'Bad' boys make good: Norm Hewitt, Manu Bennett team up for bullying doco

By Siena Yates

Former All Black Norm Hewitt and Hollywood actor Manu Bennett have made a documentary about bullying, making up and letting go of negative feelings.
Former All Black Norm Hewitt and Hollywood actor Manu Bennett have made a documentary about bullying, making up and letting go of negative feelings.

At school, one boy is new.

He's been through more tragedy in his childhood than some do in a lifetime. His brother died in his arms, his mother a short time later.

The other boy is an old hand with the run of the school. So when the new kid waltzes in to the First XV team without trying, he's mad.

The new boy puts half a toe out of line and the other boy violently attacks him, right there in the classroom -- shouting, punching, kicking.

But this boy too has also experienced tragedy. His father abused him and his mother, he was sexually assaulted at school and he blamed himself for all of it.

Both boys leave school and go on to find success -- one as an All Black, the other an actor -- and, some 20 years later, they cross paths at the airport and greet each other as men.

The result of that chance meeting is a documentary titled Making Good Men, in which both men explore the events that led to their violent encounter and how it affected their lives afterward.

Its subjects? Former All Black Norm Hewitt and Hollywood actor Manu Bennett.

Sitting in a room with the pair, the air is heavy with the weight of what's passed between them.

There seems to be some lingering guilt on Hewitt's part -- he sits with his hands clasped, taking measured breaths.

But they're both focused -- not on making amends, that part's done -- but on ensuring this kind of thing stops happening.

"We, as men, seldom speak about ... our emotions. That really exposes the non-manly qualities -- the fear, the tears, the deep, dark angers we all hold. These are things that men harbour, that go to the grave," says Bennett.

A friend of Bennett's even told him he was making a mistake in sharing this story with the world.

"They said to me: 'Manu, why are you doing this? Do you really want to be known as the guy who got beat up by Norm Hewitt? You've got a brand to protect; you're Deathstroke (Arrow), you're Crixus (Spartacus), you're Azog (The Hobbit)," he recalls.

But both Bennett and Hewitt wanted to tell the story, to let people know that being a victim or a bully once, doesn't mean that's all you are forever.

Manu Bennett.
Manu Bennett.

The thing about their story is they didn't leave each others' lives once they left school. They spent the next couple of decades watching each other grow and succeed.

Bennett watched Hewitt become an All Black, and Hewitt watched Bennett go from small soaps like Paradise Beach to major productions like the US show Arrow, which was a "catalyst" for Hewitt.

Because his son loved the show, Hewitt had to explain how he knew Bennett and began wondering what would happen if they crossed paths, whether he would have the courage to apologise.

Likewise, Bennett says he "never forgot Norm and always thought about him".

"I haven't told anybody this ... have I told you this?" he says to Hewitt. "About Fight for Life?"

Hewitt shrugs.

"I never really considered myself a fighter, but then I kind of envisaged myself surviving against Norm Hewitt," he admits, referencing the 2004 charity boxing match he took part in.

"I was carrying that 'I won't be beaten to the ground' kind of thing and I ended up giving [my opponent] a bit of a hiding, which really shocked me at the end."

But despite that fear, when they finally met at the airport Bennett says "the moment I heard my name spoken in Norm's voice, I knew something incredible was happening, it was like an embrace".

Hewitt has spent years travelling around schools and prisons helping young people work through their emotions, so when he saw Bennett again it was a chance to put his money where his mouth was.

"I saw that in prisons; boys just harbouring all their emotions because every time they've lifted them they've been told to 'harden up, stop being a girl, being a pussy'," he says.

Norm Hewitt.
Norm Hewitt.

"I see it in men who are trying to heal but haven't healed themselves -- this illusion that you were bad when you were little? I'm going to take it away because I wish someone had taken it away when I was little.

"I thought it was my fault when my mum got bashed, I thought it was my fault when a senior boy sexually abused me, I thought it was my fault why I got a hiding in school. So I began to blame everything like; 'It's my fault, I'm just bad'. But that's just not it."

The point, they say, is letting go of all those negative feelings -- "even if it's 20 years later".

"Mine was 45, 46 [years] with my father," adds Hewitt. "To ask my father; 'why did you beat me when I was 9?' And to watch my father own it and say, 'son, it was never your fault' ... I felt this absolute weight lift and my father -- for the first time in his life -- told me he loved me. It was a magic moment.

"So it might take 40 years but you can get there."

Lowdown: Making Good Men will air on Prime on Monday, July 25 at 9.30pm.

If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues discussed in this article, please use the helplines below:

Shine: 0508 744 633 or 2shine.org.nz

It's Not OK: 0800 456 450 or areyouok.org.nz

Youthline: 0800 37 66 33 or free text 234

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