What a difference a change of scenery makes. Two years ago, Summer Bay lost one of its favourite heart-throbs when garage owner Jesse McGregor became embroiled in unsavoury business dealings and was sent off to prison. Now he's back and actor Ben Unwin believes the absence has seen both he and his character undergo some fundamental changes.
" I went to Home and Away straight from school ", the 25 year old explains. " I really hadn't had those years to grow up and experience the things you need to after school ".
Fortunately art has failed to imitate life and while his Home and Away alter ego was serving a term in jail alongside hardened criminals, Ben was enjoying far loftier pursuits. " I travelled around Europe for a year, which was great ", he beams. " I had quite a bit of time off actually. Because I went from school straight into the show I didn't have that time off to just have fun and relax. Then I went to college for a year and studied computer animation, so I've got another skill under my belt ". Not that he ever got a chance to implement that newfound skill - not long after finishing college Ben was invited to come back to Home and Away and reprise the role of Jesse.
" I got a call saying they wanted to bring the character back. I had to think about it for a while but not too long ", Ben reveals, adding that the benefits were too alluring to resist. " It's full-time work and I love acting. I enjoy playing Jesse, too. I love doing bad stuff and Jesse has got that devilish charm! So it was fantastic coming back and everyone's been really welcoming ". Having shared a prison cell with fellow Summer Bay jailbird Vinnie Patterson [ Ryan Kwanten ], Jesse returns to the beachside town to honour a promise to check in on Leah [Ada Nicodemou ] and baby VJ for his old mate.
And of course reuniting with his own daughter Rachel is never far from Jesse's mind. " He's really trying to get his life together but after being in jail he's quite a bit darker than before ", Ben observes. " He's filled with the prison mentality: he's harder, wiser, a bit more sceptical. He's a bad boy with a heart of gold, so he makes mistakes like everyone but he really tries to fix those mistakes ". And while many new faces have moved into the Bay during his absence, Jesse is delighted to be reacquainted with some familiar friends ... including the very grown-up, very attractive Hayley Smith [ Rebecca Cartwright ].
" Last time Jesse was in the Bay, he and Hayley and Irene [ Lynne McGranger ] lived in the beach house together, so Hayley's basically his only friend in town ", Ben explains. " She takes him under her wing and talks to him about his problems in jail, so a friendship forms. But because Jesse's been in jail for so long and is suddenly faced with this beautiful blonde woman, he's attracted to her and wants to spend lots of time with her ".
And although she's happily attached to live-in boyfriend Noah Lawson [ Beau Brady ], Hayley can't help but feel flattered by Jesse's attention. " When Jesse was here originally Hayley had a bit of a crush on him ", Rebecca recalls. " So now she's a bit older she's in with a chance. Not that she's thinking that way - she loves Noah - but she still finds herself attracted to Jesse ". Not surprisingly, Noah isn't exactly overjoyed to discover how much time his girlfriend is spending with the former prison inmate.
" Hayley's a natural flirt, so she's unaware of how friendly and giggly and girlie she is when Jesse's around ", Rebecca admits. " Noah often catches them having a laugh together and he's less than impressed. " Hayley is helping Jesse find his feet again, but Noah sees the tough side of him Hayley doesn't see. She believes he's the same Jesse she used to know and doesn't realise how much prison can change you ". In a move sure to raise eyebrows, Jesse even inspires Summer Bay's perennial good girl to get a tattoo. " Jesse has one and he tells Hayley: ' Girls get them because they're sexy '" , Rebecca reveals. " She doing it for Noah but Noah's not too happy! "
While fans of the happy couple might be concerned about the impact Hayley's flirtation with Jesse will have on their relationship, Rebecca suspects it proves just how much her character has blossomed in recent times. " The past couple of years have made quite a difference in terms of Hayley's maturity ", she says. " She's moved out of home and is in a serious relationship, whereas before she aws still at school and Jesse probably wouldn't have looked at her twice ". As one of the few remaining cast members who previously worked with Ben, Rebecca is trilled with his return to Home and Away.
" It's actually really funny because although our characters knew each other before we only had about three scenes together ", she laughs. " But when someone comes back to the show it feels like they've never really left. Ben's definitely fitted in again ". Having being cast as Hayley when she was only in Year 9, Rebecca can relate to Ben's experience of going directly from school to soap. " Istayed and finished Year 9, although I only managed to get to school irregularly ", she admits. " I finished Year 10 by correspondence and that's as far as I've got ". " I'm just enjoying this job while I can ", Rebecca agrees. " It's not going to last forever and there are other things I want to do. I'd like to be a hair and makeup artist and I'm going to do a course on that. And if I decide I awnt my HSC I'll do that at tafe so I can concentrate on it properly ".
As for Ben, he's approaching his second stint on Home and Away with a fresh perspective. " It's no less important than it was before ", he clarifies. " But being older and having been outside the show means I can look at it objectively rather than subjectively. " Often you work really quickly on a soap and that used to frustrate me because I'd feel that I hadn't found the real essence of the scene. But these days I accept that's what you do and it looks great, so let's move on ".