An international heart-throb since he was 21, Jason Priestley has been working in the film and television industry for over 30 years and still finds great joy in the work he does – not to mention in the ongoing fame of iconic show Beverly Hills 90210. He talks to Emma Clifton about his show Private Eyes, working through the pandemic and raising teenagers.
Jason Priestley could not be more excited when I tell him that the coolest bar in Auckland is named the Peach Pit, in what can only be an ode to the famed hang-out spot from the iconic television show Beverly Hills 90210, where he played Brandon Walsh for over a decade.
“That is fantastic, that is FANTASTIC,” he laughs. “You know what? That makes my heart so happy, that the coolest bar in Auckland is called Peach Pit. I love that.” The impact of being part of such an iconic part of pop culture has never been lost on him, he says. “It amazes me that I am a part of something that has endured for that amount of time. I’m amazed and shocked and confused and it also just puts a big smile on my face. That show touched a lot of people around the world.”
And it still clearly does – when I tell people my age or older that I’m interviewing Jason Priestley, there is a universal response of a shriek of joy. On our phone call, from his home in LA (“I’m in Covid-heavy Los Angeles and you’re in Covid-free New Zealand, congratulations to you!”) Jason, 51, is as immediately warm and friendly as you would hope.
When stars become famous for an iconic show, particularly early on in their career, they tend to either embrace it whole-heartedly or want nothing to do with it later on. Jason is definitely the former – there’s nothing but love from him when it comes to talking about Beverly Hills 90210 and the cast are still very close. It was a tremendous bonding experience, you would imagine, being that famous together and Jason says the group aspect of the show helped protect them all from some of the darker parts that can come with fame at a young age.
“It’s a funny thing because I was playing a 15-year-old but I was 21 years old, so I sort of had one foot on either side of the fence, right? And at the time, being 21 – I thought I was a fully-fledged man and that I knew everything about the world and how it all worked,” Jason laughs. “And of course, looking back, I knew nothing. It was an incredible experience for me and I was very thankful that I had buddies there – Luke [Perry, RIP] was there, who was a few years older than me, and Ian [Ziering] was there, who was even older than Luke. I had friends there that I could lean on if I was struggling a bit… we all had each other to lean on.”
“One of the things that people struggle with – and certainly individual artists – is the isolation of fame. And thankfully, for us, on that show we all had each other.”
With one of the longest IMDB lists of past roles I’ve ever seen, Jason still seems to get tremendous happiness from his day job, I say. “I do!” he agrees. “I really do – I love making films and TV and it’s something that gives me great joy. And now, as my kids are getting older, I love it when they get to come to set and I get to share it with them.” He mentions a film set in 2019, where his wife Naomi Lowde, and kids, Ava and Dashiell, got to visit and his son sat in the director’s chair, calling ‘action.’
“It’s so much fun to show them the industry that I’ve worked in since before I was as young as they are. It’s been really fun to see it through their eyes. Acting has been a huge part of my life for so long now that it really feels like an intrinsic part of my life – I can’t imagine my life without it.”
His latest role sees him playing Matt Shade, a former hockey player turned private investigator in the comedy/drama Private Eyes. The fourth season starts in New Zealand on Vibe and the show has been a hit with fans, winning the top TV award in Canada and with apt comparisons to the chemistry and humour of Moonlighting. One of the key attractions of the delightful series is the sparky chemistry between Jason’s character Matt and the other lead Angie Everett, played by Cindy Sampson.
The magic of how to create such chemistry is the “Million dollar question”, Jason says. “If there was a way to create it, every show would have it. It’s hard to say what the secret sauce or the magic formula is because it’s different in every situation. I’ve been on shows when it doesn’t work and obviously I’ve been on shows when it does. Aaron Spelling was very good at putting together casts that worked in that way and always had amazing chemistry…There are certain show-runners/executive producers that have that way of putting together casts that work – Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) is very good at it. It’s the Wizard of Oz magic touch that some people have.”
The film and TV industry was hit very hard at the start of Covid-19, before strict protocols were put in place to ensure that sets could continue. Jason and the Private Eyes team were lucky to be able to film the fifth season in Canada under these new rules and he says he feels very lucky that not only were they able to keep working, but that his family were able to come with him, because of the online school classes.
“For me, as a guy who spends so much time on the road, having this ‘forced confinement’ with my family has been so nice, because my kids are getting to the age where pretty soon they’re not going to want to spend time with Mum and Dad any more. So I’m very selfishly hanging onto these last couple of years.”
Private Eyes screens on Thursdays from 11th March 8.30pm on Vibe