White Collar Blue: articles

Peter O'Brien

A different beat

Former Neighbours star Peter O'Brien has always gone about things his own way. Back from the UK, he talks to Michael Idato about his role in Ten's new cop drama.

Peter O'Brien made his television debut just shy of two decades ago. The gig was unmemorable, though appropriately titled.

A short-lived serial drama, Starting Out was set on a university campus and dealt with young teenagers embarking on life.

It made a soft landing on the dramatic landscape and dissolved quickly into the ether. A few years later, however, with roles in top-rating dramas such as Neighbours and The Flying Doctors, O'Brien found himself cooking in the scorching heat of celebrity.

At that point, tanned, perhaps, but not burned by the experience, he opted out. He moved to the UK and took a hard look at himself and his body of work.

"You set your sights, you set your goals and you look at your integrity and you ask yourself what you want to do and that was it," he says. "It is still part of the journey I am very much on at the moment.

"I didn't suddenly, after three or four years, say, 'Ah-ha, I have the answers'. I just found myself in a track and worked out how I wanted to go on, how I wanted to progress, and felt like I had more control over my life rather than just being totally random."

Sitting in a makeshift interview room on the set of his new series, White Collar Blue, O'Brien chuckles quietly at the memory. He's older now, and wiser—no longer the fresh-faced boy whose cheeky grin stretched from Erinsborough to Cooper's Crossing. He has lines on his face and weight on his shoulders. He's thinner, but somehow more clearly defined.

He's pleased to be home from the UK, that much is obvious, and to be home and working, he says, is a bonus. He looks like a man for whom the circle is complete. Perhaps the decision to end his self-imposed exile after a decade was as necessary as the decision to enter it in the first place.

"In many ways, I wish I could start again," he says, "but you can't. I would say that, professionally, I'm a completely different person because I made the decision to leave all of that behind. I just felt that I needed to go and learn to expand myself and challenge myself.

"I thought that was the only way I was going to be able to tackle anything with any confidence in myself, to be able to say, 'If you give me a role, I can make that work; I can find ways of embellishing it rather than just reading the lines'."

His time in the UK was a success and he returns to Australia with a CV of which he can be proud.

It includes Russell T. Davies's acclaimed gay drama Queer as Folk, the gritty Brit drama The Knock and the sensual and complex Deceit, opposite Francesca Annis.

There were brief returns home, most notably in 1998 for Day of the Roses, Ten's miniseries based on the Granville train disaster, and the critically acclaimed ABC drama Queen Kat, Carmel & St Jude.

It was on the latter that O'Brien caught the eye of Sue Masters, then head of drama at the ABC and now head of drama at Ten. That meeting, she agrees, planted the seed that blossomed into White Collar Blue.

"He was someone I'd always been aware of, but he'd never been available," Masters says.

"He's never been back long enough to slot into anything substantial."

When Masters sat down to develop the series with producers Steve Knapman and Kris Wyld, best known for the ABC police drama Wildside, O'Brien's name came up again.

"We did talk about Peter, and we all said it would be fabulous if he was available to do it," Masters says. "Certainly, before the script was cooked, we had been talking about him and we had been talking about nobody else. We were thrilled when he was available and was interested in doing it."

O'Brien says White Collar Blue caught his eye because it was "a police show which was not going to rely on action, which tried to deal more with how something like a crime, and working as a police officer for 14, 16, 18 hours a day, 600 bucks a week less tax and rent, impacts and infiltrates through to their personal lives."

What it isn't, he says, is cops "shooting at people, running up stairs and looking particularly glamorous". Nor, he says, is it melodramatic. "It's always a danger when you're dealing with the personal, because you think it takes it into an area which is not sentimental, but can verge on that.

"It is not that—it is more to do with how police really work from day to day, how they deal with their family life. I thought that was good because I had never seen anything like that being tackled. It gives it a distinct flavour."

The decision to join the project was made easier because of Knapman and Wyld's involvement. "You have to look at the reputation of the people who are going to make it and you try to work out where their sensibilities lie, where their sense of humour or their intelligence takes you," O'Brien says. "So you meet with them and you decide.

It's like anything you do—if you're going to work with someone, you try to see what they have done to get a feeling for their style."

