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Staying native

Julian Arahanga's new movie brings with it the adulation of teenage girls and the prospect of joining a select cadre of famous Kiwis. But he won't forget his Maori roots.

Janie Lawrence
Wednesday 23 July 1997 23:02 BST

In New Zealand, Julian Arahanga is fast becoming a teenage heart- throb. Young women's magazines regularly quiz him on his favourite food, whether he wants to have children and if he has a girlfriend. Fashion editors are tripping over themselves to proclaim him "gorgeous and brooding". Wasn't it one such magazine that voted him one of the most handsome young men in New Zealand, I ask. "I think I was rated quite highly," he says awkwardly. And slowly. So, so infuriatingly slowly that over the course of an hour I'm tempted to plug him into the nearest socket. The fame game is something the shy Arahanga is still struggling to come to terms with.

This laid-back, verging upon comatose, delivery gives no clue to the powerful performances that have inspired adolescents to care how Arahanga spends his free time. In the low-budget, critically acclaimed Once Were Warriors he was the eldest son of an alcoholic and violent father driven to joining a Maori street gang. It was not the main role but guaranteed he caught the public eye. In Broken English, Maori culture meets immigrant culture when Arahanga, a Maori cook, falls in love with a young Croatian woman (Aleksandra Vujcic), whose father thoroughly disapproves of the liaison.

Maori culture is, I explain, something that few British people feel well qualified to comment upon. For most of us, there's that war-dance the NZ rugby team do before a match and there's Dame Kiri. "A lot of people look up to her," he agrees. "Although opera singing is seen as a very white road to take, I don't think she's forgotten who she is or where she comes from."

Arahanga is passionate about his roots - "I look Maori and feel Maori" - and is angry at the way in which he believes his culture has been systematically marginalised and his people "oppressed". "In NZ, the prejudice is quite underlying. People don't come out with it. But self-esteem is low for a lot of Maori because you've been made to feel worthless." He is confident, however, that within the next 10 years there will be increasing numbers of films dealing with the issues related to what he terms the "mass genocide of the Maori".

"People say everything's nice and kosher in New Zealand but its history is as tainted as any history in the world. Thousands of people grow up and, at school, they're taught that it's Tasman who discovered NZ. How do you discover a land that was already discovered? There are so many issues that are slowly coming out, like land confiscation. Once people in New Zealand get a grip on it and start making films with more truth, the better off the country is going to be. If the truth isn't told, we're just educating people with lies."

But the depiction of the Maori family in Once Were Warriors is not an altogether flattering one: father beats up mother, eldest son turns to violence, younger son is taken into care. Isn't there a danger of negative stereotyping? "Everybody knows domestic violence is not exclusively a Maori problem and OWW is an international story told through Maori eyes. But I don't mind whether a film sheds light on Maori in a good or bad way because it's all got to be educational."

Arahanga never intended to be an actor. Brought up in a village, Raetihi, by his mother, a nurse, and a stepfather who worked in the bush, he was one of six children. "Ever since I was young, I've grown up in a Maori environment. The care group that our family mixed with were Maori. We used to go to the marae, which is a traditional meeting place where we practise our traditions and ceremonies."

Arahanga, it transpires, is quite handy with a taiaha, a traditional Maori weapon for hand-to-hand combat.

So is he a fluent Maori speaker? "As I've got older, it's become a lot more familiar to me. But I'm just an everyday use person, which is noa level. More sacred Maori is tatu. My mother doesn't speak it because children were strapped for speaking it until the Sixties. Now there's a resurgence."

Aged nine, he was rifling through the post when he came across a maintenance cheque. It was only then he realised that his stepfather was not his biological parent. "It was a bit weird," he says, lapsing into a long silence. And? He shrugs. "Well, how do you react to that? `I can't cope, I've got to kill myself'? No - there were lots of questions I wanted to ask."

He had his opportunity two years later when his father, the film producer Larry Parr, arrived in the drive. He subsequently cast his 11-year-old son in a 15-minute short adaptation of the book, The Makatu on Mrs Jones. Arahanga decided it was an experience he would never repeat. "After that I was shit scared. I'd had to have a short back and sides, and I thought all my friends were going to laugh at my hair."

Instead, he left school and began work behind the camera doing crew work. He was crewing for a commercial when the director asked him to audition for OWW. "I feel very fortunate about it, because it's a good role to get as a first in a feature film."

Unfortunately, the money was minimal and he had to return to crewing until he was offered the role of Eddie in Broken English. The positive reaction it generated has now prompted him to take his career seriously. When we meet, he has just moved to New York, is in the process of getting a US agent and is already considering some scripts. He looks a little concerned. "I still feel inadequate and a bit intimidated when other actors start talking about their theories, because I don't really know about all that. But I just do what I do and, if it works for me and for other people, then I must be doing something right"n

`Broken English' opens tomorrow and is reviewed by Ryan Gilbey on page 6

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