“It feels like a lifetime ago,” the 37-year-old Kiwi star tells WHO. “But I do have very fond memories of that time, because it was the first time I had left New Zealand. I had a job and I was moving out into the world, and moving countries – I’m still very good friends with a bunch of people from that cast and crew, like Carla Bonner [Steph Scully], who is a good friend of mine still, and Shane Connor, who played my father.”
Fast-forward more than a decade and Ryan is now a big deal in Hollywood. He’s had a string of high-profile TV gigs and was recently cast in the lead role of the adult Ben Hanscom in the second installment of the rebooted Stephen King classic It, filming now in Toronto.
He’ll also soon be seen in Foxtel’s new drama Fighting Season, playing a returned army sergeant suffering PTSD.
The role couldn’t be more different to the character he played on the Aussie soap all those years ago.
“But it was such a great opportunity for me, Neighbours,” he concedes.
“I still get people in the States saying, ‘Oh, you were on Neighbours!’ It’s a calling card, and a familiar name they can relate to.”
Over the past decade-and-a-half, Ryan has spent the majority of his time in Los Angeles and Toronto, where several of his TV projects (Beauty and the Beast and Mary Kills People) were filmed.
He tries to make it back to New Zealand as often as he can, but thankfully, when required to travel for a role, his partner, Kiwi writer-director Dianna Fuemana, and daughter, Eve (born in 2013), have been able to accompany him.
“We always travel together – we are a bit of a mini-circus,” he explains. “We are a unit.
“It’s tough. But [it’s something] I related to with Fighting Season; that whole thing of the parents, soldiers, having to be away from their children, for, like, six months plus – and how that affects the kids, and how families have to deal with that.
“You kind of have to deal with that in the entertainment world as well, where we are always up, and out, and moving to a new place, or a new city, for another time.
“It’s tough, but I have the luxury of being able to bring my family with me, so we’re very lucky in that way."
In Fighting Season, Ryan plays a man who returns home from the Middle East after the death of his close friend and the captain of their platoon, Ted Nordenfelt, played by Ewen Leslie. He struggles to process the guilt and the grief, and is exhibiting signs of PTSD. “It’s a sensitive subject, and I really wanted to talk to the guys and girls on the ground who had experienced [that type of thing] first-hand,” says Ryan, of his preparation for the role.
“I spoke to as many young soldiers, and soldiers that had young families, as I could. I read a little bit, but
I didn’t really want to go down the path of reading facts and figures about PTSD. For me, from speaking to some of these guys, it’s a very individual experience. So I wanted to, I guess, layer as much as I could in my own performance from what I’d discussed with these guys one-on-one.”
Fighting Season is a powerful show that attempts to accurately portray the experiences of those returning from combat, something that drew Ryan to the role. “It was the opportunity
to delve into what it’s like to be a modern ANZAC soldier,” he explains. “We don’t often see our soldiers represented in any real way, as they used to be. When they come back from war, they have to assimilate back into everyday life. And it’s kind of, the notion of how they do that? And how do they cope with that? Also the idea of bringing awareness of what our soldiers are going through.”
It’s a challenging role, but Ryan says he has learnt over the years the importance of leaving his work at work. “My family is supportive of what I do – they will tell me pretty quickly if I am being an arsehole, so it doesn’t really spill over at home.”
Fighting Season was filmed over a year ago, and Ryan admits he’s excited local audiences can finally see what they’ve been working on.
“I was allowed to watch a few episodes the other day, and it was wonderful,” Ryan says.
“I am really excited to know that it’s about to come out, and for people to see it. It’s a really important series.”