Listen: Actor Rajan Narayan talks to Clare Bruce about his role in ‘Execution Island’.
At Easter time in 2015, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – two of the Bali Nine – were counting down the days to when they would face the death penalty.
It was in the early hours of April 29 when the two made the agonizing walk to a firing range, where they were executed for drug smuggling – despite the radical transformation to their lives inside Bali’s Kerobokan Prison.
This Easter, a gripping short film called Execution Island will be released, telling the story of their final moments before death. The film, only 12 minutes in length, is set to be screened in a number of churches and focusses on Myuran and his friendship with Reverend Christie Buckingham – the Melbourne pastor who was his spiritual advisor right up until the end.
Myuran was played by Sydney actor Rajan Narayan. He spoke to Hope 103.2 journalist Clare Bruce about the emotional intensity of the experience, and the weight of responsibility he felt in playing the role.
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Interview with Rajan Narayan
Clare: Did you follow the story of the Bali Nine before you were approached to play this role? Were you familiar with Myuran’s story?
Rajan: Yeah, very much so. I was following some of the politics at the time and felt that the story, especially the Indonesian president’s reaction was a bit of a ‘flex’ [of muscle] in response to us getting caught out, having some surveillance stuff in their parliament and whatnot. So it’s a really sad ending to what had started to become a beautiful story.
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My mum was in London at the time when the executions happened and she told me a few months later that her heart broke when she looked at photos of him in the media – Myuran particularly – she felt that that could have just been me.
I was caught up in many of the similar things at a younger age and could have very easily gone down the same path. And yeah, there was a personal attachment in a sense and a sense of responsibility as well, feeling like they were comrades, in a sense, fellow Aussie, Sydneysiders. I just didn’t know what to do with that until this project came along.
C: How did you feel when you were asked to play the role of Myuran?
R: Initially, there was a few laughs among some of my close friends and family because they’d commented that I kind of look like him as well. I think I was little darker back then, and I’d weighed a bit more as well. I’ve lost 15 kilos since then, so [at the time] I definitely fit his commanding presence. He was a bit of a larger bloke and, you know, very much centered.
But that quickly turned to… a heavy weight of the responsibility of playing the role. I knew I had to do the role justice. It wasn’t just a job or a fun little thing to add to the resume. This was a real person who’d gone through a pretty horrific ordeal, had done some terrible things, had owned up to them, his life had been changed by Jesus, and unfortunately still faced a terrible end, but was hopeful through that. And I had to maintain a whole bunch of different emotions at the same time, while basically doing my first acting gig as well.
C: How did you prepare for the role?
R: The week before, it really hit me that there was so much more I could do than just reading the script and turning up. I had a little bit of experience acting. I’ve done some plays at church and that kind of thing. So I thought, you know, I could do this. But my confidence was shaken when I realized the gravity of the project. It wasn’t just a film or flick, but it was something that was designed to change lives.
The month beforehand, I’d been reading a lot about the story and trying to get into his mind, which surprisingly, wasn’t so difficult to do. He wasn’t that different from me.
I was watching YouTube videos and any footage I could find of him and listening to little vocal snippets here and there from news interviews, to try to imitate those things. And even his stance, the way he stood and the way he shifted legs when someone had asked him a question that made him uncomfortable. And he had a twitch in his eye, very soft spoken as well. And so I had to try to bring all that into myself to really do the role justice.
C: Myuran had a Christian background and in prison, he returned to his faith. Your own story has some similarities to Myuran’s?
R: So, I heard the gospel. I was 17 and there was a radical transformation in my life. Before that, I was heavily involved in drugs and alcohol, things that I feel today’s culture has normalized a bit and almost glorified. But back then, it was a very obvious, you know, this was not right. I was very much involved in doing drugs and a little bit of money laundering as well. I was moving duffle bags from suburb to suburb, helping the drug dealers launder their things undetectably. And I technically didn’t really know what was in those bags as well so I felt I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
C: You came close to drug smuggling yourself?
R: Greater opportunities start to present themselves to become a mule, and, you know, travel paid for and hotels and business class flights, as long as you bring a bag back from so-and-so. And it was very appealing to me.
“I was moving duffle bags from suburb to suburb, helping drug dealers launder things… opportunities start to present themselves to become a mule.”
I had just gotten saved [into Christian faith] at the same time, so I quickly realized I can’t do this, the idea of making a quick buck for very little effort. It was very appealing to make those decisions. And had I not been saved, I definitely would’ve gone ahead.
C: It must’ve been very sobering then to see the story of the Bali Nine and to think, “That could’ve been me.”
R: I was very upset when I heard about their imprisonment, particularly because I knew that the stance the Indonesian government took towards drugs. I didn’t imagine a good end to the story. I didn’t know that he had grown up in a Christian home and had a great upbringing. And so that had complicated it a bit. He wasn’t just this drug dealer or a kingpin, as they would say in the news. He was a human, a flawed human like the rest of us, a nebulous, you know, complex mix of so many things. And this was just one facet of his life that the media and politicians were polarizing the subject, but he was a human. He made a really silly decision. But there was potential to change.
