800 words about Melina Vidler and Benson Jack Anthony, young stars of 800 Words

Melina Vidler and Benson Anthony, the young stars of <i>800 Words</i>. Photo: Seven
Melina Vidler and Benson Anthony, the young stars of 800 Words. Photo: Seven

There's a lot to like about 800 Words, but the central conceit that a journalist might be able to support his two kids on the strength of nothing more than a weekly column of that length is not among them. To put not too fine a point on it, the idea is simply ludicrous.

"Ah, well, we definitely touch on that in series two," says Benson Jack Anthony, who plays the studious Arlo, the 15-year-old son of Erik Thomson's widowed journo George Turner.

"How are you living, where are you getting all this money?" adds Melina Vidler, who plays Shay, George's headstrong teenage daughter. "It's his dead wife's money. Obviously, you've got to have a lawyer in the family."

Thomson is undoubtedly one of the reasons the show quickly became a hit for Seven in 2015, losing none of his Rafters appeal in the relocation to New Zealand. But the show's young stars made their mark too.

Both were nominated for Logies, and Vidler won the most outstanding newcomer award (Thomson collected silver as best actor). Not bad for a 23-year-old whose first on-screen role had come just a year before in a Hungry Jacks ad.

"I nailed it," she jokes. "I had a burger, bit into it and said, 'Mmm. Barbecue bacon?' That was it."

How many takes?

"About 50. At the end, I was like, 'can I have a burger?' and they said, 'Oh, we've just packed it all up'. You're kidding – I really want a burger!"

Vidler grew up in Samford, in the leafy west of Brisbane. Her father was a property developer, and they lived in "about 10 different houses", she says, before she was uprooted at 18 and forced to move to a luxury 60th floor apartment in downtown Brisvegas.

"I was like, 'I hate you, all my friends are in Samford'," she says. "I was so pissed off, but then I went to QUT in the city to study acting, and after about a month I stopped hating it. I thought, 'This is sick'."

That moment of petulance aside, Vidler thinks she and Shay are not especially similar. Vidler likes order, whereas Shay is a rebel. Vidler has, by her own admission, had a pretty charmed life, whereas Shay has had to deal with the death of her mother, relocation to a different country, the sudden influx of would-be lady loves into her father's life – and, in season two, the realisation that money doesn't grow on trees, no matter which side of the Tasman you're on.

"I haven't experienced much tragedy other than breaking up with a boyfriend when I was 17," Vidler says. "There are a lot of differences between me and Shay but you try to understand that character so much inside and out that it just sort of meshes with who you are."

With screen dad Erik Thomson.

Though he is five years Vidler's junior, Anthony is already something of a veteran in the industry.

"I've been acting on and off since I was little," he says. He grew up in Annandale in Sydney, where his parents are both in the business. "Mum owned a dance school, so I was primarily a dancer until about 12. I came out from the womb dancing."

He has been so busy in the past year that finishing high school has become quite the challenge. His aim is to do one subject a year over the next four years in order to knock off his HSC – "if I've got time". And if the next four years are like the last one, there's a real chance he might not

"Between the first and second season of 800 Words I went on to a play, filmed [the ABC series] Cleverman and [the feature film] Emo the Musical," he says. "When this ends I think I'm going to go into hibernation for a month and do some growing and eating, because I love both of those things."

Anthony as Ethan, the star of the feature film Emo the Musical.

Anthony suspects there's a lot of him in Arlo, or vice versa, but adds, "I'd like to think I'm a bit cooler than him".

"Hmm. Well you're not," chides Vidler.

"I'd like to think I'm not that geeky, but maybe I'm wrong," he muses. "I'm a tap-dancing ginger, for God's sake. A speccy, lanky ginge."

That self-deprecation is typical of the vibe of 800 Words, a warm-hearted show that doesn't take itself too seriously but still manages to feel at least a little bit real. There's something hugely appealing in its Kiwi humour too, which feels both familiar and slightly off-kilter at the same time.

"Everyone in the world comes to film in New Zealand, but it's not their product that's being put out into the world," notes Vidler.

In its own small way, 800 Words is trying to set that to rights.

What: 800 Words

When: Seven, Tuesdays at 8.30pm

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This story 800 words about Melina Vidler and Benson Jack Anthony, young stars of 800 Words first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.