EXCLUSIVE: When James Sorensen quit Neighbours in 2010 there were shocks all round. He was walking away from a successful soap career, a celebrity life in a goldfish bowl, to join the Australian Army. It was a dream he had long harboured.
But within twelve months he was out of the Army, igniting serious questions about what went wrong.
In the past year he has declined all media requests. Now, back at work filming Family Movie Channel’s miniseries Conspiracy 365, James Sorensen, 25, speaks exclusively to TV Tonight about a tumultuous two years, and demonstrates an inspiring spirit.
Sorensen had three years playing Declan Napier when he decided to walk away from a television career. With earlier roles in Hating Alison Ashley, and Blue Water High, a world of red carpets and fan adulation, his was a career on the rise. But Sorensen also had other ambitions.
“I have a lot of passions and one was the Army. Since I was really little I wanted to join it. My three year contract with Neighbours was up and I thought ‘This is a really good time to do it,” he says.
“I made the decision and obviously Neighbours weren’t too happy. They wanted to keep me there. Erin Mullaly came on and fulfilled the role (of Declan) and I stayed to help the transition.”
He joined the Australian Army School of Infantry, Special Forces Training Centre in Singleton, New South Wales, where there was some scepticism from fellow soldiers about a soap star in their ranks.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was fantastic,” he says.
“I was just another bloke. I wanted to do what all the other guys do. I got a bit of flak with people saying ‘It’s Declan from Neighbours, what’s he doing here?’ But within a week when we were all face down in the mud everyone was the same.
“At the end of the day I wasn’t a shit soldier. I was getting some of the best accuracy. In our platoon I was one of the fittest. Once they saw I performed it wasn’t any drama.”
But within months it would all turn horribly wrong when an accident during exercises, which he is unable to discuss, left him in hospital.
“I went in, did my training, and then broke my back. I was in extreme back pain, shooting pains down my back leg,” he says.
“I broke the locking mechanisms in the back of the spine. I cracked two vertebrae. So it wasn’t a clean broken back, I didn’t impinge my spinal cord. But it was only (missed) by about 2 millimetres. Now I have two free-floating vertebrae which is held in by ligaments.”
But the injury was so severe he could no longer participate in active training and faced months of rehabilitation. Worse was to come with military red tape. Any discharge from the army could take 18 months, leaving him in limbo.
“I had breakfast, lunch and dinner and physio in the morning and that was it. I wasn’t allowed to leave my room pretty much,” he explains.
“The rehab part wasn’t very well managed. Psychologically it was very, very difficult.
“I’d made all these life changes, did all the training, got settled in and then that happens and I was spat out the other end. The Australian Army treated it horribly.”
Sorensen says the medical recovery was well managed but despite having access to a Psychologist, he is critical of the mental recovery.
“I want to be active, I want to be out. I’m always a go-getter, I can’t sit still. So when they say I’m going to be sitting in a room for 8 hours a day drinking coffee and every once in a while they’d get me to work, I lost it. I told them that, and told the Psychologist,” he says.
“We tried to get it so I could move back to Melbourne and get looked after by family and get them to pay for a physio but I had to stay at the base. So it didn’t make sense.
“You can only get Leave if you put in an application. I put in an application but it got denied twice. So you have to stay there. It was poorly managed.”
His Commanding Officer empathised with his plight but promises were not fulfilled.
“I told my Commanding Officer it was bullshit. Previously he’d said ‘Look mate I’ll get you a discharge and in 8 weeks it will all be fine.’ But 8 weeks passed and nothing happened so I asked ‘How long, be honest?’ And he said ‘A year, maybe,’ so I said ‘Right. I’m gone.’
“The next day I picked up my bags and they called me to say I wasn’t at Parade.
“I said, ‘I told you last night, I’m not hanging around for you guys to treat me like shit.’”
Aware he could be arrested, Sorensen headed home to undergo recovery. He says because he was pending a Medical Discharge there was no arrest.
“I’ve spoken with my Commanding Officer and they’re all fine,” he says.
By December he was back home in Melbourne paying medical expenses himself, undertaking bar work to help pay the bills.
“It took me 6-8 months to recover medically from the whole thing. It screwed me pretty hard core,” he says.
“I was struggling, talking to a Psychologist. And I was post-Army too, to help me get through it. I’m still struggling.
“In hindsight if I stayed with the Army and did it their way, I’d probably still be sitting in rehab, sitting on my arse doing nothing.”
Because of his profile and his sudden exit, Sorensen says there was interest from the media in his story.
“There was a little bit of interest when it happened, but I politely declined because it wasn’t the best way to go about it. Four or five months ago I was still reeling,” he explains.
“But I wanted to set the story straight because there were a lot of rumours about what happened.”
So what is his message to the Army?
“To handle their injuries better. It was pretty dismal. Medically they did everything they could but in terms of looking after the mental strength of soldiers it’s difficult. Everyone there is so motivated to do something but if you just put them into rehab and stick them in a room for 8 hours a day, then even the most motivated person gets depressed.”
Despite the sour experience he remains supportive of the Army, showing remarkable generosity in the face of adversity.
“Building up to it was amazing. I loved every second of it,” he insists.
“It’s not that I wanted to get discharged. I would give my right leg to be back doing what I was doing. But they basically give you a blanket ban and say you can’t do anything.
“You’re kind of in the whitewash, coming out the other end. ‘Thanks for the ride, see you later.’”
Now Sorensen is rebuilding his life, with a role in Pay TV’s big budget miniseries, Conspiracy 365, based on the books by Gabrielle Lord. The family action series sees him playing Jake, a sidekick to Julia Zemiro’s ‘Oriana De La Force.’ His espionage role entails chasing the hero, 15 year old fugitive Callum Ormond (Harrison Gilbertson).
“It’s fantastic. The budget isn’t something I thought we’d be seeing in Australian TV for a while. There’s dual aircraft stuff, I’m fangin’ about in a $200,00 car, it’s great fun!” he laughs.
The series from Circa Media premieres on Family Movie Channel in January.
He has also set up a business as a Personal Trainer while studying a Nursing Diploma. Again demonstrating he isn’t blinded by the lights of fame, Sorensen has more altruistic ambitions.
“My long term goal in the next 10-15 years is to do my Masters Degree in Surgery. That’s where I want to end up, so to get there I want to do Paramedicine, but to get to Paramedicine I have to do Nursing. And to fund everything I have to have something that’s completely flexible, so that’s where the Personal Training comes in,” he says.
“I love Medicine. I love helping people, especially the Emergency Trauma and the pressure. Hopefully going down that path would be an amazing experience.
“I think you need something to be able to fall back on. So many people are a flash in the pan and get stuck in six years thinking, ‘Now what?’”
If Neighbours called for his services once more, Sorensen doesn’t see himself in any on-going capacity.
“It was a very good time, but I’m a big fan of not taking a step back,” he insists.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy the people there. They were fantastic but I’ve moved forward and built everything up. Maybe a guest appearance or something….”
As if to shun the medical trauma, Sorensen has also trained his body back to a physical peak. He is still hoping to have some medical bills covered by the Army, and acknowledges there are concerns for his medical future. But it’s hard not to be impressed with his optimism and his strength of character.
“I think I still haven’t distanced myself from the whole military. I really want to be back there so it’s really difficult to be able to look after myself rather than look after them. But I’ve got so much respect for them,” he says.
“I’m in good health now so that’s all I can really hold onto. I do worry about physical deterioration in the next 10 years. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
“But I’m glad I’m back. It’s been a life experience.”