Blue Heelers: articles

Paul Bishop: The Gentleman Actor of Mt Thomas

Paul Bishop joined the cast of Blue Heelers in the middle of 1998, playing Senior Constable Ben Stewart, a divorced father of three who relocated from the city to Mt Thomas. Paul brought to the role an impressive list of theatre and television credits, as well as film work. He has also slipped so comfortably into Blue Heelers that's it hard to imagine him ever not being in the cast!

We sat down to talk to Paul to find out a bit more about him and his life as a Heeler, and we found a man who is passionate about many things, including his new daughter, and who is obviously having the time of his life. Paul is one of television's genuine good guys, a man whose love of life and of his chosen profession shows through each week in the way he plays Ben Stewart.


You've been on Blue Heelers for a little while now — how have you found it?
Look, it's the best job in the world, it's fantastic. I've got to say that it's a dream come true. Not only is it great to work with a bunch of people who are all constant professionals, but who have a lot of fun doing it and who care about it. It's come at a time for me… when I was about to have a baby and so it's just sort of answered so many things and keeps me absolutely satisfied and I love it. I love going to work every day; we get two days on location and two days in the studio and then a third day rehearsing at the Melbourne Theatre Company. It's a really good kind of… we get a varied life and we get to see lots of different places and every week we get new people coming in — guest actors — and so we get to meet a lot of people and work on good stories and it's just great fun.

You are a new dad — how are you finding parenthood?
I'm loving it. I think I'm blessed with a particularly good daughter.

What's her name?
Izalea. [The name] actually belongs, or is a derivation from her great-grandmother, who is Latvian. And, we just loved the sound of it. It's one of those good names, it's not like Jimenerherites or Tinkerbell kind of territory, so it's not a crazy kind of a thing, 'how are you going to spell that?'. It's interesting enough but it sounds familiar, because it's like Isabelle and Leah or whatever. So yeah, we really liked that and it suits her because she's a unique and charming creature. We love her, we were just having a big play with her this morning.


Children are more entertaining than you could ever imagine.
They are, and the great thing is that you actually lose yourself in them. In a way I suppose it's a similar sort of thing to acting. When you really spend good quality time with your child, you go into a territory of sort of play where you forget about washing that has to go out, all the day-to-day sorts of things, and you just get into the world where things get fascinating. So it's great fun, it's nice to go through that whole rediscovery with them. And they learn so quickly.

Well they do, and everything's expanding and it's amazing the simple joy they can get out of just a plastic juice bottle. Give them all the complicated toys in the world…
Just a bit of plastic. Not the bad type they can put over their head, no, no, no. I don't condone that. If you've got a little bit of plastic that you put your slip folder notes into… it's great.

And so are you planning any more soon?
We'll have to wait and see what the schedule is, the Blue Heelers I mean.

How did you get into acting? What first sparked your interest?
Well, a ratbag school friend of mine put my name down on the audition list for the school musical. I just had a great time.

What musical was it?
Godspell or something. It wasn't so much the subject matter, it was just that you stayed back at school after hours and you entered a different world. I suppose I was transfixed by the mysteries of the theatre. All the backstage stuff, costumes and lights and singing songs in rehearsal and getting that bond that you get with people that you don't get in a day-to-day school environment. It's something that unites you, I suppose it's like being in a footy team or whatever, but you are doing something very creative and you are exploring different parts of your personality and other people's personalities and I suppose I really got fascinated in all that. Then when I left school, I put my name down… well, I applied to do a course and was very luckily accepted, and then from then on I've just kept working. Mostly in the theatre but for, like, 12 years I was working in theatre and then I did a few bits and pieces of television in that time, just guests roles on this, that and the other.


