A Bette Davis from Down Under12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
A new film from New Zealand is hard-boiled, gritty, and fascinating. So is its powerhouse star.
by B. Ruby Rich
Elle Magazine, February 1, 1995
“My mother always says I was born an actress,” says Rena Owen, “very dramatic and sensitive and hysterical.” Owen burns up the screen in Once Were Warriors, a film from New Zealand about Maori domestic strife that opens in the U.S. this March. She is riveting as an embattled woman trying to save her children from the ravages of alcohol, physical violence, sexual abuse, and dead-end options. And when she accompanied the film to the Toronto International Film Festival, it was immediately obvious that Owen is every bit as intense and passionate as her Warriors character.
Owen was raised by a Maori father and a white mother disowned for the marriage. She and her ten siblings grew up Maori, culturally. Owen got her first break at fifteen, playing Bloody Mary in a school production of South Pacific. But New Zealand society stalled her theatrical ambitions. “Acting wasn’t considered a career then, particularly not for a little Maori girl from the country – I was supposed to be either a secretary or a teacher or a nurse. There were no brown faces on the New Zealand screens of the ’60s or ’70s, apart from a newscaster or two. It simply wasn’t an option.”
So Owen became a nurse, indulging her outlaw side by immersing herself in Auckland’s early-’80s punk scene. She went to London to see the world but tumbled into a high-stakes life of music and drugs. She ended up with a drug habit and an eight-month prison term. “Prison toughened me up pretty brutally,” she says. “But that’s where I really earned a lot of my inner strength.” Owen thinks the jail term saved her life, and she’s convinced that people who come to acting after life-threatening experiences have an advantage: “To go to the depths of despair, basically knock on death’s door and come back, makes us better actors. We’re not afraid to walk on the edge.”
A string of mentors has aided Owen, from the prison nurse who helped her sort herself out to the women at the theater companies who took her in – first, at Theatre New Zealand, where she was cast in a play just after her release, and then at the Clean Break Theatre Company, a troupe set up to create works with women prisoners. Owen found Clean Break accidentally when she misdialed a number for a transcendental meditation class and reached the theater instead.
After living in England, Owen returned to New Zealand and never quite left. She still works abroad a lot, but now she’s got a little house on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It’s outside the city, closer to her family’s country base and a “healthier life”. But recent newspaper accounts of a barroom brawl with another woman indicate that the nightlife side of her personality is still intact. In the U.S., we just don’t have actresses like Owen anymore, women who seem to live more interesting lives offscreen than on. She projects the kind of energy and experience usually reserved for male novelists or dead artists.
Now, if only the roles can continue to live up to the actress. Any studio thinking of remaking old Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, or Dorothy Dandridge films could hardly find anyone better. In the meantime, Owen is determined to do something different: She’s considering taking on the part of a male-to-female transexual in another independent New Zealand film. It looks unlikely that she will back off the edge anytime soon.