Scotsman Jordan Smith moved to Australia as a teen - where he has become a household name playing Andrew Robinson in the long-running soap opera Neighbours. Jordan tells Peter Fox about his blossoming acting career – and the challenges of playing a character who has just developed epilepsy
It has been through many guises, being re-recorded with different vocals and different arrangements. It has been set alongside countless different title sequences, showing countless different cast members. Still: who doesn’t recognise the Neighbours theme tune?
That theme tune has provided the soundtrack to many of our teenaged years. However, the long-standing Aussie soap has given us more than just a memorable theme song and Kylie Minogue (or Holly Valance, if you’re under 30).
Neighbours is no stranger to hard-hitting issues, in spite of its teatime soap slot. Susan Kennedy is currently living with multiple sclerosis. Steph Scully was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jade and Sonya were the centre of a domestic abuse storyline (courtesy of the cruel Captain Troy Miller). Rhys’ mother, Elaine, is living with a degenerative spinal condition. The soap has often been praised for its responsible and three-dimensional exploration of such issues. This month, the soap’s scriptwriters turn their attention to epilepsy.
One of the newest faces in the Ramsay Street Robinson dynasty is Andrew Robinson, played by Jordan Smith. A cut-throat businessman by nature and by profession, Andrew’s whole life changes abruptly after a series of unexplained blackouts. On visiting a doctor, he discovers the reason behind his blackouts: recurrent seizures.
Jordan explains: “Epilepsy has changed Andrew’s whole life. Before, he was just focused on everything he wants. Now he’s dealing with epilepsy and trying to balance the two.”
Jordan was born in Scotland in 1989. He describes his upbringing as fairly run-of-the-mill – until a family holiday to Australia changed his life.
Jordan says: “I grew up pretty normally, I guess. I used to play football 24/7, I didn’t do much else when I was a kid! When I was 12, we came on holiday to Australia as a family. Pretty much as soon as we landed we fell in love with the place. I think it was after the third day, Mum started figuring out how we could emigrate here.
“I didn’t really want to come to start with, but Mum managed to convince me. She told me I could get a surfboard and become a professional surfer. I was like, ‘Yeah, you’ve convinced me!’”
While Jordan may have become a keen surfer on his arrival in Australia, his professional life would take him somewhere else entirely. Moving halfway across the world represents a huge change in anyone’s life. Still, it was starting school in Australia that set Jordan on the particular path that brought him to UK screens.
Jordan continues: “Before I came to Australia, I’d never done a single drama lesson in my life. I’d never even thought about it. When I started school in Australia, we had elective subjects. There were all these subjects like IT and music that I was just shocking at! I decided that drama was something I could have a pop at and maybe get a pass.
“The more I did it, the more I fell in love with it. I did a play called Blackrock in Year 10. It sounds stupid, but I didn’t even really think I was acting at the time, it was just something I was doing for school. I really enjoyed it. When Mum came and saw it, she said, ‘You know, you’re actually pretty damn good. You can give this a pop.’
“The acting thing took off from there. I got myself an agent. The more I did it, the more I realised that this is what I want to do with my life. Everything just clicked into place.”
A Brit abroad
Despite having stumbled over a discipline that Jordan wanted to make a career of, he found that one particular thing was standing in his way: his Scottish accent.
Jordan explains: “Trying to act in Australia with a Scottish accent was definitely difficult. I missed out on so many roles because of my accent. I hadn’t had extensive training, so when I went into the audition room, I was concentrating more on the acting. Then afterwards, they’d be like, ‘What’s going on with that accent?’ I was like, ‘That’s just how I talk.’
“Also, we had moved to Queensland. Queensland has a different accent, just like there are different accents in the UK. I picked up this really hard yakka Aussie mixed with Scottish. It became this hybrid slang that I couldn’t get out of.”
Ironically, despite any difficulty sounding truly Australian, Jordan found his first few television roles playing a familiar Aussie archetype: the blond-haired surf dude.
He continues: “For a Scottish kid who came to Australia as pasty as Hell, I managed to land several roles as a surfer boyfriend. I think it was because I had long blond hair! I just had to stand there in the background behind these girls.”
Like many aspiring actors, Jordan was trying to make a living in regular jobs while trying to get his career off the ground. He says: “After I left school, I went to university for a year. Then I did a building apprenticeship, which I sucked at. From there my agent put me up for several small roles. I think that’s when it kicked in that that if I really knuckled down and put the effort in, I could make a career out of acting.”
The big breakthrough
“I went for the audition for Andrew up in Queensland. Three weeks later they called me up to give me a callback in Melbourne. A week after that they called me up to say I’d got the part.”
That moment represents a huge breakthrough for anyone in Jordan’s position. However, having persevered with his building work to help make ends meet, Jordan had an onsite accident that almost scuppered his chances of accepting the Neighbours role.
Jordan continues: “I was working a lot trying to make money. Acting lessons are definitely not cheap. Mum couldn’t afford to pay for them, so I was working Saturday nights lifting up concrete floors for a shop fitting company. One of the concrete slabs came up and hit me in the face. I didn’t look too crash hot!
“When I got the call to say I’d got the part, I was sitting in the hospital with a drip in my arm. I went nuts – I think I nearly broke the heart rate monitor when I got the call! I’d been in hospital for three days when they called me on Friday night, saying I need to be in Melbourne on Monday morning. The doctor said he wanted to keep me in until Monday, so I ended up rocking up in Melbourne on the Wednesday with no rehearsals. I thought I was going to have an induction week to get used to it, but it turned out that my first scenes were being shot on the Thursday.
