It’s the novel that divided book groups nationwide on its 2008 release. This week The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas’ controversial look at the private lives of a group of Melbourne inner-suburbanites, makes its small-screen debut on ABC1.

Melbourne actor Blake Davis’ character, Richie, plays only a peripheral role in early episodes, as the action centres around the disparate group of couples whose friendships threaten to implode after one hastily-delivered slap to a disobedient child at a backyard barbeque.

But as those who’ve read the book would remember, it’s Richie — arguably the only character in The Slap not to buckle under Tsiolkas’ scrutinising eye — who’s thrust to the forefront of the story’s climax, offering a glimmer of youthful hope amidst all the suburban ennui.

The 19-year-old Davis admitted it took some time for him to realise just what it meant for him to land such a pivotal role in the highly anticipated series.

“Once I got the part and started telling people, everyone I mentioned the show to knew about the book — from friends my age right up to my grandparents. It was probably good that I didn’t initially know that though. I think it would’ve made the audition too nerve-wracking.

“I knew it would be a good ABC show, but I didn’t know it already had such a cult around it.”

Coincidentally, Davis and his mother had finished reading the book just days before he was called up to audition.

“She was reading it with her book club, and we’d been passing the book back and forth and talking about it — it really helped me out. I felt like I already had a head start on everyone else auditioning.”

Fresh fom roles in Foxtel’s Tangle and the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of All About My Mother, Davis joined a stellar international cast including Academy Award-nominated Brit Sophie Okonedo (nailing an Aussie accent as Aisha), Melissa George (wonderfully fragile as Rosie, the earth mother out to defend her slapped child) and Alex Dimitriades (a ball of testosterone as Harry, whose split-second slap threatens to ruin his life).

Save for an entirely extraneous voice-over each episode from a never-seen William McInnes in full ‘dead lady from Desperate Housewives’ mode, it’s brilliantly cast and superbly executed.

“Everyone has such strong opinions on it. I got a lot of ‘You’re playing Richie? I love Richie!’ He seems to be a really loved character in the book — so it’s a lot of pressure,” Davis acknowledged.

“Richie’s loving and caring, and takes on such a big burden. He was in charge of the cricket game that led to [the slap], so he’s walking around with this big burden of guilt thinking that everyone blames him. They don’t, but that’s just Richie.

“I think the final episode will sneak up on people, because by that point people will assume Richie’s a minor role, but that last episode is all about him.

“I like that he’s the last character we focus on too — it’s good that we leave the audience with a character who’s sweet and hasn’t done that much wrong. People seem to want to just give him a hug.”

Much of Davis’ screen time is spent beside Sophie Lowe, who plays Connie, a naive young vet nurse who finds herself skirting dangerously close to an affair with an older married man. The characters have the sort of intense, all-consuming friendship unique to hormonal teenagers.

“Sophie and I did our audition together. I remember she sat down next to me in the waiting room and started giggling to herself. I asked her what she was laughing about and she wouldn’t tell me. To this day, she still won’t tell me.

“At that moment I knew she’d get the role of Connie. It just seemed such a Connie thing to do, to be sat there having a cheeky secret laugh to yourself.”

The on-screen chemistry continued when the cameras were switched off, to the extent that Davis had to deflect much good-natured ribbing on the set about his close friendship with Lowe.

“It sounds really cliched, but we just clicked. Who knows, maybe in the back of our minds we knew that for our parts in the show to be real and believable, we’d have to become good friends ourselves.”

And it appears cast and crew weren’t immune to the sort of fiery moral debates that have taken place amongst readers of The Slap.

With Tsiolkas often visiting the set to provide informal advice, Davis had several exasperating conversations with the author himself.

“People seem to start off with very set ideas on what is right and wrong, then change their minds throughout the book and the series. I like the fact that Christos makes it so difficult. I remember saying to him, ‘I don’t know which side I’m supposed to be on!’

“He said, ‘Yeah, I know – that’s the whole point’.”

INFO: The Slap, Thursdays at 8.30pm on ABC1. Premiering October 6.

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