The Alice: articles

Jessica Napier and Erik Thomson

Jessica Napier and Erik Thomson from the telemovie The Alice.

Heart of darkness

As the chisel-jawed, blue-eyed Dr Mitch Stevens on All Saints, Erik Thomson was the quintessential TV Week cover boy: a media-magnetic pastiche of doctor, lover and best friend. It’s been a little more than a year since he quit the top-rating series (Dr Mitch, in a scene seemingly written from the soap-opera text books, died in the arms of his true love, Nurse Terri) and Thomson is a changed man. Kicking up dust in the Channel Nine telemovie The Alice, Thomson’s hair is long, his beard untidy and those once-smooth edges seem subtly smudged.

After a year flexing his dramatic muscles in the stage production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and shooting a film, Somersault, he has rediscovered his passion for acting. “Without sounding sycophantic, The Alice is exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “I’ve been a jobbing actor for a long time and when I was building my career, pretty much anything I was offered I would take. I’m 37 now and I thought, I’ve got to give myself the opportunity to say no, because I didn’t for a long time.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve knocked back a lot of work but certainly I have knocked back a few offers since leaving All Saints because they weren’t going to take me somewhere else.”

The Alice, the project that lured him back to TV, did—physically, emotionally and spiritually. A co-production between Nine, Southern Star and producer Robyn Sinclair, The Alice is difficult to pigeon-hole. It’s a drama, certainly, but with fragments of comedy, romance and a sprinkling of something slightly more surreal.

Written by Justin Monjo, directed by Kate Dennis and filmed in central Australia, the telemovie introduces four separate stories, each heading towards Alice Springs for an impending solar eclipse, all destined to intersect. “It’s almost like magic. Day becomes night. Total eclipse. That tiny moon covers the sun,” Thomson’s character, Jack Jaffers, observes in the opening monologue. “I’ve seen it before. In two days it will happen again. People drawn from all over, drawn to the centre, to the Alice, from the north, south, east and west.”

From the north comes unhappily married Helen Gregory (Caitlin McDougall), fantasising about ending her marriage; from the south, Matt Marione (Patrick Brammell), a former medical student from Adelaide escaping family expectations; from the east, one-time rock star Jaffers, still living off the royalties of a few forgotten hits, planning to revisit the memory of an old affair; and from the west, Jess Daily (Jessica Napier), a nurse planning to watch the eclipse with her mum, Heaven (Anne Louise Lambert).

Stirred into the mix is a supporting cast of characters who range from the quirky to the ridiculous: amateur tour guide Toby (Brett Stiller), who subjects a bunch of German tourists to his Steve Irwin-esque schtick, local pub patron Gordy (Daniel Wyllie) who is prone to fits of pokie rage, and the ghost of Helen’s best friend, Patrick (Simon Burke), who encourages her to leave her husband for the roguish Jack.

It is striking from its opening frames (the outstanding panoramas of the outback, rich in vibrant sky blue and deep clay brown, are the work of director of photography Louis Irving) and the fragments of the story fit together slowly like a jigsaw. There are shades of Northern Exposure’s quirkiness, the gentility and complexity of SeaChange and even some of the subcutaneous mystery of Twin Peaks. There is also a momentary homage to the haunting cinematic masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The complete picture is vividly drawn and it is a platform from which Nine hopes to launch a weekly drama.

When asked to describe the telemovie, Thomson struggles. “I asked myself how I would package it in a nice 10-word sound bite and I came to the conclusion that I really couldn’t,” he says. “But that is where its charm lies; that is why I was drawn to it and I hope that the audience is drawn to it as well.

“I’ve worked on projects before that have said they are character-driven and then inevitably end up being plot-driven or genre-driven, but this one I think is as close and true in commercial TV as a character-driven drama can be.”

When he first read the script, he recalls it was a page-turner. “I had never read anything like it in terms of the genre. I was really drawn into it,” he says. “There are a few laughs but the comedy, where it is, is quite fragile, fairly brittle and whimsical.

It has been described as a romantic adventure story but it is not necessarily a love romance, but a projection of romantic ideals on the red centre.”

By the end of the film, however, romance does appear to blossom for Jack and Helen. It’s a curious echo of real life as Thomson and McDougall have been married since 2000. Thomson concedes that playing strangers was difficult for a husband and wife whose subconscious physicality might have given them away.

“I had to remind myself before every scene,” he says. “We got to the point after two weeks of shooting that some of the crew didn’t even know we were married. We’re not demonstrative—not publicly, anyway—but I would just consciously remind myself that I didn’t know this character.

“At the same time, the reason these two people are drawn to each other is that there is a chemistry, which allowed our natural connection to exist on a subconscious level. Maybe there was a presumption that we would have on-screen chemistry and we really hoped we would because it would have been really embarrassing if we hadn’t,” he chimes.

There is resolution of a sort in the film but there are also threads left untied by the time credits roll. As a result The Alice plays more like a first episode than a self-contained film. It’s a necessary evil, given that the canvas must be broad enough to accommodate a TV series.

That situation created a challenge for Thomson, having to give his character emotional punch but leave room to grow. “With The Alice there is much less kinetic energy than there was, for example, with Mitch but the emotional range is there to be taken further because you’re only just beginning to tap into that emotional pain,” he says.

After a year away from TV, Thomson says he would happily return for The Alice if it becomes a regular series. “It’s a very different kind of project. It’s character-driven and you know with acting jobs, as they appear, what is right and what is wrong,” he says. “I’m really proud of the work that I have done. I’ve got my passion for acting back again. That was one of the things that I wanted to do post-All Saints—to find that joy and to find those challenges.”

The Alice airs on Nine on Sunday at 8.30pm.

By Michael Idato
July 28, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald