Of all Ben Mitchell’s Shortland Street co-stars, you might assume little Leila Eketone, who plays his on-screen daughter Tillie Potts, would be the most difficult to work with. But the TV2 soap stalwart, who plays Ferndale’s TK Samuels, insists the pint-sized tot is a total professional.
“It’s not rocket science for this little one. She shows up, says her lines and she’s off again. I could learn a lot from her,” grins Ben, who has three-year-old Leila in stitches as he fusses over the cute, curly-haired princess at our Woman’s Day photo shoot.
Always fond of the show’s youngest star, father-of-two Ben’s bond with Leila really blossomed when TK’s wife – Tillie’s mother Sarah Potts, played by Amanda Billing – was killed off, succumbing to a deadly virus that swept the hospital. While Shorty fans mourned the beloved doctor’s shock death, 36-year-old Ben embraced his character’s new life as a single parent.
“When one relationship closes, another opens up,” says Ben of Amanda’s departure from the iconic Kiwi drama. “Since Sarah died, the dark heaviness that TK experienced with being so depended on by his sick partner has gone and, naturally, he’s stepped up to being a dad.
“All the one-on-one time has given me the chance to really connect with Leila. She’s one cool kid – the protective-father instincts definitely kick in on set.”
It’s a natural paternal feeling for the actor, who is a doting father in real-life to Sophia, five, and four-year-old Mila, with his partner Kate.
“I love my daughters with all my heart, but they can be little brats – adorable little brats,” smiles Ben. “They are little performers, just like their dad. From the minute they wake up until the moment they go back to bed, they are always go, go, go!”
While he’s still perfecting the art of tying bows in his daughters’ hair and is quietly terrified of the “imminent doom” that comes with parenting two teenage girls so close in age, the actor says fatherhood is all about embracing the highs and lows.
“Having two daughters when I did wasn’t the way I expected my life to go. The girls have a great mum in Kate. She’s a phenomenal woman and a complete natural. I’m still learning as I go and I’m embracing that,” confesses Ben, who grew up in a broken home.
“My dad was around but never really at home much, which left Mum on her own, working her arse off to feed the family and pay the rent. There was always a lot of love in our household, though, and that’s the best thing I can show my girls.
“As a parent, nothing matters more than your child’s happiness. Take me and TK, for example. Tillie has two highly educated medical professionals who are both great role models for their daughter – our circumstances couldn’t be any more different. But as parents, we both want our girls to grow up loved, fearless, with good values and morals, and to follow their dreams at any cost.”
But that’s not all this dad wants for his girls. With a cheeky smirk, Ben says, “I also want to join them when they head away on their big OE, so I can protect them from men and dating until they are at least 30. Only time will tell who wins that battle!”