Tearaway | Interview with Meryl Cassie and Caleb Ross | 1999

Tearaway (New Zealand)

Join the Tribe

Tearaway talked to young kiwi actors Caleb Ross and Meryl Cassie about their work (and play) on the exciting new Cloud 9 production The Tribe , now showing on TV4.

You might have noticed local faces and scenery jumping out at you from a wild series now running on TV4, Tuesday nights at 7:30pm, called The Tribe .

Like Xena and Hercules before it, The Tribe is Kiwi-made TV for the international market. Filmed entirely in Wellington - lately known as ‘Wellywood’ - it’s about life after a plague has wiped out all the adults on Earth - “just disappeared… all gone” - now there are only kids. The story tells how they survive and learn to run things by themselves.

Caleb Ross (17), who plays Lex in the series, tells it like this: “The teenagers have been left to cope in a world where there’s no law, no adults, no schooling, nothing to guide them. The series revolves around them finding problems and dealing with them in really realistic ways for teenagers.” Meryl Cassie (15), who plays Ebony on the show, points out that it’s not all just fun and games. “It also shows the disadvantages of not having the adults,” Meryl said. “Like how hard it is to live without parental guidance. So, it is very realistic.” Episodes deal with issues like alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, death, rape and bulimia. “A pile of things that a lot of other series would be too scared to cope with. And it presents in a way that doesn’t bring bad messages across. It looks at both sides, and ends up with a positive message,” Caleb said. “It’s every teenager’s dream really isn’t it? That all the adults would just go away one day. But when it comes down to it, it’s not as easy as that.”

The heroes of the story hang out in a shopping mall in an unnamed city (depicted by Wellington’s streets, emptied and closed off to traffic). Caleb’s character is the ‘bad boy’ of the group, and part of the plot is his struggle to be leader of the so-called ‘Mall Rats’. “This particular tribe, I guess you could call them the ‘good guys’, basically want to set everything back up, create a new world that is functioning again, a world in their own image. Whatever that image might be,” Caleb explained. The city is divided into sectors, each of them ruled by a different tribe - some good, some bad - like Meryl’s tribe, The Locos - wild wackos decked out in red war paint who drive around in a done-over police car. Auditioning for the show turned out a surprise for Meryl, who’s always thought of herself as more of a ‘goody’ type character. “I got a totally different part, which is really weird. I went for a nice, calm character and I got the total opposite. I’m the bitchy, baddy one in the show.”

This alternative future has everything you might for a bunch of teenagers let loose on the city.

Skateboarding, rollerblading, graffiti and basketball - remember, this is for the international so no rugby union, sorry. As with Xena , many of the characters speak an American accent. But not all. Caleb’s character Lex, for example, has a distinctive Kiwi drawl. “It’s been set in a way that it could be anywhere in the world. For that specific reason that it’s not localised and any country can relate to it,” Caleb explained. The Tribe has been extremely successful overseas and viewed in dozens of countries, from Israel to Mexico. It started running in the UK four months ago, and goes to air in the States in December. The team is now working on a second 52-episode series - a further six months work. “It started to get bigger and bigger as it went along. When I first got the part, I thought it was going to be a TV series like any other soap or drama, but it grew into something which is a lot bigger and a lot better -a really new concept,” Caleb said. “It’s huge over in Finland. People are walking around wearing our make up and costumes and trying to be like us.”

The success has extended to a three-album recording deal for the cast, with plans to let their vocal talents loose on the international market. “We’re in the middle of recording an album at the moment - singing together, mixing a few songs,” said Meryl, whose sister Megan is a well-known pop celebrity in her own right, being one fifth of the all-girl supergroup TrueBliss.

Meryl came from Auckland to work on the show in Wellington, and Caleb from Whangarei. During production time, they live with other out-of-town cast members in a family home. School age kids work on correspondence courses while they’re not on set. “They’ve got classrooms set up in the studios and whenever we’re not on set, we’re up in the classroom,” Meryl said. “Some days you spend the whole day in the schoolroom, but scheduling can change at the click of a finger,” Caleb said. “You could be all day ‘off’ one minute, and the next minute you’re called onto set. So you’ve just got to find the time to balance it. And you’ve got to do your work at home as well.” “Everyone is really close and we all talk about things, and it’s like a big happy family,” Meryl said. “You’d think in a situation where you put 15 teenagers together there’d be lots of hassles. Just look at any school for example,” Caleb said. “I don’t know how they did it, but somehow the company picked 15 teenagers, who on and off set and during their studies, manage to get along.” What’s the most fun they’ve had on the show? “It’s all fun,” said Caleb, " but one of the things that sticks out in my mind the most is a paint fight we had. We basically spent an hour just throwing paint at each other. And because they had to clean up the whole set afterwards, we got a two hour break, we just went outside and took a pile of photos." So, next time you see a bunch of young people on your TV riding around on blades, dressed up in futuristic ‘cave’ gear, beating on oil drums and doing hand-to-hand combat over who gets the fresh drinking water, look again… They just might be some of the happiest young Kiwis in the world, right now. Join the Tribe!

Editor’s note: with thanks to Scaramouche who still has an undead website somewhere in tribespace and preserved this article.