Interview: Rena Owen
Rena Owen, Actor, Actress, New Zealand, Star Wars, Once Were Warriors, Kiwi, The Dead Lands, film, movies, movie, The Last Witch Hunter, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones, Longmire, Shortland Street


Interview: Rena Owen

12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS

Interview: Rena Owen
by Andrew Sweeney, September 26, 2003


It’s a good bet that all of you have seen Rena Owen’s work at one point or another. I would like to think that you had all seen Once Were Warriors, the New Zealand family tale that just hit American shores on DVD, but not all of us live in the arthouse districts of New York and Los Angeles. You may have seen her as Dinza in an episode of Angel. But most likely you know her as Taun We, the Head Kaminoan in Charge of cloning scads of little Temueras and prepping them for battle.

Ms. Owen is a damn fine actress, proving herself the world over with her performance in Once Were Warriors, as Beth Heke. If you’re not familiar, Once Were Warriors is a pretty dark film about a New Zealand family with deep ties to the Maori people. Of course, you could just check out the DVD review to get a better scope of things. Rena Owen is easily the star of that ditty, and is slowly making her way to bigger projects over on these shores. She’s reuniting with David Boreanaz to play a supporting character in The Crow 4: Wicked Prayer, and she’s coming back to the Star Wars universe in SW:Episode III as a Senator of the soon-to-be-defunct Galactic Senate.

Aside from being a stunning actress, Rena is a hell of a lot of fun to talk with. Not only does she really come across as someone who appreciates what she’s been given, she’s not prone to bullshit about her work, as you’ll see. After some cursory introductions, we settles right in to talking about her work in genre films, with Star Wars Eps 2 and 3, as well as Angel and The Crow under her belt.

Andrew: So going from Warriors to something like Star Wars, how does that play out to you as an actress?

Rena: I like to have diversity, and I’ve had a great range of roles. I’ve had a great range of roles this year, actually.

Andrew: You really have. Now, you worked on Angel not long ago, right?

Rena: Yeah, I did.

Andrew: Okay. I know that you’re involved with Crow 4 with David Boreanaz too, right?

Rena: Oh yeah, I love David. I’m a huge fan. All my scenes were with David [on Angel] and of course I got to work with him again on Crow 4. I didn’t have any scenes directly with him, but of course we hung out and caught up. I’m a huge fan of David’s; he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with. And I think he should have an enormous successful film career, because he’s just got all the qualities of a leading man, you know? He’s such a nice guy, he’s a fantastic guy.

Andrew: Sure. Well, let me ask you a couple of things about Once Were Warriors, if you don’t mind.

Rena: Yeah, sure.

Andrew: You kind of got your start, that was your feature breakout, is that right?

Rena: It was, yeah. Prior to that, I’d done eight years of theater, television work, I’d done one film before that which was the Kevin Costner/Kevin Reynolds film Rapa-Nui, so I was kind of spoiled in the way that most actors when they enter in the film, you know, you do your bit parts, your cameos, and then maybe eventually a lead if you’re lucky, you know. I went straight to the- I got the cherry on top of the cake, so… But it kind of gave me nowhere to go after it, in some ways. Because I was spoiled, I mean it was a gift. A great dramatic female lead role is a very rare thing in the world, so when you’re blessed with one as an actor… I always say that it was my privilege, not my pleasure; I mean we shot the whole film in 34 days on a budget of $1 million dollars, so we worked six day weeks, 12-14 hour days. Such an amazing achievement, really though, and it’s wonderful to have a piece of work that you will always be proud of.

Andrew: That makes sense. What can you say going into a film like that, a film that is so& So heavy, for lack of a better word. How do you prepare for a role like that?

Rena: Well, I was lucky in the way that the script was based on a best selling novel, so the novel really provided my main research, because there’s so much more information, particularly in character subtext in the novel, so I had enormous amount of information from the novel, and I also was blessed by a phenomenal screenplay. I was really only left with one question in formulating this character, and I met with a woman who had a very similar life to Beth, had lots of children and lost a child, obviously eventually broke up with the guy, and the one question I had unanswered, and I will never forget when I asked her was basically “Why did you stay with him?”, and she looked at me very simple and sincere but at the same time profound, she looked at me and said, “Because I loved him.” And that was a reoccurring thing for me on set, I was often overwhelmed by how much Beth loved Jake, you know? I just thought, God I don’t know if I’d love someone as much as that in my own lifetime. So, she was very generous with her experience and very open about it.

