Enrolling in a Revival of Australia's Most-Beloved Teen Series: Thomas Weatherall Talks 'Heartbreak High'

Switching his dream of becoming a dancer to acting is turning out stunningly for the AACTA-winning star — and so is stepping into Malakai's shoes.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 14, 2024

When Thomas Weatherall was in high school, that he'd eventually spend his days pretending to be back there wasn't his plan. Until his final year, neither was acting. Dancing was the dream, and he had no awareness of Heartbreak High, which aired its seven 90s seasons before he was born. Now, he's one of the stars of Netflix's revival of the show. For his performance as Malakai Mitchell in the 2020s take on Australia's most-beloved teen series — which itself has become a huge hit that's rocketed up the streaming platform's viewership charts with both its first and second seasons, and has a third and final season locked in — he's now an AACTA- and Logie-winner. 

Weatherall's acting career started with ABC miniseries Deadlock back in 2018, when he was finishing high school. So, it didn't kick off with Heartbreak High. Next came short film Shed, short-form comedy series All My Friends Are Racist, the detective-driven Troppo and RFDS, which was also follows on from a past series — The Flying Doctors — that aired in the 90s. Onstage, his playwriting debut Blue premiered in Sydney, and now heads to Brisbane, with Weatherall also starring. But Heartbreak High and Malakai have been life-changing by his own account ("it feels cliched to say," he tells Concrete Playground about how that description rings true). Next up: two very different TV series, with Exposure a thriller led by Alice Englert (Bad Behaviour) that's bowing at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival and The Narrow Road to the Deep North a page-to-screen drama with Jacob Elordi (another on-screen high schooler in Euphoria).

Weatherall knew that Malakai, the sporty Bundjalung student who is new to Hartley High in season one, was a standout role from the get-go. "I just hadn't seen a character like this," Weatherall tells us. The depth of the writing in fleshing him out on the page, the fact that he was an Indigenous teen pushed to the fore and never a token inclusion, that his culture wasn't what defined him: they all left an impression. After getting cast, so did the script for season one's fourth episode — the unforgettable instalment that sees Malakai experience police brutality — which he read in one sitting in his car. He was then willing to do whatever it took for the part. Again, his performance earned him Australia's top TV accolades.

That episode had a title that means something in Heartbreak High history: 'Rack Off'. Utter the phrase to anyone familiar with the 90s iteration and they'll instantly think of Hartley High's first run on-screen. Weatherall didn't go back to watch the OG show when he got the gig, but there's no escaping the legend of those two words, and that they were as strong as a free-to-air series could get in its language. "It is funny, I forget — I read the script sometimes and the things that we're allowed to say, I just imagine if we had that same network TV censorship, you're probably cutting about 80-percent of the show. So we're probably lucky in that regard," he advises.

In season two, as Hartley's students keep expressing themselves in not-safe-for-90s-Aussie-television terms — and also getting caught up in an ideological battle about toxic masculinity, and terrorised by a mystery figure they dub Bird Psycho — Malakai's journey takes him from stairwell hookups with Amerie (Ayesha Madon, Love Me) to connecting with the latest newcomer in Dubbo export Rowan (Sam Rechner, The Fabelmans). A love triangle, exploring both his sexuality and his identity, and yearning to connect all follow. It's another complicated path for the character, as for each of Heartbreak High's main figures. Crucially, it also satisfies one of Weatherall's aims as an actor.

"It can feel like quite a selfish career a lot of the time, because you're often on your own, and you have to put a lot of time and effort into breaking down characters, and spending time on your own and things like that — but for me, I never want to just be playing the one character. That's the beauty of Malakai, it feels like you're playing several different characters and notes in one person," he says.

From how the response to the first season felt through to the way its second season ended for Malakai, we chatted with Weatherall about all things Heartbreak High — choosing not to check out the original, what excited him about stepping into Malakai's shoes in the first place, how he sees the character's story across the two seasons so far and making the leap to acting from dancing all included.


On the Massive Success of Heartbreak High's First Season

"Very surreal. Very unexpected. It's a funny thing, I think you never know how a show's going to come out while you're making it — and while we were making it, and once we wrapped, you knew that we had something special. It felt really good. I think that was pretty unanimous across the board. There wasn't any real stress. Sometimes, I think you can also finish a job and know if it's a dud.

But for it to then get picked up the way that it did, and for people to care about it in the way they did, was pretty shocking. And it's very flattering and humbling to be in that position.

