Cameron Daddo hasn't lived in Australia for 25 years, but he knows immediately what he wants for lunch at the new(ish) Stokehouse in the CBD.
"We used to eat at the Stokehouse at the beach all the time and I'd already decided before we got here I'm going to have the flathead," he says, even before the menu arrives.
"We don't get it in the US and I miss it. We used to catch flatties in the Bay."
Daddo, with his brothers Lachie and Andrew, was once a ubiquitous part of Melbourne's showbiz scene, but after a successful career as TV host (first kids' show Off The Dish, and then Perfect Match at 21, making him the youngest ever host of a prime-time program), and actor (he starred in telemovies like The Heroes and the perhaps-best-forgotten Bony, in which he played an Indigenous detective), he and his model wife Alison Brahe moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to pursue his acting career.
Now though, he's back for at least several months for his role in John Frost's new production of The Sound of Music. Daddo is playing Captain von Trapp, a role which at first seems far too old for him. But Daddo recently turned 50 – it's just that he seems forever that fresh-faced, wholesome young star of the late '80s and early '90s.
"But that's where I am now. I remember saying I'm too old for a particular role when I was in my 20s! In our business you're always too old for something – it's one business where at 19, or 26 you can be too old," he says.
"But you know, what a blessing. Now I've sailed down that river and I'm a von Trapp!"
Daddo doesn't seem an obvious musical theatre candidate but he's got a few under his belt, and Frost sought him out for the role.
"I've worked with Frosty on Big River more than 20 years ago and Legally Blonde a few years back," he says.
"When he asked me if I'd be up for Sound of Music – it's one of those jobs where I'd never even put myself up – it was a gift from the heavens!"
Daddo says he saw "most of" the movie version as a kid ("I never got past the serious political part with the Nazis") and only recently saw a stage version, but, like most of us, knows all the songs.
It's one of those jobs where I'd never even put myself up – it was a gift from the heavens!"Cameron Daddo
"And it's such an iconic story and so successful, I think, because it's about integrity and love and squashing it … we can all relate to what the captain goes through, that squashing of emotions in order to muscle through, see how he can cope," he says. "Then the whole idea of the music and this wonderful spirit awakening the innate joy inside this man."
His role doesn't involve major singing parts, but he still had to audition in front of the musical's co-producer, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"It was nerve-racking! I was actually working on something else at the time though, so it was quick and I was preoccupied," he says. "But I only sing a few songs – the star is really Amy Lehpamer, and she's a beautiful singer. This show will be a watershed moment for her and the country when they see what she can do."
As well as the flathead for his main, (john dory for me), we share an entree of braised pork cheek and oysters.
Daddo is swooning: "Melbourne is not to be outdone food-wise," he says.
He's not much of a cook himself ("I do the barbecue") but food is "very important" in his house.
"In America, it's such volume, such big portions, and there's a lot of genetically modified and messed with food, but Alison is really big on the organic food, and takes a lot of care."
And Daddo's 16-year-old son River (he also has daughters Lotus, 19, and 10-year-old Bodhi Faith) is a pastry chef.
"So he's got his sourdough culture on top of the fridge, and he does baguettes and croissants, pretzels, doughnuts. He makes all the birthday cakes in the family now."
By the time our mains arrive – accompanied by a glass of riesling each – we've talked about Botox ("No, I haven't succumbed," he says. "I have no judgment against it … but I've got other things to think about"), his work as a presenter on Smooth FM ("I am loving that – I currently record it from a studio in my home in LA"), the differences between bringing up his kids in LA and the laidback childhood he enjoyed in Mt Eliza ("In summer we were just told, 'be home by sundown', we'd ride our skateboards on the road, no helmets, no gloves… maybe it's an illusion but it still feels safer here to us than LA") and Rudolf Steiner education, which each of his three kids have had. His wife Alison is also now a Steiner nursery teacher.
Is that the one where you sit on the floor and don't learn to read until you're 7?
"No, there are desks! There's a lot of method to what people perceive as madness," he says. "There were certain members of our family that were not on board with Steiner and they were critical of us with our firstborn; they thought it was this airy-fairy thing, 'Oh, she's 7 years old and doesn't know how to read or write', they said it was disgraceful, that we were doing her a disservice. But then when Lotus was 10, when they all do a standardised test, her comprehension was off the chart. They catch up in a way that's amazing."
The Steiner philosophy, he says, has parallels with acting.
"It takes from nature, music, spirituality, physicality – it's about learning through play and keeping the 'child mind' in the play. As any actor will say, it's only when they're clowning around that you learn more, because your mind is free. That's when the gold comes…when our mind is free to explore and that's what Steiner is about."
As well as raising his family, Daddo has been working as a TV and film actor, producer and writer and dabbling in singing since he left Australia.
His first big break in LA was a regular role on the Aaron Spelling series Models Inc and a starring role on F/X: The Series. There have been smaller roles in everything from The West Wing, CSI, The Mentalist, 24 and dozens of telemovies and programs that don't necessarily make it back home.
Then there was his season as Adam Goodman on Packed to the Rafters and a role in Beaconsfield, the telemovie about the rescue of the Tasmanian miners, back home in 2012.
But it hasn't all been starring roles and gigs alongside top US actors.
At one point, Daddo worked as a door-to-door salesman, selling water filtration systems.
"The thing is, as actors, you have to do this – there are ebbs and flows and we've chosen a certain life with our children – that Steiner education, that 'aint cheap – it was a period for a number of months where we had no cash."
Surely though, with his boyish looks, he was a good salesman?
"No! I was not good. It's hard to get someone to pull the trigger on something they probably don't need; that's an art."
It was though, "a great experience" that he found galvanising.
"You know, it made me realise I'm an entertainer – I'm a musician, I can write, I can direct, produce... all these things. And that's what I do. I was doing the job but about three weeks in I started getting calls again about acting work. So then it was like 'now I have to ring the boss to say I've gotta go to Vancouver'."
But with it being LA, his boss at the water filtration company was also a frustrated actor.
"He kept asking me for tips!"
And he would cover for Daddo when he'd head off to auditions, returning later to try to talk clients into filtering their water supplies. It's not exactly up there with former Diff'rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, who went from prime-time star to security guard until his death, but Daddo says it was an important experience.
"I found out a lot about who I was and in taking an action to make something happen, other things eventuated. Sitting on a couch – that's an action as well – but getting up and going, 'You know what, I'm bringing in the money this week…' I'd never done a job like that before, so it was a great thing."
Daddo, by the way, doesn't have an LA accent, unlike many of his Australian peers who have moved to the US – although he says his kids do have an accent.
"I know Aussies have difficulties with actors who do that, but I can understand it – you don't want to be caught thinking about doing an accent in the middle of a scene; you need it to be as natural as possible. But it's not me, really," he says.
"I remember being with Anthony La Paglia back in 1994 and he asked me why I was still talking with an Australian accent – he sounds like he's from Brooklyn, even back then! He was like, 'Let it go bud, let it go'."
Cameron Daddo stars in The Sound of Music at the Regent Theatre, from May 16.
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