What became of Grace Heke?

After almost two decades in obscurity, the girl who broke a nation’s heart as Grace Heke is to reappear on New Zealand screens. But this time she’ll be playing herself – a 36-year-old mother of four living in Cairns, Australia.

Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell was 15 and an acting novice when she gave an award-winning performance as the Heke family’s troubled teen Gracie, in seminal 1994 movie Once Were Warriors.

A new documentary, Once Were Warriors: Where are they now, reunites the actors who propelled Kiwi cinema on to the world stage and transformed the lives of those involved.

The documentary, directed by cast member-turned-filmmaker Julian Arahanga, touches on the toll wrought on the actors by Warriors’ gruelling emotional scenes.

It also reveals that the blockbuster was nearly thwarted by a chorus of doubt, including fears that Shortland Street star Temuera Morrison could never be a convincing Jake the Muss.

“When I read the script I didn’t think you could make it. I thought ‘Whoa, I don’t know who is going to watch this’,” Arahanga said.

For the young Kerr-Bell the experience was life-changing. Her portrayal of rape and suicide earned her a Best Supporting Actress award and several subsequent acting roles. She now admits to also having doubts about the film before its release: “I was like ‘Oh, my god, what have we made’ I was really scared about the reaction from the public. I’m 15 years old and I’ve just made a movie about Maori, my people, beating their women and raping their children.”

However, the role also opened her eyes to life’s possibilities: “It came at that point to show me that there was more to life than just staying in your home town and ending up going nowhere.”

Since she had her first child at 18, motherhood has come first. The film made Kerr-Bell public property, with random strangers stopping to give her a hug. In some cases she wondered if they had actually seen the film.

“People would ask me ‘Are you going to be in the second one’ I’m like ‘No, my character died’. How can you not remember that That was so sad.”

Even 20 years on she occasionally gets stopped in the street. Now working in real estate, Kerr-Bell regrets not investigating other ways to remain in the screen industry, such as writing or directing.

She’s too dedicated a mother to return to acting while her children are young. But watch this space: “Maybe in my 50s, when they’re older and more independent. I could be like Helen Mirren. I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

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– The Dominion Post