Two weeks ago today, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rodger Corser, the star of the hit Aussie drama The Heart Guy, which begins airing on KCET in two days.
Rodger Corser (Glitch, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Rush) is utterly delightful to chat with. (He’s also very generous, not just with his time but in his acknowledgment of others, as you’ll see.) Lucky me that he spent a half-hour, while looking out at the beach on a sunny Sydney morning, chatting with me by phone about his hit series The Heart Guy, in which he plays the lead character, Hugh Knight, a heart surgeon.
The program is new to the Thursday evening international TV line-up on KCET, so to prevent any spoilers for the public TV station’s viewers, we focused our chat on the series overall, with a nod to a particular storyline in the first season. (Text has been edited for clarity and length.) Said Rodger about the series and what drew him to it and the Hugh Knight character:
“The show initially centers around a brilliant Sydney heart surgeon who works hard and plays equally as hard — in other words, burning the candle at both ends. Unfortunately, the partying side of his nature catches up with him and his work does start to slip. He’s reprimanded, not for the first time, and his superiors have had enough of him. They don’t want to sack him, but they want to put him on a probation to teach him a lesson, so they strike him off the surgeon’s registrar and they send him ‘out bush’ as we would say — out to the rural areas — on probation for a year, and then possibly come back and pick up his surgical rounds again.
“But the twist is they send him back to his hometown, which he spent a long time trying to get away from as a young man. So he’s forced to go back to his small hometown, which is a bit of a backwater, and practices in a country hospital which is under-resourced, and where they don’t really appreciate his skills. So he’s forced to be with a whole new set of people who look at medicine differently.
“The second part of the show is how he’s been forced to reconnect with his family — his father, who he’s never quite got on with, and the fact that his ex-girlfriend is now married to his brother. It makes for some interesting dinner conversation between family and awkward moments. So that’s where we pick up the show in Season 1.
“I tested for [the role] and I was lucky enough to win through in the end. Tony McNamara was our showrunner for the first three seasons and is now well-known around the world for writing The Favourite and being Oscar®-nominated for that, as well as being the writer and showrunner/creator of The Great, which is now streaming on Hulu. I’ve worked with Tony on other projects before and he’s an incredible talent who mixes a dry sense of humor with drama. This is a great mix between that dry humor and the procedural drama and the relationship drama. So I knew with him at the helm, and also Claudia Karvan, who was producing this as well, this was a great team to be involved with. And I read the first script and I just laughed out loud and really wanted to play the character.”
Regarding the easiest and most challenging aspects of playing Hugh, Rodger shared:
“I would probably say that my friends think playing a smartass comes naturally to me, and the surgeon part is probably the hardest because that is definitely not a natural fit for me. I wasn’t that academic as compared to Hugh specializing in being a heart surgeon. People often ask me how much medical information I picked up and I break their hearts when I say, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ I learn these multi-syllabic words and quickly forget what they mean. We’re very lucky we have a great medical advisory team in the writing department and also on set. We’re not a full-on procedural by any means, but we don’t want people to be pulled out of the drama because we haven’t done our job with making our medical text believable. We’re much more lighthearted than a full-on medical procedural, but we like to get it right.”
It’s like Hugh has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, with arrogance underpinning both sides, so I asked Roger about these dual aspects of Hugh’s personality and how they play into the dynamics of Hugh’s personal and professional relationships.
“Sometimes it does feel like you sort of jump into a different movie a little bit, but I think it all fits together quite well. Steve Bisley, who’s a really well-known actor, firstly for being in the first Mad Max film with Mel Gibson, plays my father, Jim; he’s an incredible actor and can easily bring some intensity to it. We always had that little bit of friction between the two characters from the first episode… There’s always a bit of tension between those two alpha males. [Hugh] was never going to be a farmer, so he set down into academics and being a doctor. So he sort of clashes with his dad just on ideology. With Hugh’s mum, Meryl, who’s played by Tina Bursill — she’s fabulous — it’s a little lighter. Hugh’s kind of a favorite son with her…
“I think what’s great about the show is we have all these elements that fit together well. It’s a procedural, there’s definitely broad comedy and drier comedy, but the character-driven elements to the show draw the audience in to really invest in these characters. So when we play out a tragic moment… and the ups and downs of certain relationships — because you are invested in these characters, they actually mean something. Because we’re an hour show and not a half hour show, we have the time to show a bit more character.
“The Hugh-Penny relationship… Tony McNamara is a big fan of screwball comedy, films from the mid-part of the 20th century — there’s definitely a vein about that. The comedy in the scripts, it was pointed out to me by one of the directors; he goes ‘Just look for the threes.’ Even though it’s not as obvious as a sitcom, there are those old-school comedic beats to look for: one, two, and the third is the punchline… A lot of the romantic comedy elements to the Hugh-Penny, you know, you’ll see in the all the classic romcom films. So we tried to play to that without it being too much of a trope. The classic thing is you get them quite close together and then you try and keep them apart for some reason and put a lot of obstacles in the way, while the audience is just wishing they would hurry up and get together. That’s the aim.”
When I mentioned that this description is reminiscent of the 1980s Cybill Shepherd-Bruce Willis TV series Moonlighting, Rodger exclaimed:
“Even now, when people pitch shows, that show is always brought up as a touchstone. So it’s like a Moonlighting situation, where there’s a love-hate relationship where they’re screaming at each other and three seconds later they’re in a passionate embrace.”
