by PREETI VIRDEE
Zak Feau'nati – a name known to rugby aficionados across the rugby world whether it be his reputation as the Samoan No. 8, his clubs back home in New Zealand, or his 10 years in Premiership rugby in England. But Zak Feau’nati the Hollywood movie star, that was something most people, including Zak, would never have expected. What he thought was a prank call from David Barnes, fellow Bath team mate and Chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association [formerly PRA], was actually a serious enquiry for a casting in London. And before he knew it, there he was playing Jonah Lomu in Clint Eastwood’s new movie, “Invictus”, alongside Oscar® winners Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
We caught up with Zak soon after he’d become quite used to all the glitz and glamour of premieres in Johannesburg, Los Angeles and London.
But let’s not jump the gun and start at the beginning...Zak was born Isaac Malaetia Feau’nati in Wellington, New Zealand to Samoan parents. His first club in professional rugby was Wellington, and then did a season with the Crusaders before moving to England in 1998. Starting at London Irish, he did stints at Rotherham and Leeds Tykes before settling at Bath Rugby for five years before retiring in 2008.
But after retiring, Zak made a comeback for the Help For Heroes Rugby Challenge at Twickenham on 20th September 2008. He played for the International XV side which lost to the Heroes XV captained by Lawrence Dallaglio. This charity match saw a whole host of former internationals come out of retirement including Will Greenwood, Kenny Logan, Ieuen Evans, and England’s former World Cup winning captain, Martin Johnson. On the International XVs side, Zak was to play alongside the legendary Jonah Lomu, but due to an injury in training had to pull out at the eleventh hour. That was the last time Zak saw Jonah before Invictus came about.
Retirement saw Zak stay in the UK and take on a new challenge as Director of Rugby at Bishop Vesey's Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, teaching boys up to 6th Form age. It was a slight leap of faith in that Zak had not coached before, but he had taken his Level 3 Coaching exams. His plan had always been to move to coaching once he retired, but the opportunity came two years earlier than expected, and he grabbed the bull by the horns.
His new role paid off as the school found discipline improved considerably, as Zak taught not just the rules and tactics of rugby, but the underlying principles of respect, teamwork and camaraderie that is the foundation of the rugby culture across the globe. And of course the school’s standard of rugby has progressed significantly. He did try putting together a girls’ team too, but not surprisingly it failed to take off, especially as the cold weather caused a high drop-out rate!
Previously he was just the rugby master, and predominantly interacted with the sports-inclined kids. But since Invictus, Zak has been pleasantly surprised by the interest from all fields of academia; the children who are more drawn to the arts have been approaching him, and he’s become somewhat of a star. It took a couple of months to get into the mindset of coaching, as Zak had to change the way he communicated with kids rather than his rugby team mates, but it has worked out brilliantly for him. As a result, Zak sees himself staying there for the foreseeable future.
Zak is a family man, and has four daughters aged between 4 and 9 – who won’t be playing rugby! The only balls in the Feau'nati household are netballs and footballs – there are no odd-shaped balls that the girls play with. With all the furore of daddy starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, the older two girls understand what’s going on and love that fact that he’s in a movie with Matt Damon; and the excitement stretched to the school gates as well and he became a hot topic of conversation amongst the parents in the school car park.
So back to the film. From the ‘prank’ call from Barnes to appear in the haka, then the casting in London, the whole process moved very quickly and was very surreal. Zak soon got a call from Warner Bros saying Mr Eastwood had just seen his screen-test and would like him to play Jonah Lomu. As we all know, this was a hugely significant role since it was New Zealand that was in the now immortal final, and this was the platform from which Lomu became the international rugby superstar.
Filming was very different to anything Zak had experienced; he was in make-up for 40 mins every day, and had all these ladies hanging around him primping and preening, making sure the haircut was right, mopping his brow between takes – he was very pampered!
One of the stand-out scenes for Zak was the haka for the final. He knows it was not perfect but they made it as convincing as possible; it was all the harder since many of the actors were American as well as South African...and they were actors as opposed to rugby players. There were only two rehearsals before it was shot, made all the more difficult as the non-Kiwi actors had never had to perform anything like this before. And the retakes were numerous as the ‘foreigners’ ended up in fits of laughter at the facial expressions accompanying the actions of the haka.
Most of the actors had never seen a rugby match before. One such actor was Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott Eastwood, or Scotty as Zak knows him. He played Joel Stransky, the Springbok fly half who kicked the drop goal that won South Africa the trophy; for a guy who had never touched a rugby ball in his life, he did pull it off rather well.
During filming, the atmosphere was all very relaxed. Eastwood Snr. was very laid back; Zak said it was like having an uncle or granddad around. Between takes they’d all sit around chatting, and Eastwood would always ask about his kids and family.
When asked about Matt Damon playing Pienaar, he said it was kind of strange at first, but then you got used to it. Damon did a lot of gym work and bulked up for the part. And they put prosthetic nose on him for authenticity.
Zak had not spoken to Jonah since getting the role; the last time he saw him was at the Twickers Help For Heroes match. When we spoke to Zak, he was seeing him soon at a charity event and was expecting some banter.
Now you can’t discuss the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final without mentioning Suzie – the mysterious waitress who was allegedly responsible for the mass food poisoning of the All Blacks in the run up to the final game, and thus their subsequent loss. Of course this theory was never proven, so there was no reference to it in the movie [though there was plenty of artistic licence otherwise], but Zak said it was one of the hottest topics on the Red Carpet at the Leicester Square European Premiere.
And so to the trappings of fame. Zak has been mingling with the hottest ‘A’ list superstars in the world. At the LA premiere, Zak was sitting two rows in front of Brad Pitt & Angelina which was rather weird for him. There were many faces that he knew and recognised surrounding him, but the whole occasion was so overwhelming that he couldn’t name many off the top of his head, though Orlando Bloom chatted to him about how good the film was. He was very surprised at the attention he received and people commenting on him since he doesn’t actually say a word in the film.
Since the European premiere, Zak’s had a few acting enquiries via his agents, but nothing concrete as yet. If something comes of the acting and it gives him a long term career, then he would like to take up opportunities, but not if it’s a short term thing. He’s very happy at Bishop Vesey and they are really starting to see results.
Now that Zak’s played an international superstar in an Oscar nominated Hollywood production, who would Zak have play him in a movie? Amusingly he first said Keanu Reeves, but short of being completely un-PC and blacking up, he finally settled on Will Smith...well obviously!
Back to everyday life, and Zak can see a future where he moves his coaching to professional rugby, but believes he needs a good grounding in coaching first, which is what Bishop Vesey is doing for him. He’s changed his demeanour and attitude since moving to teaching which was quite difficult at first. And switching to a 9-5 job everyday was strange; half way through the day it crossed his mind many a time that wasn’t it time to go down to Starbucks to catch up with the boys?
And the future? The Feau’nati’s are very settled in UK and have no plans to change that since his direct family is here; also the children were born in England and are very happy where they are. Maybe one day they will return to New Zealand but that will definitely not be any time soon.
Well, for a Hollywood movie star, Zak Feau’nati is a thoroughly decent and jovial chap with a great sense of humour. And wherever the future takes him, be it La La Land or a Premiership club, we wish him all the success in the world.