Ben Mitchell has long played his cards close to his chest. Since closing the door on his tough upbringing in a broken home, the ruthlessly ambitious Shortland Street actor has enjoyed success and fame – but has always resisted showing his true self to fans.
Becoming a dad last year marked a shift in his attitude, and he rather nervously introduced Mila to the world in New Idea in March.
Several months on, he finally feels comfortable enough in himself to speak candidly about his unconventional childhood, his terror at becoming a father, the power his daughter has over him, why he has steered clear of marriage and how at heart he is still, 'a little Maori boy from lower class Hamilton, playing it cool but inside going, "Oh my gosh."'
'I've very much tried to keep the person in the public eye and the private person different,' admits Ben.
'But in the end I want to be honest – in the future I don't want Mila to look at me and question what I did and said in the past.'
New Idea catches up with Ben and Mila in Fiji, where the 31-year-old is introducing his daughter to the country his great-grandmother was born in.
Since arriving, the pair has spent time at Treasures Orphanage, a refuge which Ben first visited 18 months ago. The squalor of the surroundings has never phased Ben, who is remarkably comfortable in the run-down building just 20 minutes from the opulent tourist Mecca of Denarau.
'I wasn't shocked by it because, although my cousins weren't in an orphanage, some of them had extremely unfortunate upbringings,' says Ben, who plays TK Samuels on the TV2 soap. 'They grew up in an environment where there was neglect, struggle and a lack of love.
They were in very bad, violent, abusive situations.'
Looking back to his own childhood, Ben recalls that compared to his relatives, he was part of 'quite the golden family.'
Man of the house
While he spent his formative years in an unsavoury part of town – with gang members from the Mongrel Mob and Black Power across the street from his state house – he remembers being showered with love.
His parents were very young when Ben's older sister was born, and had her adopted out. While they never married, together the pair raised Ben and his younger sister, until the couple split when Ben was still in primary school.
This forced the feisty little boy to become the man of the house – and his steely determination to protect the women in his life has remained ever since.
'I took on this role to take care of my mum and my sisters, and to defend, protect and somehow provide,' says the former St John's College student, glancing around the luxurious Fijian resort he is relaxing in – so in contrast to the environment in which he was raised.
'My childhood wasn't conventional. There wasn't much money. Me and my sister lived in quite a rough neighbourhood, there was a real rank and a sense that the alpha male looks after his sisters.'
Recalling the time he had to take on the local 'tough guy' who was picking on his sister, he adds, 'There were situations where I felt the women in my life were in jeopardy – and my guts said I'd never let that happen, I'd die to protect them.'
Being raised in such circumstances, Ben could easily have fallen in with the wrong crowd. But while his builder father wasn't always there, he still had an influence on his son. As a kid Ben was hot headed, and his father taught him to control his emotions.
'Maybe he could see himself in me,' Ben says reflectively. 'I wasn't troublesome at school but I got myself into situations, it wasn't temper – it was more controlled than that. He got me into boxing and martial arts and that structured and controlled it. He also ensured I could stand on my own two feet.'
While he didn't live permanently with his young family, Ben's dad Edward channelled plenty of energy into his eldest son – who seems to have spent his life trying to earn his dad's approval and respect.
'Dad was the man and he wanted to do things with me – take me running and training,' says Ben, taking a sip of coffee. 'But with my little sister it was like, "Oh, Mum will do stuff with her."'
Ben reflects this has made him more determined to be hands-on with 14-month-old Mila.
'I think it hurt my sister,' he says. 'I think it's truly important to have a male in your life.'
While his background has given Ben a resolve to not only give Mila everything he didn't have but also the things his sister missed out on, he admits that when he first learned he was having a daughter, he was disappointed it wasn't a son.
If he's honest, the whole concept of being a father wasn't something he planned to do until he was much older and had achieved his dream of being a millionaire.
'I thought I was doomed when I found out I was going to be a father,' he says, running his hand through his hair.
'I thought I was going to lose my ambition and my focus – and I didn't know if I was capable of being a father. And then it was like, "Oh, it's a girl." But in hindsight, I love that I had a girl first. I love the side it's brought out of me.'
Kids in need
Interestingly, it was Treasures Orphanage, where the kids treat Ben like their long-lost big brother, that helped the actor come to terms with Mila's impending arrival. He first visited the care facility in his role as an ambassador for Air Pacific's Wings of Hope charity.
He never imagined his work with the initiative would affect him so dramatically – helping him reconnect with his own childhood and see the opportunity he had been given in becoming a father.
'Seeing them, I just thought more about the fact I was going to have a child soon, and there is a real sense of responsibility there,' Ben says. 'Children need love. It was my first kind of awareness of that.'
