Try as I might, I couldn’t talk Neighbours actor James Mason (Chris Pappas, apprentice mechanic and Tash’s occasional punching bag) out of having breakfast with me. So to put him in his place, I decided we’d play a game of “Spot the adidas trackies!” and have breakfast in Dandenong.
There is something you should know about James Mason: he is not yet world weary. He has that youthful spirit and enthusiasm that some of us seem to miss out on entirely. And so he greets my suggestion with a delighted little dance and then fiddles with the radio dials in my car until I have to pull over and threaten to turn around.
“My mum makes a really good French toast. Actually that’s really the only other French toast I’ve ever had.”
The pickings in Dandenong are slim, but not as slim as I had expected. We choose Cafe Villa because of its prime location near the market and the bus stop, and because of its home made scones, which we don’t in fact end up eating at all. The quadrangle setting is actually rather pleasing, in the sense that when someone does inevitably knife you, at least there are plenty of people around to back up the police report you will make from your hospital bed.
James and I participate in a table and chair reshuffle (some were wet, some were wobbly) before finding our groove. He is hesitant with a menu: “I don’t know what I want there are too many things to choose from help!” (there were six things on the list). He is easily startled and overwhelmed. And his favourite breakfast restaurant is McDonald’s, although he’s had the breakfast at Subway a few times as well.
I badger him until he settles on the French toast (sweet version – there is also a savoury variant). I order ‘Atlantic’ eggs. Unfortunately what arrives is in fact Eggs Benedict, but the gentleman waiter is too lovely to complain to. It’s early in Dandenong, and the locals slowly make their way out for coffees and chicken skewers. Seriously, at least a dozen tradies of varying description buy chicken skewers for breakfast from the chicken shop next door. Which is open at 9am. James and I make a pact to try a chicken skewer for dessert, for authenticity.
In keeping with the topic, I ask James whether breakfast is important to him.
“Yes! Actually, I think breakfast is one of the most important parts of my life.” I pat myself on the back. ”As an actor, I have a lot of early starts, so I don’t always get breakfast or it’s breakfast on the run. We’re given breakfast in the Neighbours studio – they put on the full spread with eggs and bacon and mushrooms – but I usually just have some fruit and cereal or toast, if I have time. Mostly I’m just running into the studio from my car and I skip breakfast.”
I stop patting myself on the back and reflect for a moment on how poorly I am choosing my breakfast guests, considering none of them seem to actually eat breakfast. It’s time for a different approach, so I ask him about his Neighbours character, Chris Pappas, and how their appetites differ.
“Yeah, they don’t.” It’s a funny joke because Chris eats everything at all times. “I just eat on set constantly and ask them to write it into the show. I think it was a bit of a fluke really – they wrote Chris and I came along, because 1. Chris is from a Greek background, and so am I, and 2. the food thing, because Chris’s whole life revolves around food. It’s funny because we’ll be doing a scene, and I’ll know that if there’s a party scene I’ll be eating. If there’s a party scene scheduled for later in the day I’ll just skip afternoon tea because I know I’ll be eating.” It’s clear that at some point, there will be eating.
Our breakfast arrives. It looks lovely, and being that we are sitting in the middle of wide open space it is kind of like being on a picnic.
“What kind of jam is that?” I ask, and he pokes it for a while before declaring “Fruit!”
If there’s a party scene scheduled for later in the day I’ll just skip afternoon tea because I know I’ll be eating.
I serve him my standard questions: if his breakfast was a person, who would it be?
“It’s thick, it’s thin, it’s … sweet. It’s very light. I’m not going to suggest Neighbours cast because I’ll probably insult them! It’s chewy. Who’s chewy at work?” We laugh because there are at least five people at work who are known to be chewy. “Maybe if I arrange the strawberries in a face, it might give me some inspiration?” I barely have time to tell him he’s overthinking it before he exclaims, “SPONGE BOB!” like a five-year-old. An adorable five-year-old. I ask him to describe his breakfast in five words: “IT LOOKS LIKE SPONGE BOB!” He is so endearing that I want to pop him in a onesie and bundle him into the back of my car.
We wipe our filthy mouths and pay our reasonable fee before heading to Savers to buy some second- or fifth-hand plates. James chooses two beer glasses, and I ask him if it’s because he has friends but he admits, sadly, that it’s just so he doesn’t have to wash them as often. Reluctantly, I drive him back to his house and then head off to spend the rest of the day with my children, who constantly disappoint me by not being on Neighbours.
“Bye James!” I am waving, but he has already closed the door.