Actor Courtney Miller admits she was nervous about returning to Summer Bay only months after her character, Bella Nixon, had left – supposedly for good.
“I was a little worried coming back,” says 26-year-old Miller, who played the troubled teen for four years before calling it quits.
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“I just thought there was a whole new array of cast who I didn’t know and I felt it was going to be hard work. I was a former cast member but I was also new, so I was in this weird little zone of, ‘I’m old, but I’m new and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes’.
“I was nervous but when I got there but I just stepped right back into the normality of it.”
Bella left Summer Bay – and boyfriend Nikau Parata (Kawakawa Fox-Reo) in June last year to pursue a photography career in New York. The last time viewers saw her was a month later when Nikau broke up with her over FaceTime, after a bikie gang threatened his family.
Fans were unhappy at her departure but Miller says it was her decision to leave the soap.
“It was my decision to go. I had definitely served out my acting contract. In fact, I actually stayed on another three months. I happily left – but with many, many tears,” she says, of leaving a job and castmates she loved.
Miller was 22 when she was cast as Bella, the troubled 16-year-old sister of former Summer Bay cop Colby Thorne (Tim Franklin), who is now serving a life sentence for murder. Miller had already completed several years of studies in psychology – even working as a telephone counsellor at Lifeline while she was on the show – but was keen to try out her acting chops.
The move paid off. She was nominated for the most popular newcomer Logie for a storyline in which Bella was at the centre of an on-line grooming plot.
However, after four years in Summer Bay, the young actor wanted to go back to school – acting school.
“People thought I was crazy,” she says, of her decision to move to Melbourne to study what she had already been doing successfully.
“It was the biggest challenge for me and it was an ego reset.
“I wanted to do the acting class to prove to myself that I was there for the long haul and not for the quick fame.
“When I first got there (acting school), I freaked out a little because I thought I wasn’t meant to be there or I’d made the wrong choice but, by week two, I knew that I had made the best decision.
“It was the most grounding life experience ever. It was incredible.”
Miller admits she sees the irony in her first job out of drama school being on Home And Away.
“I truly thought that when I left, I was saying goodbye,” she says, acknowledging few of the show’s characters ever return and, if they do so, it is usually years – not months – later.
“My return was weird because my storyline was still going on without me,” she says, noting that while Bella was long gone, she was often mentioned by other characters on the show.
“She was talked about. She did still exist in that world, even though I, Courtney, didn’t.”
However, new parents Dean (Patrick O’Connor) and Ziggy (Sophie Dillman) are surprised when Bella rocks up on their doorstep. It seems she has finished her Australian exhibition and wanted to see the new baby before heading back to New York.
However, hearing his former girlfriend is in town, Nikau decides to track her down but quickly finds himself friend-zoned.
What happens next is being kept under wraps with widespread speculation that Fox-Reo is leaving the show this year.
However, Channel Seven, which produces Home And Away, has yet to confirm whether this is true.
‘I was very lucky to be called back,” Miller says, adding that accepting the producers’ offer for her to reprise Bella helped her realise she had made the right decision to leave and move on with her life.
“It worked out well because there was still a storyline there that needed to be completed. It was the best experience ever.”
Home And Away, TVNZ 2, weekdays