A month after making his ‘Neighbours’ on-screen debut, Richie Morris has said he’s “thankful” for the positive feedback, knowing his casting is also important to many young culturally diverse viewers.
“It’s very humbling that I am able to come on set and provide a little diversity within the cast,” the 21-year-old told HuffPost Australia. “I believe it is very important to have diversity on screens.”
Richie, whose mother is Nigerian and father is Lebanese, said his parents played an instrumental part in educating him about racial discrimination when the family migrated to Australia from Nigeria when he was 10 years old.
“When I moved to Australia, I was lucky enough to have amazing parents that taught me about what racism might look like and how to peacefully deal with it if it were to ever occur to me,” he said.
The Sydney Theatre School graduate was working in a factory before he landed the role of policeman Levi Canning. Portraying a cop has been a role he hasn’t taken lightly.
“I did a lot of research in my own time. [Co-star] Colette Mann was also generous enough to introduce me to her son who is an ex-cop,” he said.
“My job is to portray the truth of every situation. I hope the fans can relate to my storylines. I’ve received some really loving fan messages that I’m also very thankful for.”
Co-star Sharon Johal, who plays Dipi Rebecchi, praised ‘Neighbours’ for casting Richie in a time when representation and diversity are being widely discussed.
“I love Richie, and I love that he’s joined the cast. Of course, nobody wants to be defined by their race, heritage or look, but it is important for culturally diverse people to be represented and visible on screen,” the Indian Australian actor told HuffPost Australia.
“So I applaud ‘Neighbours’ again for making an active choice to cast him, if that [diversity] was a consideration.”
She said regardless of whether that was the case, Richie’s addition to the cast “enriches Ramsay Street”.
“Cultural heritage and significance is important in Australian storytelling, and it is such a large part of our communities as we stand. Unfortunately (or fortunately) until it is ‘normalised’, every diverse casting in Australia IS a step forward.”
‘Neighbours’ has actively cast more people of colour in recent years after criticism that it wasn’t diverse enough.
In 2011, the Kapoor family of Indian and Sri Lankan heritage were introduced and on the show for two years. The characters were Ajay Kapoor (Sachin Joab), wife Priya Kapoor (Menik Gooneratne) and daughter Rani (Coco-Jacinta Cherin).
In 2014, Meyne Wyatt was the first Indigenous Australian actor to be part of the main cast. He played Nate Kinski for two years.
″[The role] was not written as an Aboriginal character, however as the character is not a blood relative of existing characters, there were no ethnicity limitations,” executive producer Jason Herbison told The Sydney Morning Herald back then.
“We could craft the character’s background story if necessary to suit the actor cast in the role.”
In 2017, a new family featuring Indian Australians arrived at Ramsay Street. The family included Shane ‘Pufferfish’ Rebecchi (Nicholas Coghlan), Dipi Rebecchi (Sharon Johal) and daughters Yashvi (Olivia Junkeer) and Kirsha (Vani Dhir) and Dipi’s sister Mishti Sharma (Scarlet Vas).
“We felt it was important that our new extended Rebecchi family reflect the cultural diversity of the community and our audience,” Herbison told TV Tonight at the time.
Last year, the show also cast trans actor Georgie Stone, an “important” step toward greater LGBTQIA+ representation, according to the 20-year-old.
“It is important to be visible because there are so many people who will benefit from seeing these stories,” Stone told HuffPost Australia.
“Not only will people be educated and learn to be better allies, but trans, gender diverse and nonbinary young people can see themselves on screen and hopefully feel celebrated. It can be a very isolating experience, especially when you are not supported by your family. We cannot underestimate the power of representation.”