In White Collar Blue O'Brien plays Detective Sergeant Joe Hill, a cop with a conscience from a working-class background. His foil is Freya Stafford's Senior Constable Harriet Walker, a stylish and sophisticated former federal cop, perceived by her new colleagues as a white-collar outsider.

Rounding out the cast are Don Hany as Senior Constable Theo Rahme, Brooke Satchwell as Constable Sophia Marinkovitch, Jodie Dry as Nicole Brown and Richard Carter as Senior Sergeant Ted Hudson.

"Where Joe starts from is that he doesn't believe he can eliminate crime," O'Brien explains. "He doesn't believe he will ever stop it, but he can stop people profiting from it, and that doesn't necessarily mean the heads of drug gangs—it means judges, lawyers ... He doesn't have this vendetta to clean the streets. He's more for the little people, because he's a little person as far as the ranks go, and he's a real battler."

Masters considers O'Brien perfect for the role. The qualities that drive Joe Hill, she says, are "his humanity, his acknowledgement of his flaws and those of the world, but essentially a belief in the goodness of people ... He's got a really big heart, although it's tough. For a man he has, dare I say it, a bit of a feminine side."

If Joe has an Achilles heel, O'Brien says, it's that he's quick to judge people he perceives to be wealthy. In contrast, he treats working-class people—with whom he empathises—as individuals. "Most crime is poverty-driven and he can understand that because he came from that sort of background."

White Collar Blue enters a local drama market close to saturation. It is the third of four new dramas, premiering a few weeks after Nine's Young Lions and the ABC's MDA and a day before Seven's Marshall Law. David Mott, Ten's general manager of programming, believes the show's timeslot—Mondays at 8.30pm—and distinct personality—dealing as it does with a clash of police cultures—arm it well for the tough fight ahead.

"All the dramas out there are very different, and I think the timeslot we have chosen gives it a bit of a headstart in that we're not fighting for an Australian drama audience as such," he says. White Collar Blue will be up against Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on Nine and the US drama 24 on Seven.

"The series potential, as I see it, lies with the characters and the fact that they develop quite nicely early on. They are all identifiable in their own right, and I liked that in the series premise."

O'Brien is "fantastic," Mott says. "Every episode I've seen is fantastic, and I would point back to the market research we did in which he scored one of the highest tests for a lead actor in a drama series.

"He looks a bit more worldly now, and I think the role suits him."

For his part, O'Brien has no regrets about the way his television career has unfolded over the years.

"Should I?" he asks, his mouth curling into the faintest hint of a smile. "You have to be honest as an actor and sometimes, if I could have afforded to sit out, there are some things I would have sat out on. The terrible thing is that people will judge you on everything you do.

"There is some stuff I am really proud of, and I have made sure I made some really diverse choices. I'm not afraid to put myself out there in that way."

Who's who in White Collar Blue

Peter O'Brien as Joe Hill

What the press kit says: "An uncomplicated man; it's his life that's chaotic."

What's really going on: He's a knockabout cop with a heart of gold.

What Hill says: "A decent, hard-working man is going to be behind bars and a crook is going to be still selling drugs. Is that what you want?"

Freya Stafford as Harriet Walker

What the press kit says: "Gutsy, tenacious and focused."

What's really going on: She's the smart, stylish foil for Joe ... maybe a potential love interest.

What Walker says: "I don't want to have to prove myself every time I walk through the door."

Jodie Dry as Nicole Brown

What the press kit says: "A former model, she would happily settle down as Mrs Joe Hill."

What's really going on: Doesn't get to do much in the pilot, except shoot Harriet the odd jealous look.

What Brown says: "I had indigestion, I ate pizza for two."

Brooke Satchwell as Sophia Marinkovitch

What the press kit says: "A woman with a secret. She's ballsy and she's fearless."

What's really going on: Most women with a "secret" in TV drama turn out to be lesbians.

What Marinkovitch says: "Yeah, yeah, whatever gets you to sleep at night."

Richard Carter as Ted Hudson

What the press kit says: "A decent man, but a tough one."

What's really going on: He's the gruff chief of the crimes squad.

What Hudson says: "I know I don't have to ask you to go the extra yards on this one because I know you will."

White Collar Blue shows at 8.30pm on Ten.

By Michael Idato
August 15, 2002