A local TV drama with a star-studded line-up slices through the taboos of history. Rebecca Barry meets the cast and crew of Piece of My Heart
When Annie Whittle was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, girls would often disappear from class for no apparent reason and return, mysteriously, months later.
"Nothing was said but everyone knew what had happened," says Whittle. "Back then it was called 'getting into trouble'. It was hugely scandalous and it wasn't until later you learnt the ramifications of what had happened: the shattered lives, fractured families, mothers against daughters - and the effects on the children. A lot went on to lead happy lives but some didn't."
She is, of course, talking about the tragedy of unmarried, pregnant teens, who were told they had no option but to give up their babies for adoption, lest it spoil their family's reputation and their chances at a "normal" life. At the time it was considered the done thing to secretly send the disgraced girl to a Christian nursing home for unmarried mothers. But the effect was often devastating, not only for the young mothers but their entire families - including the children who often grew up without answers.
As a slice of New Zealand's history it's a grim insight into the strict family values of the time. As a television drama, written and directed by Fiona Samuel (named 2005's Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellow) and based on Renee Taylor's 1995 novel Does This Make Sense to You?, Piece of My Heart, produced by Michele Fantl of MF Films, is an uplifting tale of friendship, reconciliation and hope. Whittle co-stars with an incredible cast featuring Rena Owen (Once Were Warriors), Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) and Emily Barclay (In My Father's Den). Edmund McWilliams (Ed Cake) produced the music.
The novel struck a chord with Samuel, who vividly recalls bringing her adopted younger brother home in 1968. But it would take her 10 years and a relatively small $1.5 million budget to get her screenplay to the screen. Piece of My Heart is the second of four local dramas to feature in the Sunday Theatre slot this year, following the David Dougherty biopic, Until Proven Innocent. Life's A Riot, about the 1932 Queen St riots, is also in the schedule.
Whittle stars as the central character, Flora Thornley, a woman who has spent her life hiding; through flashbacks we meet the younger Flora, played by Barclay. While living in the hellish home for unwed mothers she befriends the headstrong and compassionate Kat (Castle-Hughes), and together they suffer the ignominy of their situation and the bleak living conditions wrought upon them as punishment.
Years later, faced with a rejection letter from her daughter, Flora runs away from the loving husband she has never told and reconnects with Kat, (Rena Owen) who has taken in a stroppy, pregnant teen with no sense of the reality about to hit her.
Playing Flora was Whittle's "most intense" filming experience yet. A veteran of the New Zealand screen, whose CV includes the Billy T. James Show, the feature film, The World's Fastest Indian and roles that allowed her comedic skills to shine: Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls, it's heartening to hear she was overwhelmed by excitement and insecurity on learning she'd be joined by her fellow castmates.
Whittle brings a humility, warmth and vulnerability to Flora, a woman whose pain got under her skin during the six-week shoot.
"I found the process really challenging," she says. "I'm quite a 'big' person. That old adage less is more holds true for acting. I'm rather inclined to be over the top, I need someone to rein me in. This was such an internal role and I'm so grateful to Fiona as my director, as she's an actress too. We'd worked together on stage before. She knows me and I trusted her, she was so lovely and supportive. Because it did get to you. I know it did to Rena."
Owen, who recently finished filming in the United States, where she played a prison officer on Prison Break (she is now writing and producing the New Zealand feature film, Behind The Tattooed Face by Heretaunga Pat Baker), was drawn back to her homeland by the "juicy" script. As the street-smart but heartbroken Kat, her performance will move viewers to tears.
"I could not relate to adoption, I have never had a baby, I am not a lesbian and I am definitely not in my late 50s!" she says. "But I know how to feel older, play older and project older." Her last New Zealand role was in Vincent Ward's Rain Of The Children, in which she played a woman in her 70s.
Still, she wasn't prepared for the weight of playing a woman whose life and story is based on truth. Kat had taken over "my entire being".
"I felt an edge of insecurity and pressure but I didn't know why ... I realised the last time I experienced this pressure was when I was preparing for Beth Heke in Once Were Warriors.
"Kat was a 'heavy' character. I carried her grief ... The day after [filming], I felt so much lighter."
To help the cast get to grips with the tragedy, a woman who had been through Flora and Kat's story, came in to tell them about her experience.
"She'd never talked about that before. She said it was an incredibly healing afternoon for her and she nearly forgave her mother, which is interesting," says Fantl. Renee Taylor also provided letters written by women who lived in the homes.
Playing the young Kat was close to home for Castle-Hughes, who fell pregnant herself at 16, and who followed her Oscar-nominated performance in Whale Rider with a role as the Virgin Mother in The Nativity Story. (Her next role is The Vintner's Luck directed by Whale Rider's Niki Caro.) It's a mature performance that shows another side to her talent but it almost didn't happen. Initially she was wary of playing a pregnant teenager, "the repercussions
that could come with me putting myself out there like that.
"I don't like being defined as a young mother, because I am just a mother to a beautiful little girl."
But after reading the script she realised it was a story that had to be told.
"Playing the physical aspects of pregnancy were a lot easier for me but the mental and emotional places I had to go through regarding losing or giving up a child were very hard. It took me a long time to allow myself to fully go there ... I didn't want to obviously play the tough girl, because Kat possesses a great strength but is still a young girl struggling with something most grown women would find hard to deal with."
Likewise, playing the shy, curious Flora, a normal teen oblivious to the dangers of unprotected sex, seems streets away from Barclay's award-winning turn as the slutty Katrina in the Australian film, Suburban Mayhem. Barclay is currently travelling.
The younger actresses feature in Flora and Kat's flashbacks, which meant that although they did get to meet and exchange character details, they didn't film any scenes together.
Filming the production in Auckland and Dunedin late last year was an extremely emotional experience, says Fantl, who was just one of many cast and crew touched by adoption.
"I'm adopted. When I had my first child I thought about contacting my birth parents but I was wary of being rejected again. I sent a letter but never heard back, so I thought that's that, and I'm in my late 40s. In my day parents believed they adopted you for good. There was no open-door policy and mine were adamant I shouldn't make contact."
Whittle, too, has a story about the secrecy of adoption, a friend whose girlfriend fell pregnant in the 1960s. When her Catholic parents found out they protested against the couple marrying - but then the girl lost the baby and they broke up. Twenty-six years later the truth emerged when the man's daughter, unknown to him until now, turned up on his doorstep.
"They were such different times but it was only 40 years ago," says Fantl. "It's such a shame people didn't want the neighbours to know. I'm expecting [Piece of My Heart] will touch people and begin the healing."