No Shortland St curse for actor Frankie Adamsby Alexander Bisley
Photography /Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Once a beloved small-screen Shorty Street star, Frankie Adams is tackling a striking role in an important new feature film.
Ilisa is powerfully played by Samoan New Zealander Frankie Adams. The 23-year-old came to national prominence seven years ago playing Ula Levi on Shortland Street, but she’s deftly avoided any post-Shorty curse. Along with TV roles in the Australian series Wentworth and US sci-fi drama The Expanse, Adams is garnering acclaim for her cinematic debut after One Thousand Ropes’ Berlin Film Festival premiere last month.
Alexander Bisley: Domestic violence is one of A Thousand Ropes’ powerful, important themes.
Frankie Adams: When I read the script, it made me feel nervous and excited. It’s a big responsibility. I have really close family and friends who have been through similar experiences. I spoke to them about it, because I wanted to hear their opinion, and they were all really open and lovely about it, because they knew they wanted the story to be told too. Although a lot of women – and potentially men – have been through similar experiences, a lot of them come out with this undeniable strength from overcoming a relationship like that, and they’re actually okay with letting that story be told, and for people to be discussing it. It’s not an easy thing to bring up at all, but with a film everyone can discuss it with a bit more ease because it’s already put up there for them.
I wanted to play it with truth and justice for the women I was representing. It wasn’t easy for me, it’s not easy to do weeks and weeks of being this battered, pregnant young girl who’s getting abusive texts from her boyfriend. But, I also saw it as a privilege. I liked – I don’t know if that’s the right word – that it was a role that was gritty and ugly. I was more focused on making sure that it was the story that women could understand and feel empowered by.
What did you take away from talking to friends and family who have been through similar experiences?
I think the one thing that I was most intrigued by was the idea of, okay, why does the person stay in the relationship? And the thing that was the most obvious to me was that love is always greater than any circumstance, and it takes a lot for a woman to come out of that relationship, because by then they’ve already been manipulated to the point of almost no return. Someone I spoke to said that she couldn’t figure out how to get out of it, even though she knew in her mind that it was wrong. I think that goes down to this idea of love, and although people go through such hardships the love is so strong that even though their brains are telling them that it’s bad, they still stay in those situations. Ilisa is very vulnerable, but there’s a lot of strength in the vulnerability that you see in her journey. If the film gives one female the strength to leave an abusive relationship that would be enough for me.
Uelese Petaia, who shared Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s prestigious best actor award with Al Pacino in 1979 – for Sons for the Return Home – makes a memorable return to the big screen as Maea, Ilisa’s father.
Uelese is amazing as Maea. Although he’s playing this tough character, the toughness actually comes from his stillness, not from any obvious macho physicality.
Last month at the Berlin Film Festival, he said: “These issues were kept hidden for far too long.”
They are. Samoa’s quite traditional in the fact that certain things aren’t talked about, like sex, relationships, physical abuse – it’s quite normal in Samoan culture to get hidings, that’s the disciplinary tactic. Tusi [the film’s director] is really, really brave. Discussing teen pregnancy is a big no-no in Samoan culture, so there’s quite a few things in there that people will start talking about, and I think it’s important. I think it’ll be really good for the culture. Tusi really impresses me with the Samoan and indigenous style he makes his films with. The distinctive, potent images and editing, and minimal dialogue.
And he takes his time. He doesn’t come out blasting in the first five minutes, it’s not about that. When we were in Berlin at the premiere, his last words were, “I hope you have the patience to enjoy this film”. I like that there’s not much dialogue. I think that in the final cut I might only have 25 lines or something. My character wasn’t a speaker, she was someone who felt everything. I think people forget that that’s where a lot of the beauty in acting is. When you’re not talking, you’re being, basically.
There are lovely shots of maternal and grandfatherly tenderness when your character’s baby arrives.
I know. I think Uelese ad-libbed that bit, “Why don’t you just stay here, and when you grow up you can make me a cup of tea?” That little girl [the baby] was so beautiful, she was really still and quiet and responsive to us.
Whale Rider’s Leon Narbey [who shot One Thousand Ropes] is a great cinematographer. That first shot of you with her is like a classic painting, gorgeously lit. Was there a high level of intimacy on this project?
There was. The difference between The Expanse and One Thousand Ropes was obviously budgets and sets and whatever, but the biggest thing was that it was a really intimate set. Tusi eventually started directing us in Samoan, because we were all Samoan and we all understood. There wasn’t too much talking, and it was important that we figured it out as intricately as possible, without everything being so obvious. The scenes are really intimate, so it created this atmosphere. It was really beautiful, and it’s quite rewarding as an actor when you see your crew being moved by a scene even though they may have seen it 10, 12 times.
Talking to rapper Savage about The Orator, he hailed how Tusi sharply captures a Samoan sense of humour.
There’s a lot of bits in the film that I find hilarious, and I also did in The Orator, even though there are dark themes. My favourite in One Thousand Ropes is Anapela [Polataivao] as Dorothy, the owner of the bakery. I love how she’s always hounding the male bakers about not having balls, and when she’s like, “What am I going to put on the shelves, my panties?” It’s really funny, and the way that she did it is so traditionally how Samoans would crack the jokes. I thought it was really great, and I really loved that the boss was a woman. I think that is very true to the Samoan culture, that the females are usually in charge. Even though it is seen to be a male-dominated culture, it’s actually the females who usually have the final say, so I really liked that Tusi incorporated a female boss into the story. I’ve never really done anything that’s based around the Samoan culture to this extent.
Tell me about your Samoan matriarch’s influence?
Mum’s got very high EQ, so we grew up in a very emotionally driven family, and we all feel everything far too deeply, but at the same time we take the piss and we have fun. She’s the most-loved woman in her [Mount Albert] community; everyone loves her. She’s a typical wonderful
What did you do to balance out the darkness of Ilisa’s experience?
Certainly afterwards I let it go. I went and did Puzzy. It was a funny play, people got to see a funnier side to me. I was playing a Jehovah’s Witness lesbian coming out. It was great to show people that I can play these light-hearted, funny characters. I had sex with a man and a woman on stage, both played by Nora [Aati]. It was incredible and liberating and fun, and I would love to get on stage again very soon.
While you were playing Ula Levi on Shortland Street you said, “I’m a guy’s girl”.
Yeah, my whole family grew up playing a lot of sports. I think I’ve played every sport in the book. I think I’m more femme now, but I was definitely quite a tomboy growing up. Now I’ve embraced the womanly part of being a female.
Reportedly, you’re the third most-followed New Zealander by New Zealanders on Instagram [@frankieadams], ahead of Dan Carter.
I didn’t have Instagram for most of last year, because it started to get a bit consuming. I’m back on it to promote the film. I’m a bit of a hippy at heart. The more I do, the more private I become.
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