor and began his arts degree thinking it might lead into teaching. However, he decided to give drama school a go and, after graduation, he landed six months of professional theatre work in Dunedin.

“Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to just have work on the go for the past 30 years,” he says. “I’ve never gotten to the end of a job without another job coming across the horizon towards me. So, I haven’t developed any other skills, I can’t even make a coffee well.

“I do feel lucky but I think, too, you’ve got to be prepared to work hard and I did lots of long-running drama series that some actors might say, ‘I don’t want to do this or that’. When I was young, I just did whatever I was offered to continue to work and gain experience and I think that stood me in good stead.”

As he was establishing his career in New Zealand, the ambitious young actor began eyeing off work across the Tasman, keen to follow in the footsteps of successful Kiwi stars such as Sam Neill, Bruno Lawrence and Marshall Napier.

He took the plunge and moved across the ditch in 1995, scoring a role in the infamous Pacific Drive, based on the Gold Coast.

“This was the era when Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman had just cracked Hollywood so it was the beginning of the Australian renaissance in the United States,” he says. “So, I get to Australia just as Australians were heading to LA, and people kept asking me if I was going to go to LA and I said, ‘No, I’m quite happy just to be here, thanks’.”

Erik on the Packed to the Rafters set with co-stars Hugh Sheridan and Angus McLaren.

His next big role came in the long-running series All Saints playing Mitch Stevens before being cast in The Alice with his wife, actor Caitlin McDougall.

The couple met at a pub on AFL grand final day in 1997 when St Kilda were playing the Crows.

“Neither of us were into football so we sat together and chatted for hours and that was it really. That was 24 years ago,” Erik says.

Initially living in Sydney, the couple visited the Fleurieu Peninsula in between acting gigs to stay with Caitlin’s family. Her mother and step-father Susie and Tony Parkinson own Penny’s Hill winery in McLaren Vale, while her cousin Emily Dowie now runs The Currant Shed.

“Rather than stay in Sydney and do phone sales or wine sales or whatever in between jobs, we would pack our stuff into storage and come here and stay at Susie and Tony’s place, or work on Caitlin’s uncle and aunt’s vineyard for pruning season. We also spent a few months at their beach house at Myponga, which we love,” Erik says.

“So, this area kind of became our home by default because it was a really nice place to be between jobs. And then I’d go back and I did Rafters for five and a half years, then I went to New Zealand and back and did 800 Words. So, this has been a great base.”

Erik and Caitlin were married in a rustic shed at Penny’s Hill in 1999. Erik says the key to their longevity is that they “forgive each other’s humanness”.

“I think sometimes people expect their partner to be perfect and not make mistakes and have the same aspirations that you do, but I think we just have a deep respect for each other,” he says.

“We have our moments, like all couples, and we’ve come close to breaking up at times but that reality, when we really think about the idea of not being together, it’s not palatable to either of us.”

The couple lives in Port Willunga with children, Eilish, 13, and Magnus, 10, who attend the local Steiner school.

Erik says having his children grow up surrounded by extended family is particularly important to him as it was something he didn’t experience as a child.

“I love that my children have grandparents, aunties and uncles and cousins, they’re part of a wider family,” he says. “They’ve been in the same school area since they were born so they have a real sense of place, a real sense of belonging. I really wanted them to have that.

“The secondary reason we wanted to be here is because it’s such a beautiful part of the world; the most underrated part of Australia. People take cheap pot-shots at Adelaide all the time without having come here. From our experience people come here and go, ‘wow, we get it’.”

Turning 50 a few years ago was a major milestone for the actor, who bought himself a 1967 Fender Telecaster guitar as a present.

He plans to build a home studio at some stage, but in the meantime he loves to head out to his shed, put the headphones on and get lost in the music.

“I just disappear for 10 or 15 minutes and learn some new techniques,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to be the next actor forcing my album on everybody. I love to play but it’s very much about me, because so much of my life is put out there to be judged and I don’t want to do that with my music.

“I had a really big moment during the lockdown where I posted a video of me playing a song by a New Zealand guy called Dave Dobbin. I was super nervous about posting it but the response was really great so I kind of got that vibe. I might play in public one day but it’s more about channelling creative energy and I’ve only got so much because I’ve got so much other stuff going on.”

