Once were the cast of Warriors

Hands up who doesn’t remember where and when they were smacked over the head by the visual and emotional assault that is Once Were Warriors.

The 1994 drama about the dysfunctional Heke family exposed a dark vein of domestic violence, rape, suicide and alcoholism and propelled New Zealand cinema on to the world stage.

Now a new documentary marking the seminal movie’s 20th anniversary tells the story behind its evolution and reunites its cast. It also calls Warriors the single most important film to come out of New Zealand. That’s debatable, but what’s not disputed is that this dose of hard urban realism broke all the rules, and box office records, and changed the lives of all those who made it great.

The documentary, Once Were Warriors: Where are they now, by cast member-turned-filmmaker Julian Arahanga, reveals the real- life struggles and strains that lay behind the explosive on-screen performances.

Take Rena Owen’s fury in the pivotal scene where a battered Beth Heke growls at husband Jake: “You want something to eat Learn how to cook!” Exhausted and emotionally flatlining after an entire day of filming violent scenes, followed by a 4.30am start, Owen dissolved into tears when director Lee Tamahori then asked her to reshoot that highly-charged exchange.

“When you see that scene – that anger, all of that is pure, raw, very real emotion,” Owen says.

Compare the photos of the Heke family actors then and now and you get some sense of the physical transformation required to turn slight Temuera Morrison, then known primarily as Dr Ropata in Shortland Street, into a seething brute who would raise the ire of audiences around the world.

But Morrison reveals that the emotional transformation was just as radical – finding anger where there was none and shutting out the chorus of derision from those who said the good doctor could never be a convincing Jake the Muss. Even Owen admits she doubted her co-star could pull it off.

Cliff Curtis tells Arahanga he desperately wanted to turn down the part of Uncle Bully, who rapes his best mate Jake’s daughter Gracie.

Some of the Heke family have since slipped quietly out of the spotlight. Joseph Kairau, who played cheeky young Huata Heke, has now moved on to greener pastures, dairy farming in Waikato. Rachael Morris Tautau, who played Polly Heke, happily slid back into life in Tolaga Bay, where she now runs a fish and chip shop.

But for many of the cast and crew, Warriors was a springboard to international exposure, if not stardom. Morrison, Owen and Tamahori all landed jobs in Hollywood. Curtis, who stars in the latest critically acclaimed Kiwi production The Dark Horse, was too flat out even to return to New Zealand for the cast reunion.

For Arahanga, too, the experience was life-changing. Unlike the younger actors, playing gangster Nig Heke wasn’t the 22-year-old Arahanga’s acting debut.

He first met his father, film producer Larry Parr, at age 11 and that year appeared in Parr’s short film The Makutu on Mrs Jones. Coming from rural Raetihi, Arahanga was instantly attracted to this world of alternative- thinking, alternative-dressing types who seemed to play for a living. What he struggled with was becoming the centre of attention at Raetihi Primary School when the film came out.

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Consequently, his film involvement shifted behind the scenes and when he left school he went to work for key grip Harry Harrison. Warriors changed all that.

“Suddenly people said, ‘You’re an actor’, whereas I thought I was a film technician.”

One of Arahanga’s over-riding memories of shooting Warriors was the process of crafting Nig, from trying out different types of moko and costume to create the New Age gangster look, to the three to four hours he would spend getting into character. Once they had settled on a moko design the image was sent to the United States to be made into tattoo transfers. But there weren’t enough transfers to just slap another one on for every scene.

“Sometimes I had to wear the moko home and try to sleep on one side of my face. I remember going into a dairy to get some bread and milk. Because moko weren’t very common back then, people in the shop were staring at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you’ ”

Losing the moko was an easy way to climb out of Nig’s character, Arahanga recalls.

“They would scrub your face with isopropyl alcohol for half an hour to get it off. When you lose half your skin off your face, that’s a good cleansing.”

Arahanga’s performance as Nig Heke eventually led to a role in blockbuster The Matrix, via the most surreal of days while he was “bumming around” in New York.

“I got a call from a woman from a casting agency calling from Sydney. She said the Wachowski brothers want to meet you for this movie called The Matrix. I didn’t know who the Wachowski brothers were, I didn’t know what The Matrix was. Then she said we are going to have a car come to your house in three hours from now. I’m like, ‘What’. Three hours later I was in a limousine driving to JFK, boarding an aeroplane and flying to LA, where I got picked up and taken to this Beverly Hills hotel. In this huge suite there’s this reading table. The room is all dark and there’s a lamp and a big A4 envelope. I open it up and there’s a script that says The Matrix.

“So I had to start reading the script and my head is just going, ‘What the, what kind of a day am I having’ ”

The next morning Arahanga met the Wachowski brothers. They talked about Warriors and the All Blacks and asked if he could do an American accent. He lied and said “Yes”. Two weeks later he was on set in Australia.

“To this day, the fact I’ve been part of something that’s been so big does make people take you a little bit more seriously. In the States, in Europe, wherever you go, there’s still a respect for that film.”

