Warriors Stars Pick Up the Pieces01 Feb 2013, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Actors Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen had to dig deep for the emotionally demanding roles they play in a film that forces us to confront some painful truths
by James Graham
Woman’s Day Magazine, May 10, 1994
Bringing Once Were Warriors – Alan Duff’s controversial of domestic violence – to the big screen came at a disturbing price for the stars of the film.
Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison admit that they had to overcome huge personal obstacles to meet the tight deadline for the film, which opens May 13.
“There was one week where I had one big scene after another, and at the end of it I couldn’t do any more, and I knew that if I didn’t have a rest I’d fall apart,” Rena reveals.
She was left bruised and emotionally drained playing Beth, the badly beaten wife of Temuera’s character Jake Heke.
“It does affect you,” admits temuera, whose performance makes a chilling contrast to his Mr Nice-Guy role as Dr Ropata in Shortland Street.
“I remember one scene where I was being nasty again, and I had to stop and take a quiet time to myself. What I was doing just hit me suddenly and I was quite upset. I had to say to myself, ‘Snap out of it. This is Jake dishing it out – just get out there and do some more’.”
Says Rena: “I remember saying to Tem at the time of one of the more violent scenes, ‘How can a man do this to a woman?’ And that’s what this film is about – the violence.
“It’s not a pretty situation and there’s far too much of it happening. We’re losing a lot of lives as a result. Just look at all the kiddies who died last year. That’s why this film is so important – it brings to the forefront issues that we must address.
“Hopefully people will see that if Beth can make it, maybe they can too.”
Rena and Temuera warn, however, that the film doesn’t try to hold anything back in revealing the ugliness of domestic violence – and admit they were upset by the finished product.
“I thought I’d be immune having known the material, but I was shocked and stunned,” admits Rena.
“I didn’t think that I’d cry when I first saw the film but I couldn’t help it. I still don’t know how to describe it. I haven’t found the words yet, but it’s something that will stay with us forever.”
With its setting of a bleak urban environment and a predominantly Maori cast, some critics may question the broad appeal of Once Were Warriors.
“I’d hate people to look at this and say it’s just a Maori film,” says Rena. “Jakes come in every colour, shape and size. It’s a universal theme.
“And just because some families have more money than the one in this film, it doesn’t stop the man hitting.”
Not long after filming, Temuera was at his sister’s home in Rotorua when that point was hammered home to him.
“I heard this yelling and screaming coming from just two doors away,” he says. “It just makes you realise they’re in everybody’s family. They could be your brother-in-law or uncle – they’re not far away, these people.
“What amazes me is that they’re the people you’d least expect.”
Rena knew she just had to play Beth when she read the book by controversial New Zealand author Alan Duff.
Although she is single and has no children, she grew up with gangs and violence around her in the small Northland town of Moerewa, and drew upon real-life experiences for the part.
“Having grown up with Maori I’ve certainly been in situations like that, but I have a family to protect so I can’t say much more,” she says.
Temuera originally had his eye on a lesser part in the movie, as he didn’t consider himself big enough for the physical presence that Jake’s role demanded. But when director Lee Tamahori’s search for a strong man who could act failed, Temuera was called up and told to bulk up – fast.
Juggling around his commitments with Shortland Street, Temuera underwent an intense two-and-a-half month gym program with former professional wrestler Robert Bruce, who is also his agent and the film’s fight co-ordinator.
“I must say I was lacking confidence going into the part, mainly because I’m only a skinny runt and I’m supposed to be this big mean dude,” says Temuera.
“I’m not one to turn down a challenge, but I was getting into it and I was thinking, ‘What the hell have I got myself into here?’ But you go with it, trust your director and how they’re going to make you look.”
To prove he was prepared to go to any lengths for authenticity, Temuera even consented to a boxing fight staged by former national champion Lance Revill.
“I wanted to learn how to throw a punch, and thought it was a good idea – until the night. I’d had only two or three sessions in the gym and I wasn’t fit enough. I was treating it like a bit of fun. I thought I’d dance around a bit, do the Ali shuffle and wave to the crowd, but the next thing I knew I was in the corner and very nervous.
“My knees felt weak, totally weak. I remember Robert saying, ‘You all right, bro? You all right, bro?’ I must have gone white. I felt like fainting. Then I heard the crowd yell, ‘Kill the doctor! Kill the doctor!’, then one guy yells out, ‘Doctor, give him some of your own medicine!’
“Anyway, I told my opponent, ‘We have a real hard crowd out there, so don’t take it too easy, I’ll be all right’.
“But that turned out to be the worst thing I could have said. The bell rings and this guy comes out flying.
“I saw twinkle, twinkle little stars in the first 30 seconds and I thought I was going down.
“Somehow I survived and all I could say to Robert was, ‘I’ve done some stupid things in my life, but this takes the cake’.”
Temuera admits it took him longer than he expected to shake off his Once Were Warriors character, and he found himself bringing a new element to his Shortland Street role.
“I went back to Shortland Street a week later, and in between takes I wanted to swear at everybody.
“I didn’t really notice, but the other people at work certainly did,” he says.
Temuera is committed to Shortland Street for another year or so, but is looking forward to taking a break at the end of the year and hopes to work on another project after that.
After going through the emotional ringer in Once Were Warriors, Rena is keen to break away from victims in her next role.
She has some theatre work lined up in Sydney later this year, but would rather build on her exposure in Once Were Warriors and a smaller role in Rapa Nui by looking for more work in front of the camera.
“I’d like a change from theatre, but I don’t want to play a victim for quite a while, thank you,” says Rena.
“I want high-heels and a three-piece suit next time – it was quite depressing playing Beth.”
© Woman’s Day