It’s a similar kind of situation with Hugh’s ex-girlfriend, Charlie, played by Nicole da Silva, with whom Rodger had worked before.
“We’ve done 40 episodes of The Heart Guy/Doctor Doctor, so we’ve done over a hundred hours of one-hour drama now. That’s a lot of television to do. We did 60 or 70 episodes of a procedural-action police show called Rush, where we were kind of like a SWAT team-esque response group, like a police rescue tactical squad. We did that from 2008 to 2011. It was a lot of fun, screaming around the streets of Melbourne in fast police cars and hanging off buildings. I don’t know if I could do it now; I don’t know if my back would hold up. But it was fun ten years ago.
“Nicole’s a really good mate of mine. She’s perfect to pay Charlie. She’s really well-known as well. Audiences in Australia and around the world know her work on Wentworth, and she has a really big fan base through that show. So we were really lucky to get her cos she was shooting Wentworth at the same time; we sort of got her in between seasons.
“So yeah, there’s a love triangle going on in the family with my brother, played by Ryan Johnson. I come back into town and he’s the type of guy that’s always nervous about being the middle child and has a bit of middle-child syndrome, and thinks that at any stage Charlie might just break it off and run away with Hugh again. There’s that sort of tension… As the season goes on, it’s more of a tool for a little bit of comedy.”
Regarding Ajax, Jim and Meryl’s adopted son, Rodger explained the relationships amongst the Knight men thusly:
“I think initially, when Hugh comes back to town and the initial shock of why he’s back — he tells a few white lies about why he’s back, cos he’s being benevolent and wanting to give back and so forth — he tries to fit back into those family dynamics but he’s used to being in his own circles the top dog and being appreciated by everyone around him. Of course his father doesn’t give him that at all. Even with his brother Matt, they both feel that they never got much love, perhaps tough love, growing up from Jim.
“Hugh is quite jealous of the relationship with their adopted son, Ajax, because he sees Jim getting on famously, sharing a joke and a laugh with Ajax, and Matt and Hugh look on in disbelief. They can’t believe it’s the same father because they had a very different upbringing. Which is a nice dynamic — it puts Hugh definitely off-kilter. His cockiness takes a big dent because of that. And then we see later on in the series that there’s reasons for the different relationships that Jim has with his kids.”
This emotional Achilles heel for Hugh seems contrary to his arrogant nature, so Rodger expanded on the dichotomies of Hugh’s personality and playing them.
“I’ve seen some feedback on social media — sometimes when those self-centered elements of his character come out, some people don’t like him at all. They like the nicer side, the more caring side…
“But I think [both] is more real. We are playing a more heightened comedy-drama, but none of us can claim to be one hundred percent pure. We all have an ego of varying degrees. Hugh’s just might be a little more obvious. I think he’d like to be great at everything he does, which means he can be egotistical and he likes to party and he likes to be self-centered, but he also likes to be the best possible doctor that he can, and it irritates him if he fails at anything. Whether that is purely wanting to help the person or comes from the self-centered point of view, the result is the same. Mind you, in one of the earlier episodes, Penny points out that maybe [because of] his arrogance of trying to solve a medical problem, he didn’t ask a patient and look at the actual patient; he was just merely looking at tests and charts and so forth. So he does learn a few lessons about being slightly more personable with his patients.
“I think balancing, as you said, the dual sides of his personality is the fun part. We’re trying to make him a little bit likable; it’s difficult in a comedy to be totally disliked. I think you can be cheeky and people can roll their eyes at the character and go, ‘He’s incorrigible,’ but at the end of the day he does want to do good… because of his father.
“That’s how I play him — that he’s always wanting the approval of Dad, so he wants to be the best. So he treats life like a competition, to hopefully get his dad to turn around one day and say, ‘That’s fantastic!’ But he’ll never get that with his dad, so he’s driven further and further and sometimes shies away from the external praise and becomes self-centered.
“It is a bit of a balance, especially with other characters like Ken or Betty, where he can be a little cruel in his retorts and responses to them. Sometimes they can be funny but you don’t want to have him punching down too much because that can come across the wrong way.”
I do roll my eyes at Hugh sometimes, but the Season 1 storyline that made me have tons of heart for him is the one about Hugh and his best friend. In remembering it, I got a bit misty-eyed and choked up while sharing this with Rodger.
“That’s amazing to hear because we invested a lot, and I’d only just met Dave Eastgate, who plays Joey, my best friend, for the first time. He’s a rock singer and a comedian here, and he does a stand-up where he uses both his rock singing and his comedy in the one show.
“He really committed to that [role] and I don’t think anyone else could have played it because what he brought to that character allowed my character to not have to carry any jokes in the storyline. I could just be totally committed to the care of my best friend. And in our type of show, it was the person who was sick who was cracking self-deprecating jokes, which kept a bit of levity; otherwise it could have dragged down into perhaps melodrama.
“We kept it bouncing along, but still with the heart and the drama. It was amazing, and I loved the culmination of that storyline. I don’t want to give anything away to the viewers, but both of us got really emotionally invested in that storyline. It was actually a real pleasure to play.
“So yeah, that first series is great because I get to play Hugh through a whole gamut of emotions.”
Viewers in Southern California can watch Rodger do just that when The Heart Guy: Season 1 begins airing on KCET this Thursday, June 18, at 9 PM PT. Episodes will be available for streaming at kcet.org/heartguy for 7 days after their air dates.
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