The 43-year-old father of five has since moved back behind the camera, founding Wellington production company Awa Films. He’s also continued down the emotionally raw road, producing acclaimed television series Songs from the Inside, taking Kiwi musicians into prisons. So he was an obvious choice when Warriors producer Robin Scholes conceived the idea of a 20-year anniversary documentary.

Like most 20-something men trying to figure out where they fit, Nig Heke was too caught up in his own world to notice much of what went on around him.

So Arahanga was curious to find out more about the making of the scenes that did not involve him. He also wondered if his fellow cast members felt that same sense of having been involved in something truly special. As he travelled the world tracking them down that question was quickly answered.

“There’s still that genuine connection. There’s a bond that’s been forged, it’s not just filmmaking. When you have those good memories and you know you’ve been into battle together and done good things together, that bond stays with you for life.”

It’s been a stressful week for Mamaengaroa Kerr- Bell, but it’s not her return to New Zealand screens after almost two decades that’s been uppermost in her mind.

At 7am on Tuesday she drove to hospital in Cairns to take her youngest son, 2-year-old Te Kauri, for day surgery to remove the tonsils and adenoids that sometimes stop him breathing at night.

During our conversation there’s a muffled clamour in the background: “Muuuuuuum, what have you done with my ninja toys”. Kerr-Bell laughs the giggle of that teenager we all came to know: “I sneak outside in the dark and they still find me.”

Twenty years on from playing the Heke family’s troubled teen Grace, 36-year-old Kerr-Bell is now a dedicated mother of four in Queensland. To Ngarimu, Kaya, Teina-Jayde and Te Kauri she’s just ‘mum’.

Related: What became of Grace Heke

But very occasionally, when a random stranger stops her in the street to give her a hug, they get an inkling of the fact mum was once part of something big. “Mum, were you famous” they ask. “Sort of, once,” Kerr-Bell replies.

The Whangarei 15-year-old never set out to be famous. She didn’t even want to audition. If it hadn’t been for casting director Don Selwyn’s cheeky challenge as she was playing basketball outside the audition hall, some other teen would have ended up as Gracie.

“He said ‘Do you want to audition’ ‘Oh, no, no.’ He goes ‘Why not’ I thought I don’t know why not. ‘I guess I’ll just come and audition then’.”

Kerr-Bell read the scene where a stoned Gracie and Toot chat in a wrecked car, asking “Why’s everything so black” Within weeks, her school certificate year was history and within months she was living with the three other non-Auckland-based child actors. They were supposed to do school work after filming, but Kerr-Bell was too exhausted. No wonder, given the film’s gruelling subject matter.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, it’s not the rape scene with Uncle Bully that stands out in her memory from the six weeks of shooting. It was so short, and Cliff Curtis worked so hard to make her feel comfortable, that it was eclipsed by having to climb into a coffin for the tangi scene and the trauma of the suicide scene.

“That was all just so real. Rena’s performance gave me goosebumps, hearing her scream. It made me want to cry. Actually I think I did cry that night, because it was such an emotional night.”

After filming, Kerr-Bell returned to school, telling her friends it was “just a budget New Zealand movie”. It wasn’t until the first screening that reality was slammed home.

“I didn’t completely understand what we were making until I saw it cut all together. Then it hit me and 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. I was so young I didn’t understand that these were universal subjects. I didn’t realise that until a month or so after the film when we had people really accolading what we had done and how we had brought all these subjects out into the light.”

In 20 years she’s only once had a negative reaction, from a relative. Mostly people want to hug her in empathy for Gracie’s plight.

After the movie, Kerr-Bell tried to go back to school, but her friends had moved on. She did a handful of acting projects, including an acclaimed performance in Wellington play Flat Out Brown and a two-month national school tour of The Debate, by Warriors screenwriter Riwia Brown. She even appeared in Shortland Street, in 1997, playing Tania Rikihana, a love interest for ambulance officer Rangi.

But if Kerr-Bell had ever seriously considered acting as a career, that ended when she had Ngarimu 18 years ago, at the age of 18. Although she did act in another play after Ngarimu’s birth, her priorities quickly changed. Nonetheless she was determined not to forget the world of possibilities Warriors had opened her eyes to.

“I grew up in a small town where there were single mums all over the place. My peers were having babies. They’d be at home on the welfare and the dads wouldn’t be any better off. It just really made me see that that didn’t have to be the way my life had to go. It made me believe I could do anything if I just put my mind to it and put the hard work in.”

Even as she had three more children, and moved to Perth to follow her then husband’s job, Kerr-Bell “didn’t just sit there and let my brain waste away”. She studied travel, tried screen makeup in a bid to stay in the film industry and she now works in real estate.

When she split from her husband about three years ago she moved to Cairns, where her mother lives. She’s unlikely to return to acting while her children are still at home, but she’s not ruling out a comeback in her 50s.

Faced again with Don Selwyn’s casting challenge, would she still accept

“Hell, yeah, in a heartbeat. I didn’t realise how life-changing that one small act was going to be. I’m in a really good place in my life right now.

“Everything, that whole chain of events that brought me here, now, wouldn’t have happened.”

– The Dominion Post