Jake Ryan's 'terrifying' transformation into gang member for new film Savage

Marni Dixit
·Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
·8-min read

Former Home and Away star Jake Ryan may have played a police officer on the show, but in his latest project, a New Zealand film called Savage, he's gone in the complete opposite direction, playing a gang member named Damage.

Savage follows Damage, who's real name is Danny, as he grows from a young boy into a violent gang member, and while it might not sound like it, it’s a story with a lot of heart.

Jake Ryan's transformation in Damage in Savage
Jake Ryan underwent a huge transformation to play gang member Damage in the new Kiwi film Savage. Photo: Supplied

Jake won the role after an extensive, but unsucessful eight-month search for a lead actor in New Zealand led to the filmmakers opening casting to Australians with the star owning the role from the minute producers saw him.

And while audience members might be shocked to see his transformation into the character, no one was probably more shocked than Jake, who gained 20kg for the role and underwent a huge change in the makeup chair every day.

Damage has the words "savage" and "poneke", the Maori word for Wellington, tattooed across his face, giving the character a very intense look.

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Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle, Jake said seeing himself in the mirror with Damage’s face tattoos for the first time was "confronting".

"It was pretty confronting actually, probably about a month before we started shooting I was over [in New Zealand] doing camera tests and hair and makeup tests, so the first time we put the mask on, you definitely feel a weight of the world that these guys sort of carry.

Jake Ryan in Savage
Jake described the first moment of seeing himself in the mirror with his full makeup as "confronting". Photo: Supplied

"And it's the isolation and being a social outcast that that actually does to you. So, it was pretty powerful just even looking into a mirror the first time."

"It made it a lot easier to drop into that world," he added.

To get himself in the headspace of a gang member, director Sam Kelly had the idea to have Jake walk through a local mall with his face tattoos and costume on, something the actor wasn’t all that keen on at first.

"It was genius now that I think about it, I wasn't too comfortable with the idea at first.

"We were in rehearsals and I was worried I was giving [Sam] a really flat, cardboard performance," he said.

"He just wanted me to feel what it was like, that kind of guy being in society and how lonely you feel and how outcast you feel and people's judgement on you as well, just because you have a few face tattoos. It was a really powerful experience to walk through and get people's reactions."

Jake Ryan in fight scene in Savage
Jake met with former and current gang members in order to learn more about the culture and why those men act the way they do. Photo: Supplied

"I realised I didn't really have to do too much, when you look terrifying, people know that world and will cross the street to avoid you, so it was a genius stroke from him I think."

Another way that Jake prepared for the role was meeting with former and current gang members and learning about their world.

"The most interesting part I found was – I wanted to try and find some humanity in Damage, because the violent gang member that's all there and in your face, but to find the humanity about this guy was really important.

"And speaking to some of these ex-members, you know some in their 60s, and telling stories about their horrific childhoods and the abuse they suffered in the state care system, and seeing these guys talking to you with tears in their eyes was really important.

"I basically just tried to see Damage as a little boy in every scene," he said, describing the character, though he might not look like it, as a "pretty scared lonely boy who just wants his mum".

Young Danny in Savage
Savage follows Danny AKA Damage from childhood through to adulthood. Photo: Supplied

He continued, "I just wanted to tell their story, they were lovely, they were so welcoming and whether they were with Black Power or Mongrel Mob [two of New Zealand's most notorious gangs], we were telling a universal story that a lot of those guys had all suffered through state care.

"So we were universally telling their story and I think they were really appreciative, no one's actually given that side a voice before.

"Never once are we trying to glorify gang life or violence, it's just giving an understanding of what drives a young boy to turn them into gang life and turn them into a brutal animal.

"And I think it was really important to them to get their story out."

"These guys turned to gang life for love and support and for family and for connection and belonging. So they treated us really well," he added.

Jake revealed that on set, they were lucky enough to have former gang member turned actor Wayne Hapi as their cultural advisor.

"He's an ex Black Power member and he's also a phenomenal actor in his own right. So, he came on board and was there every step of the way with me, so that was very helpful. And also, a lot of the actual cast were gang members, so they were excited we were telling their story, so there was a lot of support there."

The Savage cast
The Savage cast and crew had former gang member turned actor Wayne Hapi as their cultural advisor, making sure the film was as accurate as possible. Photo: Supplied

"It was really important that they OK'd it."

While most of us would be terrified seeing a heavily tattooed Jake walking down the street, the star's partner Alice Quiddington actually found it quite hilarious.

"We watched it together the other week and she was actually laughing," Jake said, "I mean I looked so different to me, but definitely I think she laughed more at it, the idea that that's what I looked like at a point in time. I don't think I'll be showing my son any photos for some time."

The couple's son Wolf, turned one today with Jake revealing how thankful he has been to have this year to spend so much time with his little boy after the coronavirus pandemic shut down film and TV sets worldwide.

"There's nothing else that matters to me more, to be honest," Jake said of his son.

"I think Covid has been a bit of a blessing, because you're forced to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week together. You're going to watch him grow every step of the way, which I wouldn't change for the world.

"And I love it, we're obsessed with him, he's such a happy little boy, he's a little cheeky bugger. It definitely gives you more drive as well."

Jake Ryan with Alice Quiddington and son Wolf
Jake's partner Alice Quiddington actually found his transformation quite hilarious, pictured here with son Wolf. Photo: Instagram/Jakey__Ryan

"It just gives you purpose too, that's what life's about, you want to raise a happy, healthy child and anything else that comes along with that is a bonus.

"I've never laughed as much as I do now, he makes me laugh all day every day, so that's great. For someone who's usually pretty miserable, I find myself a hermit now, just hanging out with him, which I love."

When asked if he had aspirations to follow Chris Hemsworth's footsteps into Hollywood, Jake revealed while he’d be keen to work on bigger projects, he isn’t so keen on moving to the US.

"I've done a couple trips over there, I think there's less and less need to be there as such now with the technology, I mean a lot of stuff is done with self tapes and Zoom meetings if you get closer to jobs and you can, pre-Covid and post-Covid hopefully, if you need to be, you jump on a plane and you can be there in 20 hours.

"I think I'd definitely go over there for work, but relocating and setting up base over there with a family now, I'm not one hundred per cent sure I'd jump on that unless there was some solid fruit being dangled in front of me.

"But that career, who doesn't want Chris Hemsworth's career and his lifestyle in Byron Bay. I'd take that any day."

For right now, Jake is just keen to get back on set after the industry came to a halt this year.

"Ideally, in a perfect world, I love that heavy material, important storytelling as well. I think if you can find subjects or characters and stories that send an important message, that's ideal."

"There's some great stuff being made in Australia both television and film, so I'm not opposed to anything, I'm currently working in construction so I'd be happy to jump back on a job, put the jackhammer down and get back on set!"

Savage is out in Australian cinemas from October 8.

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