Erinsborough’s newly-out student exists because the show’s online forum fans demanded a gay Neighbour, the actor who plays him tells Same Same.
20-year-old James Mason has been filming on the iconic Ramsay Street since October last year, and Neighbours viewers first got to see his mild-mannered high school student character Chris Pappas back in February.
“I knew from Day One what was happening,” James says of his slow-burning sexuality storyline. “My agent gave me a call and said ‘I’ve got an audition for you for Neighbours.’ I said ‘oh fantastic!’ and he said ‘there’s one thing though, the character turns out to be gay.’ I said ‘oh, OK, no worries.’”
The storyline was based on the true-life experiences of the long-running soaps’ writing team, he reveals. “There’s actually a couple of people associated with the script department who have gone through similar things themselves. So that’s been a really good thing in terms of the writing – it’s helped me out a lot and made the writing pretty genuine, because it’s come straight from the script writer’s experience.
“I didn’t know anyone personally who came out while I was at High School,” the straight actor admits, “but I did unfortunately know that if you did come out, or if you were accused of being gay, it’s a pretty hard thing for people around to accept… and for yourself to accept, because there’s so much ridicule and that kind of stuff. It’s unfortunate.”
Prepared for controversy
Neighbours is followed daily by legions of young fans, many of them at high school themselves or younger. Previous same-sex hookups on the show led some conservative types to make all sorts of fuss. Sky helped her friend Lana come to terms with her sexuality a few years ago, and the two schoolgirls shared a kiss. Some critics called for a boycott, while others labeled it an attention-seeking ratings ploy. Later, Erinsborough resident Pepper Steiger came to terms with the fact that her mum was gay.
But Chris’s ‘coming out’ revelation last week marked the first time there’s been an openly gay guy on the soap. James says he has faith that his storyline will draw in viewers in a responsible way.
“I know it’s quite a sensitive topic, but I think the difference between his and the last encounters they’ve had is that we’re looking more in-depth into more than just a ‘gay kiss’. We go more into the relationships, how it affects people around,” he explains.
“So I think it’s been treated in quite a different light compared to previous experiences. Hopefully the feedback will stay positive.”
James’ big break
Neighbours is James Mason’s premiere high-profile acting role. “I started off doing amateur plays, local theatre and stuff, but I was more film and TV based,” he explains. “Then when I got out of school I did a lot of extra work, then moved on and did short films. Over time it built up into what’s now my first professional gig.”
Is he being recognised when he’s out in public yet? “Yeah, I am,” he laughs. “But having my character blend into the storyline rather than get thrown into the deep end has meant it’s taken a while for people to notice the character and therefore myself.
“But since this heavy storyline, there’s definitely been more publicity and more recognition. It’s been a bit full-on, the last week or so!”
Joining the iconic show was a surreal experience, he adds. “I’d seen all these people that I’d known for years as their characters on TV – and then to meet them in person… they’re totally different people. But I love them all now, and feel like I fit in really well. Just to get the opportunity to work on the show is amazing. It’s been going on for so long and is so highly regarded.”
What’s next for Chris?
Same Same asked for all the details on what was coming up next for Erinsborough’s pioneering out gay student, but James can’t reveal too much.
“I’m still filming at the moment,” he says. “I think the last thing that anyone wanted was to have the storyline drop off after the whole ‘secret’ came out. And in terms of what’s coming up next, I’m not 100% sure myself. There’s a lot of stuff being explored and planned at the moment. But it really depends on the audience’s response to this storyline. That’ll determine whether to give it more, or pull back a bit.”
So are the show’s writers really influenced by how the fans react? “Yeah, definitely,” James replies. “The main reason this storyline came about was because of such high demand in the online forums. The producers were pretty keen on giving the viewers what they want, and they noticed there was a high demand for a gay character to come on the show. So they took the opportunity to bring one in.
“They’ve pretty much done everything else in 25 years, so it was definitely time!”
Neighbours plays at 6:30pm weeknights on Ten. See James Mason in action as Chris Pappas on the video clip below.