And you were in the film Paradise Road.
Yeah. My own moustache. It was great, [director] Bruce Beresford came along and saw a play that I was in at the Sydney Theatre Company, and I was going to be unemployed as of that night, no… a week after that I was going to be unemployed, and the casting director of the Sydney Theatre Company said, well that's OK, people come and see shows at the STC, film directors and such, like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. And then John, one of the actors, came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Paul, I'd like to introduce you to Bruce Beresford' and he goes, 'Oh I loved the show I was in tonight and I thought you were fantastic and, um, can you do a English accent because there's an English captain in this film that I'm doing and we're going to have to cast him overseas but I think you' d be perfect. Can I send you a script?' And then I had an audition a couple of weeks later. I said, 'What sort of accent do you want me to do? What part of England?' And he said, 'Oh anything, Oxford sort of standard thing.' And so I spent some time with a voice coach and got the accent and then got the job and ended up working alongside Elizabeth — I mean, Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. It was a film about women prisoners of war, but it's a great story. I'm very pleased to have worked in my career on stories that have a relevance to not only to Australia but just to the people and to the spirit of overcoming odds. I also worked on Never Tell Me Never [alongside Claudia Karvan], which is the story of Janine Shepherd, the Olympic skier, who just before she was about to go over to represent Australia had a nasty accident which crippled her, and she was told she would never walk again. But she proved them all wrong, overcoming amazing odds to not only walk but she became a stunt aeroplane, like aerobatics, expert and has gone around doing motivational speaking everywhere and given so much hope to so many people's lives. I think that element of doing this job is so satisfying. To be involved with something like that, to be telling stories like that on a weekly basis; there are elements of that in Blue Heelers.

Maybe one of the reasons why Blue Heelers is so popular is that the characters are all quite approachable, they are not so far removed from everyday life, like Melrose Place, for example. People aren't obviously watching it for escapist reasons, they might be watching it to relate.
And they are also not cased up like city, like urban coppers for example. They are taking things at a much more gentle pace living in the country, but they are still getting the job done, and I think they restore a lot of faith in good triumphing over evil, and I think that they are very important things that we all need to believe in.

Have you ever played a policeman before?
No. Probably in some Gilbert and Sullivan musical, but I don't think so, not really a policeman. I certainly… what I did when I got this job is because we are in a way representing the police force, particularly the Victoria Police, I actually asked the police advisor — I wanted to do a couple of weeks of intensive training. So I went out to the police academy, I went to Shepparton, which is a country police station, I spent some time with some detectives up there, because Ben Stewart is actually a detective. The first three weeks that I was there, it was more or less a guest role for me, but I knew that I was going to come back and do the Senior Constable uniform part of it. But he is a detective who was demoted 'beause he had a falling out with Pepe Romano, who was a corrupt detective who killed his mate… that stinky Pepe Romano dweeb! So I actually spent some time at Shepparton with some detectives up there, South Melbourne CID, South Melbourne uniform, I even went up in the helicopter. The Airwing. It was great, I saw a lot of the force. And just have an enormous appreciation now for their job and what they do. They are constantly working on keeping our lifestyle safe and our society orderly in a way… we only get bad press from the police; we hear about shootings and those sorts of things, but the day-to-day job of being a policeperson is quite underrated, I think.

But it hasn't made you want to change jobs? If the acting thing doesn't work out?
I'm pleased to be fighting crooks so that if anything does go wrong they can call 'Cut!', which is one of the privileges that they don't have in the police force. I have even more respect for them for that reason and… enough respect for myself and my child to not put myself in that position.

What's your take on Ben?
He came from a Salvation Army background, and I think he was always fairly much a bit of a thinking kind of dude, he went to university and did studies in Humanities and is pretty much from a Labor background. And then I think he got married pretty early… being part of the Salvos, I think he was longing for that family life, and so he got married fairly young and had kids while he was still fairly young, and then the career in the force started to happen and he got so involved in that, so the family life thing sort of happened as a matter of course, and he became very much a career cop and got stuck into doing everything he needed to do to climb the ladder further. And loves his kids, but I think it's taken its toll in terms of his family life, because he and [wife] Rachel are no longer together.

It's obvious that they've been building a little bit of chemistry between Maggie [played by Lisa McCune] and Ben — is that just a red herring?
She's undeniably a very desirable person to have in any police station, and Ben is very respectful of people and he also has a great sense of what he wants, he has a huge journey He's going to take things at his own pace and I don't think there is going to be any pressuring. But I think he like to play and he likes to dabble in the territory of possibility. That's a roundabout way of saying… not much! Not much about that topic but definitely… he's interested in Maggie.