It seems daughter Eilish has inherited the creative gene and is developing into a beautiful violin player – it is compulsory to learn a musical instrument at their school.

Erik and wife Caitlin McDougall. The couple met in a pub on grand final day 1997 and Erik says the key to their longevity is that they “forgive each other’s humanness”.

There are also no electronic devices at the school, which Erik says is a nice counter point to the digital era we live in.

“We’ve said Magnus can have a Nintendo Switch when he’s 12 but hopefully by then he’s developed other skills; it’s a real struggle.

“Magnus is a big character as his name would suggest. It was my grandfather’s name and it’s my middle name. He is a gregarious, fun-loving sociable kid.”

Erik describes Eilish as independent, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she takes off overseas at a young age, backpacking around the world like he did at age 18, assuming overseas travel is back on the cards.

“The difference between boys and girls in our experience is that boys have less colours in their palettes and their colours are much bolder, so when they’re happy they are happy when they’re sad they’re sad,” he says.

“The girls have so many more colours available in their emotional palette, and so many different shades.”

While he’s playing a chef in Aftertaste, Erik says he’s just an okay cook at home and always makes his kids a cooked breakfast before school.

“I like to send them off to school with a full belly,” he says. “They have poached eggs on toast or eggs and soldiers or smoked salmon on scrambled eggs or – if they’re being really good – I make them French toast.”

In costume for his role in The Luminaries. He is photographed with co-star Eve Hewson, who is singer Bono’s daughter.

The family loves to picnic at Myponga, take walks in Kuitpo Forest and eat at some of their favourite local restaurants including the Salopian Inn and The Little Rickshaw in Aldinga, which Erik says is one of the best restaurants he’s ever experienced anywhere in the world.

“And it’s just up the road from us,” he says.

Surfing is another passion, as is time spent camping in the Flinders Ranges.

“Growing up in New Zealand we had nothing like the Flinders Ranges so going camping in the outback is such an exotic thrill for me,” he says. “It’s so other-worldly to the aesthetic I was brought up with, which is beautiful green New Zealand. Then suddenly you are surrounded by these billion-year-old mountains and plains and deserts, kangaroos, echidnas and snakes and I love that.

“When it’s a super-hot day I’ll go looking for snakes because I love to see them slither away. I mean, I don’t want to get too close, but I also love that aspect of Australia. I think South Australia is about as Australian as you can get in terms of landscape.”

As for career aspirations yet to be filled, Erik is circumspect, noting that the last time he answered that question he said he’d like to appear in a period drama – and was cast in two in 12 months. He appeared in The Luminaries which was set in 1866 in New Zealand, as well as a movie called The Furnace which was set in 1897.

“I’ve never done a decent-sized role in a big international film, not a New Zealand or Australian film or a big US television series, but particularly something like a Marvel they’d shoot down here,” he says. “To see how big those productions are and be part of that massive kind of international juggernaut would be amazing.”

A shot from The Furnace, which was accepted into the Venice Film Festival this year. Photograph Megan Lewis.

“I’ve worked with Geena Davis, Clive Owen, Toni Collette, Sam Worthington – people who have been part of that international scene – but never in a major capacity, so that’s what I’d love to do but that is out of my control.”

The Furnace was accepted into the Venice Film Festival this year and another film Erik starred in called Coming Home in the Dark is having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Sundance is the one I’ve always wanted to go to and I would be going to the world premiere of a film that I have the lead role in, and there’s only four of us in it,” he says. “This year is the only year the festival isn’t officially being held and it’s the only year I’ve had a film in it. It’s a bugger but it’s also an exercise in just going, ‘oh well’ and acknowledging that it’s disappointing but not allowing it to eat into you.”

This wise and accepting attitude is reflected in Erik’s life philosophy which he says is to “live life on life’s terms”.

“When things don’t work out it’s how you adapt to change, it’s not the change itself,” he says. “It’s welcoming change as opposed to resisting it, it’s accepting people as they are as opposed to how you want them to be. And reducing expectations, as you’re far less likely to be disappointed. I suppose they’re the things I’ve learnt along the way and it’s how I live now.”

Aftertaste is currently screening on ABC iview.


This story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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