In the shoes of a killer

By Scott Kara

Matt Sunderland looks like a haunted man. It's as if the actor, who plays mass murderer David Gray in Out of the Blue, the film about the 1990 Aramoana massacre, is still getting over the role.

He sits, smoking, at a secluded table in the courtyard of a Pitt St cafe. There's a pack of cigarettes and a half-finished beer on the table. His clothes are normal enough: jeans, jacket, trainers, and a striped sailor-type shirt. But it's the piercing eyes, intense face and fierce red complexion that you notice.

He admits that playing a man who killed 13 people - 5-year-old Dion Percy, the youngest; 69-year-old Tim Jamieson the oldest - isn't easy to talk about.

"It did take a bit of a toll, coming out the other side," says the 34-year-old. "But I have no regrets undertaking that particular journey. It's changed my life for the better. It's certainly the most intense period of my life. But it's all for a good cause."

Or two causes. First, Sunderland thinks it is time Aramoana was talked about.

"The whole story of Aramoana has been kept under wraps and my great hope is that this film will bring those issues to light. It's a really healthy film," he says.

The second cause is to give Gray - who he refers to as either David, David Gray, him or he during this interview - a human face.

"I was wary of portraying him as a demon because he wasn't. Up until when the shooting began he was just someone who needed some help. Tragically, that help never arrived.

"To me, one of the strongest themes of the film is about mental health. I have friends who have been on a similar path and suffered in terms of mental health, so I felt obliged not to portray him as a monster because he was a very sick man and what unfolded was a tragedy.

"The archetypal photo of David Gray, as a demented, mad-looking guy, was the public's only image of him. This film will go a long way to accrediting some truth to the human element behind the tragic event. I'm grateful that the community allowed the film to go ahead."

When the film project was announced last November it provoked controversy. Some thought it should never be made.

But after consultation with the Aramoana community, and agreement on conditions (for example the producers were not allowed to use Aramoana in the title), the project went ahead.

When preparing for the film, Sunderland didn't talk to any of Gray's family, the victims' families, or community members out of respect.

"I didn't want to go there. I had a job to do and I had other resources at my disposal. I used those and kept a respectful distance from those involved."

For research he watched a documentary about the massacre made shortly after the event ("Where people in their shell-shocked state were recounting their own perspectives") and read various books, in particular former police media liaison officer Bill O'Brien's Aramoana - Twenty-Two Hours of Terror, on which the movie is based.

He also listened to a lot of music, including different types of country music, "because David was into country and western".

Because Gray was severely malnourished - something Sunderland believes contributed to his mental instability - the actor shed 17kg for the role, but was still heavier than Gray, who weighed just 57kg.

"But really, as an actor your primary resource is your imagination and you put yourself there by asking, 'What if?' And your first port of call is the script.

"But there was all sorts of baggage with this one that I personally had to shake off in order to approach it. To me it was important to find elements of likeness within the character, but I didn't want to lose sight of the fact that prior to the events that took place he was a relatively functional human being in the community."

There's no doubt that David Gray, who was posthumously diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, was an unusual man. But, as Sunderland points out, he also lived a reasonably normal life in Aramoana.

He babysat the next-door-neighbours' children and walked their dog. He had friends and hobbies - pottery and reading. He also had a good sense of humour. In a letter to his cousin, Jim, he talks about buying a new 10-speed bike and describes it as the "self-castration model by the pain it inflicts" and signs off with "Be well and happy".

But Gray had a sinister side, especially in the years leading up to November 13, 1990. He was becoming increasingly paranoid. He was a gun fanatic and borrowed library books with titles such as Killer, Home Gunsmithing and Attack Craft.

He also made lists. "Bike, Bus ex Port, Loner, Ruthless, Cold, Ignore people, Attack, Actor, Detached" was typical.

Sunderland believes the trigger that set Gray off on his path to destruction was when some locals accused him of stealing clothes off washing lines and being a Peeping Tom.

"Whether he did it or not - who knows?" says Sunderland. "But for someone who is potentially a paranoid schizophrenic I would say that invasion of privacy is a defining event. It was a fascinating role to take on because of all the dimensions that make up David Gray," he reflects.

Director Robert Sarkies knew Sunderland was the man for the job as soon as he walked through the door in auditions.

"It was immediately obvious this was a role he was born to play," he says.

It's the biggest part the actor has had. He started acting because his mum was involved with Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North, where he was born. He moved to Auckland and attended Selwyn College, where his love of theatre took hold, and then went to the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington.

His film work has included 2004's Stringer and oddball feature Woodenhead in 2003. He's also appeared in short films and TV shows, including Shortland Street, Duggan and Hercules.

But the character of David Gray is far from the make believe of Hercules. And the demands placed on Sunderland for Out of the Blue meant he got special treatment.

He was protected from the media - this is the first interview he has given about the film - and during the seven-week shoot he had his own accommodation in Dunedin.

Producer Steven O'Meagher says Sunderland was under a lot of pressure and the producers realised that to play David Gray would mean totally immersing himself in the role.

"We wanted to give Matt a break. He had his own place so he didn't feel he had to put on a social face. It was a sanctuary, I suppose you'd call it."

Although most of Out of the Blue was shot in Long Beach, just a few bays away from Aramoana, Sunderland visited the settlement where Gray's killing spree took place. Despite what happened there, he says the place is "paradise on earth".

"The windy road from Port Chalmers to Aramaona is an absolutely beautiful journey. But I guess, arriving in Aramoana for the first time, it struck me how idyllic it is."

Before filming started he went for a walk around the hill overlooking the town and got a perspective on how small the town is and how confined the massacre was.

"I could see, and map-out in my own mind, how the events unfolded. For the first time I realised the level of danger involved.

"Obviously I have a lot of compassion for the community, but I had to treat it like any other role and try to block out the controversy around it because it wasn't my job to take that onboard. I was playing David. I had a job to do."

I tell him he did a bloody good job.

He smiles, looks relieved that the interview is over, and offers a handshake: "Thanks, bro."

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