Packed To The Rafters: articles

Hugh Sheridan

As a singer, dancer and, of course, actor, Hugh Sheridan has many strings to his bow.

Here's looking at Hugh, kid

Hugh Sheridan raises the roof on Rafters. By Michael Idato.

AS THE second-youngest of seven children, Packed to the Rafters star Hugh Sheridan conceded his instinct to perform might have come from childhood necessity.

"Maybe because I was younger, I thought I had to do it on my own, I had to sing out a bit more," he says. "My family are all very musical and artistic in their own way. I think I did feel the need to be heard."

The universe answered his call with a double helping. Packed to the Rafters, which returns next week for a second season, was a monstrous hit in its first year, commanding an average weekly audience of 1.9 million. Its success confirmed the credentials of Seven's already-robust drama portfolio and turned Sheridan, 24 and barely out of drama school, into a star. A very big one.

Success on such a scale for a new television drama is difficult to predict but the popularity of Rafters is both unexpected and, at the same time, strangely unsurprising. A drama that was centred around two empty-nesters whose hopes for a quiet life were shattered when credit-crunched children returned home sat uncannily in the zeitgeist, resonating powerfully with viewers.

It also came with several familiar faces, including Rebecca Gibney (mother Julie Rafter), Erik Thomson (father Dave Rafter) and Michael Caton (grandfather Ted Taylor).

Sheridan says the impact of being on a "TV hit" took a while to sink in.

"I thought the show was great but never having been in a TV show before, I found it very hard to judge how it would be perceived by the wider audience. A ratings figure is just a figure. You can't quite comprehend that people are actually sitting down and watching it and you just think it's wrong somehow."

The show's older leads — Gibney, Thomson and Caton — are seasoned television professionals, while most of its younger cast members, including Angus McLaren (Nathan Rafter) and Zoe Ventoura (Melissa Bannon), had extensive television experience before working on the show. But Sheridan and co-star Jessica Marais, who play Ben and Rachel Rafter, came to their roles straight from drama school.

Sheridan says the sudden attention was overwhelming.

"In all honesty, maybe at the very start, it was a bit too much, too quickly. It was very intense.

In person, Sheridan is so unassuming he comes across as shy. With his defences down, he seems comfortable but only just. While he says he never dreamt of being famous, growing up in Adelaide in an artistic family (his father is jazz singer Denis Sheridan and his siblings have all dabbled in the arts) gave him a drive to perform.

"There's just no question of that. I knew that's what I wanted from an early age," he says.

His ambition was galvanised when, as a boy, his mother took him to see the Australian Ballet.

"There was music, elaborate costumes and people jumping and soaring," he says. "I wanted to be part of it. I had imagined ballet to be really prissy but there was a strength about it."

He later studied at The Australian Ballet School and the National Institute of Dramatic Art, where his entire class auditioned for Packed to the Rafters.

The show's executive producer, Jo Porter, who watched Sheridan's audition and the five subsequent callbacks, says success and fame were inevitable for him.

"Hugh has that ability to drag your eyes to him and that's very rare," she says. "He also has an incredible range. He can be cheeky but also show a sense of vulnerability and that's what really stood out during his audition."

Inexplicably, Sheridan didn't think much of his audition and — for reasons that may startle his growing fan base — never harboured a serious ambition for TV.

"I went to NIDA to set up a solid career on the stage," he said. "I wasn't even sure I would do film, because I didn't think I was good looking enough, basically. When I got the job on TV, I was really surprised."

To some extent, he understands that expectations of him are shaped by people's impressions of Ben Rafter, a character Porter described as "the lovable middle child, who was destined to make a lot of mistakes as he found his place in the world".

Sheridan says he and Ben shared some qualities.

"I think, to some extent, I have made Ben my own by bringing together some qualities of myself. I think our centres are the same. But if you meet people on the street, they think you are Ben Rafter, they call you Ben and they ask you why you cheated on Melissa. They don't easily differentiate."

The extent of Sheridan's popularity was confirmed in May, when he won the Logie for most popular new male talent. But if, as French novelist Victor Hugo once said, "popularity is merely glory's small change", how do we explain the buzz that surrounds him? He represents a bona fide "triple threat" — a performer who can act, dance and sing — and few argue that he will be deprived of glory.

Earlier this month, he unleashed his voice at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival to rave reviews.

"I find singing an incredibly expressive release," he said. "I love doing dramatic songs; songs that are personal to me."

For now, he's concentrating on the second (and a confirmed third) season of Packed to the Rafters, which will bring with it, in addition to Julie Rafter's unexpected pregnancy, several new twists in the blossoming (and rocky) romance between Ben and Melissa. It will also shine the spotlight even brighter on Sheridan, who has emerged as the show's breakout star.

"So," begins the next question, "now that you're famous …" But Sheridan is jarred immediately by the tag.

"Oh God, even just you saying that … no one says that." He pauses again and then laughs.

"Who says that? It's weird. I don't feel like I've changed at all. I feel like I'm exactly the same person and that's part of the problem because you have to make a shift at some point and go: 'OK, I have to accept a sense of responsibility."'

Fame, he says, was the only aspect of his professional life that had unsettled him.

"I found it scary and a little bit confusing because you don't actually know where to put yourself."

"You don't know how seriously to take your fame and also how far it's going to go. At the same time, what I am trying to learn is how to make it enjoyable because there is supposed to be a huge part of it that is enjoyable and, as soon as I work that out, I'm going to start enjoying it."

Packed to the Rafters returns Tuesday at 8.30pm on Seven.

By Michael Idato
July 02, 2009
The Age