Chatting to Ben it becomes increasingly clear he is a fairly regular Jack the lad who has more than a touch of the introspective, tortured artist about him. It makes for something of a split personality, as he switches from down-to-earth, laid back honesty to sharing convoluted theories on evolution. He's the first to recognise this contrast – with a shout of laughter he admits, 'I'm not slightly schizophrenic, I'm extremely!'
While he might not have dropped his guard in the many interviews he has given since winning the role of Shortland Street's dishy doctor TK Samuels in 2006, Ben has dropped his shirt in his numerous photo shoots – and shamelessly pouted at the camera.
Stretching languidly in his chair, the former Mr New Zealand concedes that in the past he has been both vain and self-absorbed – but being around Mila makes him realise there are some things more important than whether his arms are toned and his T-shirt is designer.
'Normally when I'm doing a photo shoot I have a persona, or a type of image or expression, but with Mila my focus is on the baby,' he says. 'I mean I'm in Fiji, in the sun, I'm really pasty, my hair is a mess – but I'm not really worried. People who know me well know I'd usually be asking for a mirror about now.'
Far from checking his reflection, Ben spends his time at Treasures Orphanage contentedly letting the kids clamber all over him – occasionally sweeping one up into a hug and play fighting with another.
He is particularly attached to three-year-old Asari, who he grabs in a headlock and proudly reveals has a passion for sport. Would Ben consider adoption? He hesitates.
'I haven't really thought about it. But I definitely feel like I could take [Asari]. I do want to have a son. Girls are always going to be tender to me but with a son it will be different. I don't want to be too hard-core on my son but he's definitely not going to be soft.'
As a father, Ben is keen to teach Mila about her culture and lineage. Affectionately describing the tot as 'a mongrel', he explains that not only does she have Indian, Fijian Indian, Scottish and Maori heritage on her father's side, she has Croatian blood from her mother's family.
Part of the reason it is so important for Ben to show Mila her Fijian roots, is to give her an identity he felt he was lacking as a kid.
'Growing up I was extremely confused,' he says, adding he was raised on curries and hangi. 'Maori were in the minority in school and often I didn't know if I was Maori or not. Teachers would ask me, "Where are you from?" and I'd say, "I don't know."'
One of Ben's hopes is that his parents have more interaction with his daughter. Mum Karen lives in Australia while his dad lives in Hamilton with his partner and their three children, Ben's half siblings.
'I'm not estranged from my mother but she lives overseas and we haven't connected for a while,' Ben says. 'I only see Dad once in a blue moon. The three younger children are all from Dad's new relationship – to say I'm involved in their lives would be lying. Dad and I have a relationship but I kind of get on with my own stuff.'
Like dad, like daughter
Whether or not Mila takes after her grandparents, there's no doubt with her chocolate eyes and wide smile she is her father's daughter. And her doting dad reckons the similarities don't stop at appearances.
'She's strong, she's curious, she's fast and quick. She's fluent in her body, she's acrobatic…' Ben checks himself, suddenly realising he is being far from modest. 'She's also extremely temperamental – and if I have to be honest that's me,' he says.
'She's got this temper – one minute she's angelic and then it's like a switch. I get fired up extremely fast too, but I've learnt to control it.'
Another side of Mila is that, when it comes to her dad she is extremely bossy. While Ben insists she'll never be spoilt – his own upbringing showed him that spending time with his little girl is more important than splashing out on expensive gifts for her – there's no doubt the toddler has got him wrapped around her tiny little finger.
'She orders me around – I love that,' Ben says with a broad grin. 'A woman that orders me around – it's like, "How did you do it?" She is probably the first girl who has done that. Women have tried and failed, but I do listen to Mila.'
Despite his new-found openness, Ben is still guarded about his love life. He admits he has been in love before – and has enjoyed serious relationships – but reckons they ultimately failed due to timing.
Switching between being honest – 'I'm not the best partner – yet' – and slightly poetic – 'I think we all have a longing to love and be loved – oh God, I sound like a fairy' – it becomes clear he's not quite sure what he's after. He reveals the issue of marriage has come up, but because his own parents were never married, it doesn't mean so much to him.
'I am thinking about it. In 10 years I reckon I'll be ready,' he says, keen to make light of the issue. 'And then I'm going to turn around and say, "Who wants me?"'
For now, he is content to focus on the most important woman in his life, Mila, and give her all the things he missed out on as a child.
'Mum wanted to take us to Disneyland – it was her dream. She'd tell us, "When Mum wins the lottery I'll take you to Disneyland," and we'd believe her. But we never got there.
'But if I say I'm going to take my daughter to Disneyland she is going there. I've not been yet but when I do we'll go together.'
By Cath Bennett
They're just like us!