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How Paula and Bree are turning tragedy into comedy

The director admits her leading lady does a better job of being her than she does!
Photos: Robert Trathen

Bree Peters is fearless. So says award-winning documentary maker and director Paula Whetu Jones. She has cast the Shortland Street and Sweet Tooth actor as Tessa Rivers in Spinal Destination, a six-part dark comedy series based on show creator, writer and director Paula’s own true story. She lost the use of her legs in a matter of hours one day, after her immune system attacked her spine, leaving her in a wheelchair.

“I’m not fearless. I’m such a worrier!” laughs Bree, who has also starred in The Brokenwood Mysteries and Home And Away. She adds, “I’m like a labrador – I love people and I want to be loved. I always worry what people think.

“I really enjoy dark comedy, but when I first read the script, I wondered if watching me play Tessa would be difficult for Paula. But she wrote it that way, so I had to be brave and properly live in that headspace so I could tell the story she wanted me to.”

One of the first things Paula asked Bree to do at the audition was to get in a wheelchair.

“I wasn’t scared – I had a great time in it, actually. I almost flipped it!” laughs Bree. “She didn’t ask me to get in the chair – she told me! She also said she didn’t want to see any fear and whatever she wanted was okay with me.”

Bree takes viewers on a wild ride.

“Bree is perfect for the role – she did a better job of being me than I would have. I knew she wouldn’t be scared and she’s funny,” says Paula. The director became a paraplegic at 40, on February 28, 2010 – two weeks before she was due to move to the Middle East with her then-11-year-old daughter Ebony. Paula drove home after just finishing a documentary for Māori Television. But by the time she got there, she had agonising back pain.

“I took a couple of painkillers and ran a hot bath,” she recalls. “Once I got in it, though, I got weaker and weaker, so I called my daughter to help me out. By then, I was in so much pain, no one could touch me, so she called an ambulance.”

After undergoing a barrage of tests in Hastings and Christchurch hospitals, receiving a plasma infusion, steroids, and a massive dose of denial, Paula had to confront the truth – the real possibility that she might not walk again.

It’s hard to see at first glance how this harrowing story could be a comedy, but while there are some heart-wrenching scenes, there are plenty of laughs too. Ever the storyteller, Paula kept a diary when she was in the spinal unit, creating the framework for some hilarious moments.

“I was so angry at the time – I just wanted the doctors to hurry up and fix me – but my diary is funny because I wrote what I thought, with no filter. I also have very funny friends who never pitied me, even though I knew they were scared for me.”

Paula recalls one time when comedian Mike King came to visit. “I was throwing up and every orifice was rejecting everything. He just went – ‘Eww, gross! Is that your lung?’ I was exploding from everywhere and he was still trying to make me laugh.”

Bree with castmates (from left) Oscar Phillips, John and Tom Sainsbury.

While the topic of the programme is undoubtedly sensitive, Bree and Paula, along with other cast members – including actor John Landreth, 60, who is wheelchair-bound in real life after a fall during a barbecue with friends left him a tetraplegic – bring an agonising but brilliant irreverence to the show.

“There’s a scene where Tessa attempts to have her first shower that makes me laugh so much because that was so me,” smiles Paula. “At the time, I refused to let anybody see me, help or shower me. I was determined to do it myself. It took hours and there was water everywhere because I didn’t have the strength to sit up.”

But Bree says it’s Paula (who is of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Whakatōhea, Ngāti Porou descent) who gave her the magic bullet to play Tessa.

“I really wanted this role,” admits Bree. “I was at a time in my career that I felt it needed to be all or nothing. And Paula gave me something I always felt I had the capacity to do but no one had ever picked me for. That did so much for my confidence. And Paula cracks me up! She’s so funny. I love her humour. She says the most brutal things but with such a straight face.”

Bree adds, “I have so much admiration for her. Paula sees life from a whole different perspective. I’ll never know enough about living in that world. Spending your life in a wheelchair. But she truly believes and knows that she can do anything she wants and get anything she wants.

“She is awesome and she has an awesome story. When someone like Paula picks you for something, it’s very special.”

Watch Spinal Destination 8.30pm Wednesdays on Sky Open or streaming on Sky Go and Neon.

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