There's a little bit of an element of it being a rivalry with PJ as well, going for her affections. He may like her but there is also that sort of thing of, if I could get one over here, then that would be OK.
Yeah, and there's the territory also of what their relationship is and so I think Ben is just playing his cards, keeping his hand concealed really.

Do you think the politics of the station, given that Ben was a detective and has been demoted, do you think that's kind of adds a bit of… do you think he is trying to prove himself?
He is keeping his head pulled in because he got slapped on the wrist by the force, he actually did step out of line and he learned that he actually has got to pull his head in. And I think he is just there passing the time for the time being and he's starting to loosen up a bit more and be more involved in the day-to-day routine of being in a country police station, which is pretty different from the pace that he has sort of worked at. And I think that he is starting to relax and finding a new way of looking at the job, because he has always been… he's done everything by the book and he has been a very committed copper.

Are you going to try and balance this job with doing some more stage or do you think that you are going to give yourself a break, given that you have a new child?
I'll always be interested in doing some theatre work. I love doing it. I also love doing this, so if there is a way I can balance the two — Lisa [McCune] and John [Wood] particularly have both managed to do that and I think it's very important just to give yourself that extra base for career, which is being an actor rather than just a job. The great thing about it is that you have a long contract. You know you'll be here for a while, but it's good to keep in touch with other people and the other side of things. I've never done a job that's lasted more than two, maybe three, months.

Did you move from Queensland for this job?
I moved from Queensland, not to do this. I moved from Queensland to Sydney in order to further my career in the theatre and also seek television and film work, and that worked very very well. I did about seven or eight shows with the Sydney Theatre Company while I was there, which didn't hurt. And then this came up and so I moved to Melbourne.

From Queensland to Sydney is not quite a stretch because it's similar kind of weather and lifestyle, but Melbourne is a little bit different.
I've been in Melbourne now for a year and someone said to me, as soon as I arrived here, they said, Sydney jumps out and grabs you and you immediately fall in love with it, but Melbourne slowly creeps up on you and gets under your skin and you actually become part of it and vice versa, and now, being here for my first autumn, all these autumns days, it's really beautiful, all the leaves. I love the elements of nature's involvement… like it actually affects people much more down here. Like in Sydney the sun's out, people are having a great time and they live at this higher pace. Whereas in Melbourne people really do respond to the weather; the days will get short and cold and people gets colds and get depressed, and then summer comes and it's like they come out of hibernation, they all just open up and have a fantastic time. Twilight is here, I love that. Mind you, we got married on the cliffs at Bondi but our child was born in Melbourne, so I love both cities and I'm from Brisbane, so I also love… I love the eastern seaboard equally!

So we probably won't see you locating to Perth in the future!
Actually, I've heard Perth is fantastic! I've just heard so many amazing things about the spirit of the place; the land is actually really dynamic. I love nature, I just love how it affects people, how it dwarfs us sometimes…

Just one comment about the stage: it's interesting there are some actors who miss the stage all together and others who do a lot of work on it. I remember reading a quote Al Pacino said once when asked about how he felt about the stage and it's a quote from trapeze artists the Flying Wallendas, who said, 'Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.' Pacino used that as his analogy for the stage. Does that approximate the experience for you?
There's an element of that. When you are hitting your straps, whether it's on stage, whether it's in front of a camera, whether it's just… it can happen so many times in life. It can just be a great conversation that you have with someone. When you actually get that taste of getting outside yourself, and I suppose that is what I was saying a bit earlier about playing with my child. When you actually glimpse that or see a film that makes you feel that, that you actually leave yourself for a second — that's, I suppose, on the wire. It doesn't necessarily have to be on the stage, but it is following your passion, and whatever is yourÖ what Joseph Campbell said, who believes in mythology and believes we invent our own realities and things. When you follow your bliss, and when you are doing that truly, then you are on the wire. And that can be playing with your child, it can be kissing your wife, your partner, whatever, and you can glimpse it on stage and also when you are working on a scene that truly is where… that's life. The rest is waiting for those moments, I think. And I think it goes beyond just the stage or…

You can't confine it to the one activity. I suppose if you are a passionate person, then it does spill over into all sorts of things.
They are the moments of illumination that a lot of people yearn for, and when they have them they are just, I don't know, just so all consuming.

Seven Network Limited