Shavaughn Ruakere knows that to keep a happy work-life balance, she needs to leave her role on Shortland Street behind when she goes home at the end of the day. But a shocking and traumatic storyline in which Nurse Roimata – the actress’ character on the TVNZ medical drama – is raped by an unknown assailant in a back alley on the way home from her birthday party has deeply affected her.
The story had such a powerful impact on her that not only has the gorgeous actress had terrifying nightmares about being stalked in her own home, but she has also become a spokeswoman for an organisation that helps victims of sexual abuse.
“I’ve always been careful about leaving work at work and going home to my happy life. I don't talk much about work with Clarke,” says Shavaughn (34), who lives with her partner, More FM DJ Clarke Gayford (36). “But this storyline is heavy. I had no idea how much it would affect me until after I’d done it.”
In one of last week’s episodes, Roimata was shown pinned face-first against a wall and sexually assaulted – a dramatic event Shavaughn researched heavily prior to filming. “I knew that to do the scene properly, I needed to feel the fear, to have a real force on me,” she explains. “Of course I didn’t want to be hurt, but a sexual assault is every woman’s worst nightmare and I knew I had to be as scared as I could be.
“Although we had practised beforehand so that level of contact wasn’t uncomfortable, when the time came and my arm was twisted behind my back – there was no acting required.
“I was so scared – this huge shot of adrenaline coursed through my body. While I’d never compare my ‘pretend’ experience with someone who's actually been through a sexual assault, there’s no doubt I reacted as a woman, not as an actor.”
The normally extroverted Shavaughn is uncharacteristically serious as she recalls ¬ lming the scene that, she says, was a lot more real than she anticipated. “Like every woman, I’ve wondered how I’d react if I was attacked in real life – would I fight, would I struggle? “I kept thinking that I needed to struggle more, that Roimata is a strong character, she’d fight more than I was, but I simply froze. I was too scared to move.”
She couldn’t even open her eyes. “The director kept telling me they needed to see my eyes, but I didn’t even realise I’d shut them,” she says. “Yes, I was technically acting, but there’s no doubt the reality of it came through, because I just couldn’t struggle.”
To prepare for the harrowing storyline, Shavaughn sought help from friends who have experienced abuse and talked in detail to a crisis manager at Help, the Auckland sexual abuse foundation. She also had a brief meeting with well-known victims advocate Louise Nicholas.
“I walked into this room with a circle of chairs and each chair had a box of tissues next to it. I realised all these chairs are sat in by people who have been assaulted. It made me think.”
Some of what Shavaughn learned shocked her to the core. “I was staggered – 90% of people who are sexually assaulted know the person who did it to them,” she says. ”Most people are so scared and ashamed that they don't even report it. Only about one in 10 people report it and of those, two will get to court and only one will get a conviction.”
Shavaughn's newfound knowledge has had a far-reaching effect on her life, not just professionally, but personally as well. The actress has since agreed to be a spokeswoman for Help in an attempt to aid others who have suffered from abuse.
“If I can show just one person they aren't the only one, that Roimata had the feelings of shame, embarrassment and confusion they've had; to help someone find the courage to go forward, even though it's scary – there are places out there where people will listen and believe them,” says Shavaughn earnestly. “I'm so proud Shorty took on this storyline. It means more to me than I ever realised it could.”
Help is at hand
According to Help, one in five women in New Zealand will be sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime. If you, or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, remember it is not your fault and there is help available. Contact Help at sexualabusehelp.org.nz or phone (09) 623 1700.