I was having dinner with Bryn [Chapman Parish, Mr Inbetween], who plays Spider, and we were chatting about that. Because it's your job, it's a great job to have, but you do get used to it and it becomes a normal part of the career. You forget that it means as much as it does to some audiences — and I think that's the special thing.

It's lovely that it had a big reach and that it was successful, but when you get to actually talk to an audience member who really identifies with Malakai, or one particular storyline, or the show as a whole, that's — I've been very lucky that I've got to do quite a few shows now and all I'm very proud of, but none have  landed in that way and built that connection with an audience.

And for it to kick off in the awards and things like that, it really, it feels cliched to say, but it is pretty life-changing once that conversation starts and you find yourself in that world professionally and artistically. It opens you to a lot more professional opportunities.

It then does make the second season a bit more terrifying, because there's something to, I guess, try to live up to and match. But it's a very lucky position to be in at the same time."


On Starting the Show as a Heartbreak High Newcomer Off-Screen — and Not Going Back to Watch the Original

"I was at drama school at the time when I got cast, and the only reason I knew about the show was the head teacher at my drama school played one of the teachers in Heartbreak High. And so it was this whole thing always that she'd mention Heartbreak High — and all of us, it was a bit of an eye roll. We were like 'okay, we get it'.

But it wasn't something that I had seen before. It was before my time, and I didn't even, with my older siblings, I didn't really have any gauge on it.

When I got cast, initially I was going to go back and watch the show. That felt like the right thing to do, and it would be helpful. But once the scripts came through, it felt as if it was going to be quite different, and much more obviously rooted in today's climate and what's going on for young people now — it became too scary and intimidating to go back and watch it.

Because you also don't want to try to recreate something. That show was great and did everything that it did, but it is a product of that time. I think there's still similarities between the two versions. We're speaking to a lot of the same truths. But for me, I didn't want to confuse those contexts, and try to not have any anticipation or idea of trying to replicate anything — and just stay true to what we're trying to say in this show."


On What Excited Weatherall About Playing Malakai When He Was First Cast

"I'm still quite early on in my career, but it was very early on back then. I'd been up for a few things and I'd done a little bit of work. I was getting good auditions, but I just hadn't seen a character like this.

I had never been sent a role like this, obviously, for a show with this scale or anything like that. But to see — he was just a really well-written character, and that was it for the self-taped scenes before the audition, and that was exciting to be seen for that.

It wasn't till when I got offered the role and was sent the scripts, they sent me episode four of season one, which is a very significant episode for Malakai. And I finished that episode and just called my agent straight away and went 'I'll do anything to play that'.

I think back to when I was 16 and the sort of the shows that were being made. There were some for young people that I felt were doing a pretty decent job and honestly depicting what it's like to be a teenager, but it always felt like they were holding the punches a little bit. And this show was just not afraid to do that at all.

And then to have that lens of this young Indigenous character not just being a side plot point but being one of the lead characters — and being one of the main lead romance arcs as well, and then having a very dramatic storyline. A lot of the scripts that I'd seen and read, or a lot of the shows that I had watched growing up and even lately, often those characters, they're one little subplot. They're one little mention. They serve one capacity or another. And suddenly you had this young Indigenous kid, one of the leads of the show and getting to do a bit of everything, and that was really refreshing.

He's part of the massive ensemble, but I hadn't read anything like that. He wasn't ashamed of his culture, but it also wasn't the most-important thing in his life, and he was going through the same experience as every other kid from every other culture and every other gender and every other experience. And for me, that was a really refreshing take, rather than trying to tokenise it in any way.

Then, as I said, pretty much I'm in credit to the writing team. The moment episode four landed in my emails, I read it in one sitting on my phone. I didn't even get out of my car. I just read the whole thing and went 'yep, okay, anything for that'."


On Stepping Back Into Malakai's Shoes for Season Two — and What Changes, and What Gets Easier and Harder

"I was shooting the second season of this other show I do called RFDS, and I had four days off between wrapping that and starting the second season of this. I flew in from Broken Hill, where we shoot the other show, and it was just four days of existential crisis because I was going 'do I still remember how to play this character? How does he sound like? What does he look like?', you know, and trying to tap into that again.

I think it's a credit to the writing on this that all of the characters are fully formed. Really, the writing does all the work for you. You don't have to bring much to them and they kind of jump off the page.

But I also noticed the difference, as we get to know the writing team and the producers, I think they tend to tweak little things to match you and your sensibilities as well, which is nice.

The moment you shave and you go into makeup, and they do that Malaki haircut, and they put the colourful jumpers on me. Music's a big thing for this character, back to those playlists — it really was muscle memory and just kicked in, which was nice to still feel that that was there.

