During the 1990s Jason Priestley was a superstar.
His role on Beverly Hills 90210 made him a global teen sensation, plastered across magazines, t-shirts and lunchboxes. Strictly speaking, from such dizzying heights he should have come crashing down to earth, a casualty on a road littered with former heartthrobs unable to forge an adult career.
But fourteen years after his exit, Priestley is still working in the industry as actor, director and producer.
His most recent venture is Canadian comedy, Call Me Fitz, airing on FX from Wednesday.
“It’s a rollicking, half hour comedy that follows the life and times of Richard Fitzpatrick who is an alcohol-abusing, drug-abusing womaniser who happens to sell used cars,” he says.
“It’s a derided profession in our society but one he takes very seriously!
“I got the show the old-fashioned way. I auditioned and had to fight for it because I knew that playing Richard Fitzpatrick was an opportunity I didn’t want to let get away.
“I have to audition sometimes, not all the times. But with roles like this you really don’t mind.”
The dramedy poses the question ‘can a man change?’ And when he’s having this much fun, do we really want him to?
“Fitzy is definitely a flawed character but they’re the most fun to play. He is definitely a multi-faceted character.”
There have been two seasons produced so far and Priestley directs two episodes each season. It’s a passion that has kept him in demand.
“I’ve always been interested in directing and pursuing that avenue. I really started directing when I was a teenager in high school. The drama coach at the school gave me as my assignment the 8th grade drama class. So I directed them all year and I think that’s where my interest really started.
“I direct, produce and act and I do all of those three on Call Me Fitz.”
Directing also helped him forge a career with longevity following his success on 90210. But it must have been tough to be perceived as an artist after such commercial success?
“Initially after I left 90210, yes. But I directed 18 episodes, so I’d directed almost an entire season by the time we left. So I definitely had enough experience under my belt to continue on and keep directing.
“But I was very careful in my hiatus to choose projects that were very different from what I was doing on the show. Movies like Tombstone, Cold Blooded, Love and Death on Long Island.”
The latter film in 1997 was a risk, playing the object of affection of a gay writer in what was essentially an arthouse movie.
“I thought it was a good choice to make at that time and it worked out pretty well. John Hurt’s performance was beautiful,” he says.
But while his other work has been critically acclaimed, Priestley will forever be associated with his role as Brandon Walsh on Beverly Hills 90210. After all this time, it’s still hard for him to put those glory days into perspective.
“I still can’t make sense of them. The whole thing was ridiculous. It was so nonsensical it was impossible to make sense out of it,” he admits.
“They were crazy days but I just tried to bury myself in my work at that point in time and I think that’s put me in good stead to this day.”
What is frequently overlooked in the shadow of the show’s pin-up success were the themes tackled in its early seasons: date rape, alcoholism, domestic violence, gay rights, gay parenting, drug abuse, teenage suicide, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, bulimia and abortion.
“In the early years we tried to tackle a lot of those issues as best we could,” says Priestley.
“Those topics weren’t the norm in Youth programming so we were fighting an uphill battle with a lot of that stuff.”
Possibly exorcising his demons, Priestley also directed two episodes of the short-lived parody, Grosse Pointe. It was a project he loved.
“All the actors were very funny and (90210 creator) Darren Star produced it. It was a wonderful show and I thought it was very funny. It wasn’t hard to work out which actors were playing a very comical version of all of us on 90210.”
After his Australian sojourn ends, Priestley returns to North America for more of Call Me Fitz.
“We’ve just finished shooting our third season and I go back to start shooting season four in September and when I go back to Canada I’m going to be directing a couple of movies before Call Me Fitz,” he says.
Call Me Fitz, Wednesdays at 9:30pm AEDT from February 29 on FX.