Former Shortland Street star Ben Mitchell is a man with incredible energy. For nearly 20 years, the lively actor took that dynamism to Ferndale, where he won legions of fans playing Dr TK Samuels. During that time, Ben's character navigated medical emergencies, multiple marriages and a car bomb. He even got away with murder!
"It's hard to believe I was there for 17 years," the actor says with a shake of his head, clearly astonished to have enjoyed such a good innings on the show. "I am super- grateful too because playing TK for so long gave me a really strong sense of purpose and direction. Although frankly, I've no idea how I lasted so long."
But all good things come to an end and in May, the popular actor walked off set for the last time. But rather than wait around for his next big break, Ben re-routed his energy into the world of construction.
Ben's new project is NZ Concrete Homes, the company he runs with his best mate Dougie Tuhoro. He hasn't had time to shed any tears over leaving the long-running soap.
"Having watched lots of people depart over the years, I always wondered what I'd feel like when my time came to leave Shorty. I always imagined it would be this monumental emotional departure, but when I left, I was surprised I didn't feel any sadness. If anything, I felt numb and then a bit weirded out about not feeling very much."
Ben admits to feeling some grief when he watched TK's final scene on TV.
"It wasn't until I actually saw it onscreen that it hit me emotionally. Seeing the story play out through the audience's eyes, not as an actor, I felt much more, which is the incredible power of storytelling."
Ben also expresses gratitude to have had such an amazing opportunity to hone his craft over the years, even though his eyes are firmly fixed on the horizon. "Maybe it's just how my brain works, but rather than look back, I'm all about the next task, and my next task is making concrete homes," Ben explains, making it sound like the most natural career progression.
"I always wanted to be in the public eye and my career has been that classic thing of one thing leading to another. But all along the way, I've been passionate about construction and property development. That's partly because when I was younger, my father gave me books written by business people like Bob Jones and Donald Trump, and reading those books really influenced my thinking."
Ben is quick to point out that he doesn't always agree with Donald Trump's political agenda.
"I'm totally on the fence with that, but the guy sure knows how to sell a brand."
Ben is also delighted that his new path sees him spending more time with his old pal and business partner Dougie. "We've been friends forever. We grew up together in Fairfield – a not very flash suburb in Hamilton – and when I was coming up as an actor, because I was born with an inflated ego, Dougie always kept me grounded."
Bringing out the best in each other has helped the friends stay connected over the years. "Our shared passion for working out also helped cement our bond – because we're both a little bit vain, that vanity motivated us to train hard when we were younger. Although now we're older, we work out simply in order to survive!"
Ben also confesses he's trying not to slip into the trap of eating "tradie food".
"I'll eat anything, but I'm trying not to do the pies and doughnuts diet as I've got to stay in shape in case an acting job comes up because, I'll be honest, I do miss acting. I've auditioned for a few international projects too and I've been put on a few shortlists, including one where they asked to check my passport, so we'll see what happens there."
Ben also takes great pride in his Māori culture. "Another thing Dougie and I have in common, we're both Tainui and we both have a talent for leadership. Our iwi were like the Vikings of Polynesia, voyagers from Hawaiki Nui, and when our people arrived in Aotearoa, they constructed whāre from trees with their bare hands. They built houses, communities and agricultural structures. Dougie and I both believe that our work ethic comes from our shared ancestors."
Which is why the friends view construction not only as a path to financial stability, but a way to honour their forebears. "But instead of using trees to build houses as our ancestors did, Dougie and I use concrete."
When asked if it's been difficult adjusting to his new life, moving from the bright lights of showbiz to the hard yakka of construction, Ben reckons if anything, his new job gives him more mana.
"I'm on the tools – check out my flash name badge," Ben adds with a cheeky grin, wielding humour as deftly as he does a hammer. "Some people might say it's weird that I've gone from acting to construction, but I've been involved for the last 17 years, even if that's been on a more passive level."
With energy to burn, Ben has also apportioned some of his characteristic vim to producing his first feature film.
"I'm really excited to be making an action movie. We already have some very talented, well-known A-list faces involved, and my buddy Dougie is part of that too." When asked for more details, Ben smiles enigmatically and tells us to stay tuned.
Ben also knows that wherever he goes, he'll always generate double takes, followed by the question, "Are you that guy off the TV?" But to Ben, that's a good thing. "When we go into a meeting, whether it's at an engineering firm, with geotechs or architects, or when I'm on a building site talking to tradies, when people recognise me, that breaks the ice before we get down to the mahi [work]. And those acting chops always come in handy when I'm presenting to potential clients or contactors."
For a lot of actors, when they say goodbye to the demands of a frantic soap, they look forward to spending more time with family, but Ben admits he's not seeing much more of his kids – Mila, 14, Sophia, 11, and Nico, five.
"I'd like to say I have more time for them, but I'm still working long hours. Although I'm loving having my weekends free because with Shorty, there was lots of pressure to learn lines. If you had 17 massive scenes on a Monday, heaps of them with heavy medical or management dialogue, you'd have to give up most of your Sunday to learn them. So I'm loving having that weight lifted off."
As to what the future holds, Ben knows he'll be happy, whether he's on the tools, marketing concrete homes or pushing to get that first film off the ground. He's also launching acting courses as a way to give back to his community. Ben ends the interview with a shout-out to potential customers.
"I'm really proud to be building homes that families will live in forever," he enthuses. "So, if anyone out there is reading this and wants to know more about concrete homes that stand the test of time, hit us up. We're not hard to find, and we'd love to see you!"
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