Celebrity News

Shorty star Sam’s tough lesson: ‘I hope it stops a tragedy’

The Shortland Street star reveals how a hard day at the ‘office’ hit home and highlighted a need for change
Sam Bunkall in a purple turtleneck

It was the hardest scene Sam Bunkall has ever had to shoot in nearly 20 years as an actor. The Shortland Street star, who plays Dr Boyd Chakraborty (formerly Rolleston), was dreading filming the recently-aired scene in which his character learns one of his twin sons has passed by drowning, and it was every bit as heart-wrenching as he feared it would be.

“If I’d done this scene five years ago, before I became a father, it would have been difficult enough, but now I’m a dad, it was just really, really heavy,” says Sam, who has two children, Rufus, three, and Juniper, one.

“You think about what it must be like to lose a child and it’s just… It’s just too horrible to even think about.”

Sam, 41, knew when he was asked to return to the popular Kiwi soap last October after two years away that there would be a tragic storyline coming up, but it wasn’t shot until three months later.

“I had this feeling of dread the whole time,” he admits. “Whenever I did scenes with the kids [Connor and Lachlan McCartney, who play Romulus and Remus], I’d keep thinking about how we were going to lose one of them. Even when we got the scripts, I could only think about learning the lines and not how I was going to say them.”

The dreaded scene

In the storyline, the boys got into trouble at the beach after the inflatable boat they were in drifted out to sea. Boyd tried to save Remus, but nearly drowned himself, and after regaining consciousness in hospital, his pal Dr Drew McCaskill (played by Ben Barrington) broke the news that Remus had not survived.

“I do like the challenge of doing these kind of scenes, but I’m glad I don’t have to do them all the time,” Sam says.

Making things even harder was the fact that shortly before the scene was filmed, someone on set mentioned that a similar situation had happened to a friend of theirs.

“It really makes you think that yes, we are making something that is fictional, but we’re representing the truth,” he explains. “People go through terrible tragedies like this and my heart really goes out to them.

“I just hope that when we do storylines like this on Shortland Street, it can be helpful in some way, whether that is helping people to understand what parents go through when they lose a child or helping those who have been in that situation themselves. And, hopefully, we can also help prevent things like this happening in real life.

“If someone’s at the beach next summer and their kids are playing in a boat, then they remember this storyline and think, ‘I’d better keep a closer eye on them’ – then that’s what it’s all about.”

The devastating storyline aside, Sam is delighted to be back on Shorty playing Boyd, whose scrubs he first pulled on in 2012.

The happier side

“I got to go back to my old dressing room, with my old dressing room buddies Michael Galvin and Ben Barrington, and it feels like nothing has changed. All the cast and crew are so welcoming, and I’m grateful that they asked me back.”

His break from Shorty gave him precious time to spend with Rufus and Juniper, who are growing fast, he tells.

“They’re amazing. They feel things very deeply and they really care for each other which is lovely to see. If Juni falls over, Rufus will go to her and say, ‘It’s okay, sweet girl, you’ll be all right,’ which is what he has heard us say.

“It’s really special seeing them develop and grow. We’ve been going through the toilet-training process with Rufus, and he’s doing really well, and Juni has been walking since the beginning of the year and using so many words. I’m so proud of them both.”

Sam’s wife Natasha Daniel, 37, is also an actor and has been appearing in Shakespearean productions, including Romeo and Juliet, at the Pop-up Globe. Sam says it’s great to have a partner in the same industry, who understands how draining it can be working on particularly emotional storylines.

And while it’s always nice to come home to his family after a busy day’s work, it’s been especially comforting while filming the recent harrowing scenes.

“When you’re an actor, you go through this fake stuff, but it feels quite real while you’re doing it,” he tells. “I get to put it down, go home and give my kids a hug. I know that other parents who’ve been through this for real are not so lucky.”

Losing one of his Shorty sons, played by Connor and Lachlan, was traumatic for dad-of-two Sam.

Beach and coastal safety messages

Inflatable Toys Aren’t for the Beach

Strong currents and winds can easily take inflatable toys out to sea, where you or your children can quickly find yourselves out of your depth and far from shore.

Know How to Float

If you don’t know how to float, don’t go into the water. Floating allows you to calm yourself and keep your airways out of the water if you get into trouble.

If In Doubt, Stay Out

Waves can be bigger than they look and weather conditions can change quickly. If you feel uncomfortable about getting into the water, stay out.

Take Care of Others

Always keep children within arm’s reach in or near the water. Waves can move quickly and unexpectedly, potentially knocking kids off their feet and sweeping them away.

Know How to Get Help

If you find yourself in trouble, signal for help. If you see someone in trouble and surf lifeguards are not on patrol, call 111 and ask for police.

Help is here

Victim support – 0800 842 846 for 24/7 confidential support for traumatic events, or visit victimsupport.org.nz

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