At first, the Heartbreak High remake felt like any other acting gig for Thomas Weatherall. “I knew the original was massive,” the 22-year-old says, referencing the hit 1990s show with a shrug. “But I guess it wasn’t massive for my generation.” But then the Netflix reboot amassed over 18m views in its first week of release – “and suddenly I start getting recognised in the street.”
Sitting with Guardian Australia inside the sunless green room of Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre, Weatherall describes the aftermath as “a shock”. “I’m a very private person. I never expected this show to blow up the way it did … I got stopped like three times walking here.” It was a 500 metre walk from his car.
Malakai, the character he plays on Heartbreak High, is charismatic and outgoing, but the real-life Tom is uncomfortable with this new avalanche of attention. By his own description, he is shy, introverted and “naturally very insecure”. He hates seeing himself on screen and took a long time to get through the first season, cringing as he watched his character flirt and play basketball.
Weatherall is, in fact, more like the character he plays in Blue, the upcoming show for Belvoir which he both wrote and stars in, which is premiering this weekend for Sydney festival.
The one-man play is a tender monologue about mental health, grief and the duty of human relationships. It centres around Mark, a young man who has to face up to his own demons after receiving bad news in a letter from his mum. While not exactly autobiographical, Weatherall describes it as “very personal fiction,” with many scenes ripped almost verbatim from his teenage diary entries.
As well as being a very different sort of role, it introduces the Kamilaroi man as a rare multi-talent. In a play excerpt showcased in Sydney late last year, Weatherall was a commanding and charismatic performer, with writing that is vivid, personal and attuned to the human condition – capturing, for instance, the precise way a romantic relationship can decay. He recently picked up an Aacta award for his work on Heartbreak High, and enjoys the escapism that comes with the craft, but he says “I was always much more interested in writing”.
In fact, acting came almost by accident. Born in Rockhampton, from the age of six Weatherall had spent 30 hours a week studying dance alongside his older sister, and was laser-focused on a career as a professional dancer until the last year of high school, when he saw a casting call for ABC series Deadlock. All he needed to do was send in a photo – which led to an audition, and eventually the role. Weatherall spent a month around Byron Bay filming. “The moment I started working on that set, I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I want to do’,” he remembers. “So dancing, this thing that I worked my entire life towards and was very dedicated to, just went out the window. I threw everything at acting instead.”
It didn’t come easy. Weatherall snagged an agent, but representation upped the ante: “a really scary thing” that heightened his self-doubt. The few auditions he landed went nowhere, turning his first year out of high school into a gap year he “hated every second of”. He worked a collection of odd jobs – nightfill at a supermarket, selling sneakers at a chain store, pulling shifts at an air con company – before enrolling in drama at the Queensland University of Technology. He hated that too. “Everyone who knows me knows that,” he says. “I mean, the drama school probably noticed it too.”
But in 2020 he landed his first big gig: a role on Channel 7 drama RFDS. As Covid kicked off, he flew out to Broken Hill to film, living a relatively restriction-free life while his classmates suffered through Zoom lessons. He eventually dropped out of drama school – and then Netflix called.
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Carly Heaton, the executive producer of Heartbreak High, says they had been searching for the right Malakai for a long time – and that “there was a gasp” in the room when they watched Weatherall’s audition tape.
“There’s a magic to Tom that I don’t think you see very often,” says Heaton, who was struck by how naturally he inhabited the role. “What makes him stand out is he’s an artist in every sense of the word. He’s not interested in the trappings of celebrity.”
Playing the love interest and heart-throb in a mainstream show felt significant to Weatherall, as a young Indigenous man who did “not grow up with that” on screen. But he was particularly drawn to the project by one episode in particular, which spotlights police brutality – something he says Indigenous Australians have been talking about for a “fucking long time”, and a conversation he felt it was important to amplify on screen. “I went, ‘yep, I want to play that. If nothing else, I want to be in that episode’,” Weatherall remembers.
But in the background to Heartbreak High’s immediate and dizzying success, he had been working on Blue. Weatherall had first started the play back in high school when he was severely depressed and used writing as a form of unprescribed therapy. Then in 2021, he won a fellowship to develop it at Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre, and began the process of bringing Blue to life.
Weatherall drew a lot from his own experiences in creating Mark. Like Weatherall, the character is an old soul, with a seriousness beyond his years. But it felt “far too scary and big and intense” to tell his own story, so he shaped his interior turmoil into a work of fiction. He hopes Blue can open up conversations about mental health, and admits speaking honestly about his own feelings is something he’s struggled with.
“I think as a whole culture, particularly as Australians, we’re pretty awful at talking about the difficult things … I was like that for a really long time,” he reflects. “I think Blue has helped me go, oh, you actually need to talk about this, not just write a play about it. And I hope that it can do that for some other people.”
Today, Weatherall says, he’s in “a much better place than when I started writing this play”, though managing his mental health is an ongoing journey. Thanks to his rapidly ascending career, he has relocated to Sydney, where he shares a house with his girlfriend, sister and their labradoodle. He says he has some big acting jobs coming up, but would “love to have some time and just really focus on some writing for a bit”. With a new season of Heartbreak High scheduled for later this year, he probably needs to get used to being recognised too. It might take a while.
“There’s some days where you walk out and no one cares and it’s wonderful,” he says. “But usually it’s the days where you don’t look nice, or I’m walking my dog and he’s pooped for the third time and is dragging behind me. And then suddenly someone’s like, ‘you’re Malakai!’. And it’s like, please, just let me pick up my dog poo.”
Blue by Thomas Weatherall opens on 14 January at Belvoir St theatre, Sydney, as part of Sydney festival