New Zealand gang drama Savage isn’t the movie you may expect it to be. Inspired by true stories of the country’s gangs, the film follows Danny, who later becomes known as Damage, as he goes on to become a violent enforcer of a gang.
Poignant, emotional and raw, Savage tackles themes such as child abuse and trauma as it attempts to understand this underbelly of society, and the people at the heart of the street gang culture.
We spoke to actor Jake Ryan who portrays Damage about spending time with gang members whilst researching the role, why it was such a challenging shoot, and what he personally wants people to take away from the movie.
Zavvi: What attracted you to the role?
Jake: Well I love heavy material like this to watch anyways, and also I saw it straight away as potentially a romper-stomper, a film like This Is England or Animal Kingdom, a once every ten year movie that comes along that tells an important story and hits hard.
Also Damage is such a complex character, you don’t get auditions for roles or films like this often. I felt like I had to do it as soon as I read it, and I’m very grateful I got cast.
Also the director Sam Kelly, he did a short film called Lambs which was amazing, raw, realistic and emotional, I thought it was so beautifully made I wanted to work with this guy, I thought he had something special.
Zavvi: And what research did you do for the role? Did you spend any time with current or former gang members?
Jake: Sam [director] sent me all of his research about the gangs but also about the abuse of young boys in state care in the 60’s.
And when I got the role, every weekend for about a month I would fly over to New Zealand to spend time with gang members, the old school guys, the ones that started the gangs.
And that was awesome, not so much learning about the gang culture but just getting to know them as humans and hear their stories of where they came from, the troubles they went through.
I talked to one guy who would have been a brute back in the day. I asked about his childhood and he just started bawling. I suppose no one had ever asked him about his childhood before.
It was good to find the softer and more vulnerable side of these guys we are portraying.
We also had a couple of current gang members as extras, and they were great at helping too. We were also very fortunate to have ex-Black Power member and now actor Wayne Harking as a cultural advisor on set, and I couldn’t have done the film without his help.
Zavvi: And did you find that your experience on this film, and spending time with these people changed your perspective on gangs in New Zealand?
Jake: Oh definitely. I mean criminals in any country. This opened up my eyes to that you have no idea what these people have been through. You can never justify the atrocities they might have committed, but you have to understand where they came from.
And as a child, if your first memory is getting abused by a state care warden who is meant to be looking after you, you can’t expect a child to go through that trauma and come out normal.
You can’t judge anyone in life, you don’t know what they have been through or are going through.
Zavvi: In the role you are covered with tattoos, particularly on your face. How long did that process take each day?
Jake: We did a lot of work leading up to the shoot, getting the mullet and tattoos right, a good four week process of trialing different things.
We got it down to an hour to get on, and an hour and a half to get it off each day.
Also because it’s such heavy material, we made a point at the end of each day that it would be like a cleansing process, so I could let go of that energy I had been filming with. It was good to get ready for the character, and then wash him off at the end of the day.
Zavvi: As you mentioned there, it is a heavy and emotional movie. Would you say the shoot was challenging?
Jake: Yeah, just to be stuck in that heavy world. I went deep with this one. Damage is such an isolated character desperate for connection, me and Sam [director] decided I would not meet anyone on set, I would arrive early and go straight into make-up and stay away from everyone on the shoot. Just come out for the scenes.
That for me was challenging as I like chatting with the crew, having a coffee etc. That and the heavy material, by the end of it I felt like I had been hit by a bus, but with make-up I had a safe space, and Sam and the producer were great.
I was looked after as they knew it was heavy. Also you don’t get the opportunity to dive into a role like that often, especially with that support, so I dived in as deep as I could.
Zavvi: And what do you want audiences to take away from the movie?
Jake: I want people to see this and the next time they come across someone they might judge, realise you just don’t know what people have gone through.
I also think a lot of people will judge the movie before they see it, with potentially the idea of glorifying gang violence. I know the trailer pushes towards that violent gang story, but actually there’s more heart.
Zavvi: It is very emotional and the story really is about a man trying to find his way back home. It avoids all those gang movie cliches.
Jake: At the end of the day it’s a love story, about two best mates who grew up together and a boy who wants to find his mum.
If you strip away everything it is a movie about belonging, he just happens to be in a gang.
Savage will be released in UK and Irish cinemas 11th September.
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