So the actual transforming and getting back into the character was quite easy and swift, which was a relief, frankly. But that first few weeks of filming, it was that voice in the back of your head going 'you've got to make sure that you're staying to that same level as last season'.

I'm very grateful for the recognition it got and the success that I received from the show, and that the show was a whole received, but it definitely did put that pressure on trying to go 'well if you don't get nominated for an AACTA again, did you do your job?' sort of thing.

It was lovely that audiences responded well to Malakai, but you want to make sure that you sustain that throughout the second season. But the more days on shoot and the more I get to spend time with this cast — we have a lot of group scenes that we tend to load at the top of the show as well, and once that dynamic creates — all that concern sort of falls away and you can just get the job done."


On Weatherall's Take on Malakai's Journey in Season Two

"Once I read the whole show and knew the entire arc, it was really bittersweet. I don't mean it in a rude way, but I don't tend to get too attached to the characters. I sort of go 'whatever services the story, that's the job'. But I really felt for him, and I don't know if it was just a reflection of where I was in my life.

I often think back to myself at 16 and there's a few similarities between us, but we are very different. But really at the heart of it, he's just searching for contentment and he's trying to find his people in a romantic sense, but in just a friendship and community sense as well. I think he's this charming and charismatic guy, but underneath all of that, there's this real search for belonging, which I can definitely relate to at 16. I mean, I can relate to it at 23.

I noticed that. It was hard, because he's charming and he knows how to have fun, and there's all the romance and things like that — that was a big thing that stuck with me this entire season, that journey and never quite getting it right, or the times where he thinks he is and something changes, and the indecision of being 16 and not knowing what the right choice is but also desperately attempting to make that decision.

When you're 16, everything feels like the most important thing in your life, and then you leave high school and you go 'yeah, life goes on'.

I definitely I felt for him a lot this season.  I think he's crammed a lot of a self-discovery journey into a term of high school. I don't know how I would have held up if I was 16 doing that."


On Balancing Malakai's Charm and Outgoing Nature with His Interiority, Uncertainty and Being Caught in a Love Triangle

"That's kind of the best — it's a blessing as an actor, is that you've always got that in the back of it. So it's the question of when he is being that charming, charismatic, loud, funny, whatever it is, that he's using the persona that he's putting on, how much of that is a facade to cover up either that insecurity or that questioning or discomfort?

Again, Malakai and I are quite different, but I remember at 16, that's exactly how I coped with those questions or with whatever was happening in my life — that facade that you can put on. As I said, for an actor, it's wonderful that you get to play both sides of that. 

And in this show particularly, you have one scene where you're on the top of the world and it's this beautiful romantic moment, and it's all about love and the joys of being a 16-year-old, and being ignorant and free. And then the next scene, you're crying on an airplane, because you know you also have very little control over a lot of the things that happen to you at that age. Because you're still a minor. You're still figuring things out. And you're at the mercy of your peers in school and your parents, and all of those bigger concepts.

As an actor, that's the best thing to do, rather than just having to be the funny guy or be the heart of the show or the introspective one. He fluctuates between all of them."


On the Acting Dream When Weatherall First Made the Leap From Dancing

"There wasn't one, to be honest. I'm still just holding on for dear life and seeing where it goes.

I was certain to be a dancer. That was the be-all and end-all of my life. And I got interested in acting through writing. I was really interested in writing and filmmaking towards the end of high school, and got cast in this ABC series in year 12 and that was just it.

My first day on set, I just went 'this is it. I want to do this'. I remember telling my mum after 11 years of 40-hours-plus dance training a week, I was like 'I'm going to be an actor, no more dancing' — and just quit on the spot and made that decision. And to her credit, she completely supported that.

I think I've always been interested in creativity in a larger sense, with writing, and the thought of maybe directing or producing one day and creating work. And I think acting is a part of that, and it's a part that I love and I hope I can do for as long as people keep giving me jobs. I like to think of it in a bigger sense in creating a bit more work.

If you had told 17-year-old Tom who's getting his first audition that he'd be on a Netflix show or doing some of the other work I've been doing recently, I wouldn't have believed a word of it. I've been very lucky, again, to be on a show like this and have the reach it has. I've been able to work with actors I really admire, and creatives that I've sort of genuinely dreamt of working with. So yeah, it's been very surreal."


Heartbreak High streams via Netflix. Read our reviews of season one and season two.

Images: Netflix.

Published on May 14, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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