‘If it makes someone think twice about shooting off that horrible tweet, it’ll be worth it’

It’s a tabloid news staple: headlines describing former teen stars as “unrecognisable”. Even so, actor and director Scott Major – whose biggest television roles include Heartbreak High, Always Greener and Neighbours – was surprised to find himself the subject of several such stories recently. Claiming he had “resurfaced” to “flog” videos on Cameo (a service allowing fans to pay celebrities for personalised greetings), these articles noted his baseball cap and “greying, scraggly beard”, which they duly illustrated with an unflattering screenshot.

Actor and director Scott Major has reprised his 1990s Heartbreak High role in Netflix’s 2022 reboot.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“They made it seem like I’m hard up against it, as though I hadn’t been working,” says Major, sitting in a disused greenroom at Melbourne’s Nunawading Studios, a once-bustling production hub that’s become a virtual ghost town since Neighbours filmed its final scene there in June. “It’s hilarious because I’ve been really busy since the 1990s but I guess a lot of people who read these things just believe them.”

“[We] wanted to show what happens when we lose sight of the fact there are real humans behind these stories.”

For Major, this is more than academic: Stan’s recently released indie thriller Darklands, which he directed, tells the story of a police officer who fails to stop a school shooting and a reporter who mercilessly exploits the tragedy. (Stan and this masthead are both owned by Nine.) The lead roles were written for men but in the end, Nadine Garner was cast as local cop Samantha Romans while Samantha Cain played journalist Jamie Connard.

“It took months to talk Nadine into joining,” Major says. “She said, ‘Scott, I don’t just want to do some slasher film. You need to convince me why we should tell this story’.”

In essence, Darklands explores how repressed trauma wreaks havoc on its victims – and how a fresh tragedy, compounded by tabloid harassment and premature finger-pointing – can push a person to breaking point. As the film progresses, audience sympathies shift between these two seemingly ordinary women, leaving us to wonder if we might commit such atrocious acts in similar circumstances.

Nadine Garner, left, plays a troubled cop in the independent Aussie thriller Darklands, now streaming on Stan.Credit:Stan

“[Scriptwriter] Christopher Gist really wanted to show what happens when we lose sight of the fact there are real humans behind these stories,” Major says. “Sometimes, you need a big story to get that message across. The way we dehumanise each other as a society … if it makes someone think twice about shooting off that horrible tweet or jumping on the bandwagon and attacking someone without really knowing anything about them, it’ll be worth it.”

Major is at Nunawading Studios to put the finishing touches on Riptide, a thriller he directed about a woman whose husband mysteriously disappears while surfing. For the 47-year-old, this mid-century orange brick building, purpose-built for Channel 0, now known as Ten and based in South Yarra, is something of a second home. This is where he filmed his first prime-time series, Late for School in 1992, and directed the 2021 drama Lie with Me. And it’s here he played Darren Stark on Neighbours in 1993 before returning as a different character, Lucas Fitzgerald, between 2008 and 2013.

By his own account, he did “the worst acting I’ve ever done” while filming a scene about his fictional father’s death just three months after losing his own dad to a form of lymphoma. “If I started crying, I didn’t know if I’d be able to stop. I just had to get it done because when you work on fast-turnaround television, you can’t come back afterwards and film it again.” A few years later, when Lucas was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Major embraced the opportunity to remind the show’s global fanbase that early detection is vital.

Major as Lucas Fitzgerald in Neighbours.Credit:Gary Medlicott

When Lucas departed Neighbours in 2013, Major moved behind the camera, directing more than 200 episodes of the soap. He was among the first to learn that Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan would reprise their roles of Charlene and Scott in a secretly filmed cameo for the show’s finale, and will forever remember the final scene that included the whole cast.

“I walked on set and everyone was already breaking down so I tried to give them a pep talk by saying, ‘I know this is hard but it’s supposed to be a celebration, so let’s try to keep the tears at bay’,” he recalls. “Of course, I broke down myself as I was saying this.”

In late 2020, Netflix commissioned a reboot of popular 1990s Australian teen drama Heartbreak High, which aired on Ten and then ABC. Having appeared in the 1993 film The Heartbreak Kid and the first three seasons of Heartbreak High, where he played bad boy Peter Rivers, Major had no doubt he wanted in on the new series.

“Rivers was a horrible, racist, sexist human being,” he says of his character’s mid-1990s iteration. “But by the time he left, he was no longer that person and in this new series, he’s on a whole new journey.”

Netflix’s Heartbreak High reboot has become a global hit for the streaming service.Credit:Netflix

The now middle-aged Rivers has a teenager, Darren, who is queer and non-binary. Major was adamant he would not play some harrumphing homophobe on a mission to turn his child straight.

“We had long conversations with the writers and we decided that Darren never needed to come out; we just knew from a young age and loved and accepted him as his parents – but then we broke up and now the custody-sharing thing is coming into fruition.”

Major refused to confirm his involvement in the reboot before its launch, initially leaving viewers wondering if the man behind the bushy beard was the same actor who played the rebellious heartthrob almost three decades prior.

“We wanted a little Easter egg for the original fans,” Major says. “The reboot is so different to the first TV version, which looked gritty, with lots of handheld cameras, and really showed the ugliness of racism and sexism in an inner-city school. This reboot is more stylistic than gritty but I think there’s more beauty and honesty as well. The young cast are amazing and full credit to the writing team because they worked closely with them to give each one their individual voice.”

So far, it’s working: at the time of writing, Heartbreak High was Netflix’s most-watched show in Australia and its 6th most-watched English-language TV series globally, racking up more than 18 million hours of viewing.

After three decades in the industry, Major has witnessed countless changes both small and large. “Modern cameras require so much less lighting,” he says. “It actually makes the actors’ pupils dilate and changes the look of their faces a bit.”

But mostly, he’s concerned about the future of Australian content in a rapidly shifting media landscape and believes streaming giants such as Netflix, Stan and Disney+ should be subject to local programming quotas.

Major as Peter Rivers in the original Heartbreak High TV series.

“Seeing the diversity of our own country on screen is vital,” Major says. “It’s important to all of us, including kids who see characters they relate to speaking in their own accents. It’s not some American fantasy land; it’s tangible to them and makes them think, ‘Maybe this could be a possibility for me one day’.”

Darklands is on Stan; Heartbreak High is on Netflix.

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