C: The film, to watch, is emotionally intense. You’re walking to face your execution. What was it like for you as an actor, putting yourself in his shoes?
R: The film focuses on the last moments of his life; the night before as well. I didn’t know many of these parts of the story and Reverend Christie, I spoke with her at length. She described, in very graphic detail, what was happening that night, many things that aren’t in the film.
The weight of conviction of just how terrible this story was, what was happening in the end, the gravity of the psychological torture, besides the actual execution at the end, it was very difficult to stomach. And being on camera, trying to be professional and, you know, “next take, let’s do that again”. Some of those things were being washed out of my mind as the fullness of the story was really coming alive in those moments acting. I was a bit off-kilter during the actual shoot itself. It wasn’t just a job [to me], and I haven’t perfected [the skill of] separating myself from the role.
The night before, we slept at the Hunter, me and my family, and my wife noticed that I was a bit different and I was upset. I was sad, I was confused. Just to play a role with such gravity and to do it justice and to make sure that his story is told – and the ultimate point of the film about the respect for life, the death penalty, and the idea of redemption, people can change, was swirling around in my head in between each take. And it was difficult to stay focused on the job.
But yeah, the story was first and foremost in my mind.
C: Did it make you think more about your own relationship with God, and eternal things?
R: Myuran’s tragic end for him was not a hopeless moment. Even the prison guards, [who] were apologizing and asking for forgiveness before they had to carry out their role and pull the trigger, [saw that] he didn’t seem daunted. And Reverend Christie was right there. And what she said was she saw two brave men who were facing the consequence of what they did. They owned up to what they did and they were owning the responsibility. Of course, they didn’t want to die, but if this was what was going to happen, then so be it. They were going to be with their maker not too long after.
“They didn’t want to die, but if this was what was going to happen, then so be it. They were going to be with their maker not too long after.”
And it took me back to the early days of when I started walking with Jesus, and reading the Jesus Freaks books and things like that, about the early martyrs of the Church – and even the tragic things that are happening right now across the world in the household of faith and the persecution. It really brought me to a point of resolve. If at gunpoint or whatever, will I profess faith in Jesus or will I shrink back to save my own life? And listening to the boys’ stories at the end and even the script, I’m in a position now, to say that no matter what comes, I will sing, I will sing for Jesus. I will hold him first and foremost in my mind and will not back down and even at the cost of my life.
C: The film portrays Myuran’s friendship with Christie Buckingham who often visited him in jail. They had a very close bond, didn’t they?
R: Very much so. Reverend Christie did not hold back in describing the love she had for him. She had a genuine love for him, as a son. So tender and beautiful, the way she described their relationship. And it was the same from him back to her. He found comfort and life and love in her embrace.
Reading the script was a bit uncomfortable for me. I’ve never done anything like this before. And knowing that there was some random actor that I’ve never met who’s gonna be holding me and holding my face and a bit touchy and feely, I was a bit uncomfortable. But then when I met [actor] Cathy [Burnside]…she embodied what Christie was, the same accent as well. And she was just so tender and loving. And both myself and Andrew Yang, who plays Andrew Chan, we just felt so loved and comfortable. She’s a professional actor, so she really helped us a lot while the cameras were rolling.
C: Was it an emotional time when you first watched the film?
R: Yeah. I walked in to the cast and crew screening. I’d steeled myself a bit and I thought, you know, “Let’s just enjoy this and take it all in for what it is”. I tried to separate myself from the story and what we’d done. But then watching it, I was gripped. It packed a punch, the way they edit it and cut everything together.
“What I would like to communicate, is redemption and hope, giving people a chance, hearing their story, and providing opportunities. People can change.”
It was a year prior when we’d shot it, so I’d forgotten a lot of those little moments and the things that they captured on film. Just watching it all come together was breathtaking. It was done really well as a production.
But the major themes that they’d intended to bring across were so apparent in watching the film. And Cathy’s stirring monologue all throughout the film…I’d heard it so many times in the lead up to the shoot, but it was like I’d heard it for the first time.
C: How did you feel after seeing it?
R: I left with a sense that there was a hopelessness, that this is how our world is – but also a hope in the way Myuran wasn’t afraid, and that there was something greater than everything that this world has to offer, and that he was going there. And at the same time that there is a horror of the death penalty, and the cutting short of life, and the removal of someone’s potential to be redeemed and changed.
And that’s something that I now have personal responsibility for, as someone who’s watched the film, maybe systemically through politics, and maybe just on the grassroots, conversation by conversation. We have to play our role in enacting justice in this world.
C: What do you hope others will take away from watching this film?
R: For me, the major theme that came across, and what I would like to communicate, is that people can change. The themes around that, of redemption and hope, giving people a chance, hearing their story, and providing opportunities. People can change.
To view the film or host a screening, head to ExecutionIsland.com.au.