“I think my injury was hideable. People just thought I had a slanty face! If you watch my first ever scene, it looks like the left-hand side of my face is about a centimetre bigger than the right-hand side. I kind of looked like a turtle. It wasn’t a good look for me!”
Finding your feet
The Neighbours crew must have been very keen to have Jordan onboard. His peculiar accent had caused problems in the audition room and had cost him several roles already. Fortunately, it didn’t present a problem to the Neighbours scriptwriters – who agreed to alter the character’s entire backstory to accommodate Jordan’s voice.
Jordan explains: “The scriptwriters saved my arse completely when I first started! Andrew was supposed to have grown up in Brazil for nine years. Because there’s such a large Neighbours fanbase in the UK, they were happy to accommodate [my accent]. They said, ‘Tell you what, how about you lived in Scotland? That will explain the accent.’ Then I could just keep going with the acting and try and get the character down.”
Jordan first appeared as Andrew Robinson in 2009. Andrew has been described as ‘a chip off the old block’ – very much taking after his father, the unscrupulous business mogul, Paul Robinson. Since his return to Ramsay Street, Andrew has had an illicit affair with Donna Freedman. He has worked hard to launch a slightly shady entertainment business and become involved in a love triangle with Natasha and Summer.
Andrew’s time in the show since his return has certainly been colourful. This month, a surprising turn of events will change Andrew’s world forever. Moreover, it has presented a very interesting challenge for Jordan. Andrew is about to be diagnosed with epilepsy.
Jordan says: “We had a story meeting when we got the new producers in. They have a big dinner and talk to everyone about their new storylines. When they told me that Andrew had epilepsy, I was excited to be honest. It’s great to do something that’s of great importance, instead of just talking about relationship dramas. It’s been great to take on a real personal challenge.
“When they first told me, I didn’t have any idea what issues would be facing someone with epilepsy. I’ve got mates who are living with epilepsy. One of my mates I used to surf with is living with it, he developed it when he was about 19. He didn’t talk about it that much. I’ve got another mate who’s got it and he just brushes it off and says, ‘No worries.’ But the more I looked into it and the more I read about it, the more I realised how it affects you personally.
“I think that knowledge is power. The more I understood epilepsy, the more comfortable I felt about portraying it. It’s such a major thing, I don’t want to stuff it up. I want to do it properly. It was great to learn about it. You tend to breeze through life and unless it affects you, not many people tend to think about epilepsy.”
Jordan has been very conscientious in researching the condition and the effect that it might have on his character. Still – from a purely practical point of view – he also had to research the physical nature of seizures so that he could act it convincingly onscreen.
Jordan explains: “YouTube has saved my arse immensely. Having a seizure onscreen was the main reason I was watching YouTube videos. I really wanted to go hard-out with it and show the truthfulness of epilepsy. It really does affect your life. The thing with Neighbours is that the hardest part is the time slot. They’re very restricted in what they can show.”
The character and the condition
For a character like Andrew Robinson, epilepsy was always going to be a particular problem. He is very independent and largely focused on his professional advancement. As many readers will appreciate, recurrent seizures can make it difficult to get by without help. They can also present a barrier to employment.
Jordan continues: “Something like epilepsy has to change you – especially for a character like Andrew Robinson. He’s this ego-driven businessman. It’s such a shock to have to deal with something like this when he pretty much wanted money and business.
“Epilepsy has changed Andrew’s whole life. Before, he was very focused on everything he wants. He thought he could just push people over. Now his epilepsy has forced him inside his own shell, but it’s also given him a new perspective on life. He’s thinking, ‘How can I be the person I’ve thought I was going to be my whole life?’ He’s dealing with epilepsy and trying to balance the two.”
For many people, being diagnosed with epilepsy can be something of a shock. It can take some time to come to terms with the condition and longer still before you feel comfortable to tell people about it. Andrew Robinson is dealing with his condition in much the same way. For the moment at least, he appears to be in denial.
Jordan explains: “At the moment, Andrew isn’t accepting his condition. He’s trying to hide it and push things away instead of dealing with them. Andrew sees his epilepsy as a massive weakness, instead of admitting that he needs help. He shuns the help and tries to keep his epilepsy a secret.
“I don’t know exactly where this storyline will take Andrew. I’ve just been reading scenes where people are starting to find out about his epilepsy. I hope that when his maturity kicks in, he’ll deal with it properly. I want to show that epilepsy is manageable and that you can lead a normal life as long as you do the right things. I think that at some point Andrew will get his seizures under control and accept his condition.”
Jordan is clearly very keen to portray epilepsy responsibly and truthfully. Rising to this professional challenge has only proven that he is committed to doing a great job. It will no doubt be very interesting indeed to see exactly where recurrent seizures will take Jordan’s character.
He concludes: “My plans for the future are just to keep acting and see where it takes me. The epilepsy storyline has definitely made me want to be an actor even more. It’s hard to explain. It’s almost like reading a book that you really get into. You start getting into the stories. Doing this, I’ve learned so much – this job is giving me a massive insight into other people’s lives. I’ll keep acting and wherever that takes me, that’s where I’ll be.”