But really, the most important thing when you’re doing a low budget film and a limited amount of time, it all comes down to preparation, and that’s not just for the actor, that’s for every single department. Because you’ve got 32-34 days to shoot a film, you better know damn well what you’re going to be doing, because you just don’t have the time or the budget to spend a whole day on a scene and not get it right. The bulk of the work for me as an actor and for the director is that it’s in the pre-production, it is your preparation. As an actor you have to account for every single second of screen time you have and know what you’re thinking and your feeling. So basically, I always prepare like that for these roles, because once you get to the set you really have to let it go its in the execution and the performance but the main work happens in the prep, and thanks to Lee, he was so well prepared and he had to be, because we didn’t have the budget or the time Not to get it right on the day. We couldn’t say, “Oh, we didn’t get that today, we’ll get it tomorrow.” “There was not that time, we also had limited film stock, so it was fortunate for him and for me that I’d come from the theater, so he called me his “One shot wonder”. I wasn’t used to second takes in the theater, and it was great because we had limited footage, so a lot of those scenes were one take. It was the most efficient, economical film I’d ever been on, and I ‘d come from two extremes.

The one I’d been on prior to that, Rapa-Nui, was a budget that I went to Easter Island with 2 months contract. I was there for 5 months and they didn’t finish the film! And it went over budget, and that was a film where we’d spend one to two weeks on one scene. And then I went back to New Zealand to do Warriors, so you’ve got your two extremes if filmmaking there. You know, but I knew… it was a grueling shoot, but I knew that Beth was a gift that I needed to relish, because I remember 4 or 5 years before the movie got made, I read the novel. And I will never forget when I read it, I thought, my God, if this book is made into a film, that is the role to die for. And five years later, I got cast in that role, so you know. As I said, she was my privilege not my pleasure. It was a project I felt very passionate about, and as I say, you just don’t get those great dramatic female lead roles in the world, for any actress in any country. So let’s hope I get a couple more like it before I retire, but if I didn’t, I’d still feel incredibly lucky because I know actresses who give their lives to this industry and never know the privilege and pleasure in being in that kind of film.

Andrew: Right. You mentioned being a theater actress, how do you do with a film like Rapa Nui or, I would guess, a film like Star Wars, where you’re going over a scene time and time again. It’s been my experience that theater actors tend to prefer to hit their scene and move on.

Rena: Yeah, absolutely. One thing, I’m the same. If its emotional stuff, the first is always the freshest, the most spontaneous. If you’ve got to do too many emotional takes, it becomes manufactured after a while. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to me too often. If you have to do it over and over again, like Star Wars, that’s easy doing that stuff, because literally sometimes you’re looking one way or walking one way. You’re very much, with a genre like Star Wars, it is about a chessboard and you’re like pawns on the chessboard, because so much of that genre is about the special effects. The special effects, the CGI, the animation, and most of the sets are done in computers, so that kind of stuff is very easy to do over and over again.

It’s not so easy to do emotional takes over and over again. But you get used to it as a theater actor because its part of the discipline, part of the genre that takes, you often, even when you’ve done a perfect take there might be a hair in the gate or sound dept. might have a problem, and that’s just the nature of the beast. You know, it’s not just about one person; it’s about sixty different departments having to get it right in that one take, so when you hit it, it’s a great thing and sometime you don’t. And more often than not it can be the actor’s fault for having to go again and again and again. But there’s nothing worse than knowing you’ve done a shit-hot take, and them saying, “Oh, no. We have to go again,” because as an actor you can’t guarantee that its going to be as hot the previous one was, because every time you do it it’s going to be different.

Andrew: Right, Well this is more a personal question from me, but when you’re on a set like say Star Wars, is it a less collaborative environment?

Rena: Absolutely, yeah.

Andrew: Really?

Rena: Absolutely. Because this is something, it’s like say, Star Trek. When it comes with a history, it already dictates. The whole genre, the feel, with something like Star Wars those characters were established in the 70s. So you can’t go in to George and say, “Well hey, can you and I collaborate on, I think my character should do this or my character should do that.” It’s already in cement, because it comes with such an enormous history to it. So you’re purely there to serve the legacy. Even for the lead actors it would be the same, because it’s a specific genre, these characters were invented in the 70s, and you know George has, particularly in this one, the requirement of having to tie up a lot of loose ends.

So you can’t go down and collaborate on it because most of it is already in cement. You can’t go without Obi-Wan Kenobi, you can’t go without ET- I mean- not ET, sorry. Yeah, God, I’m getting them mixed up now. With Gollum, and Yoda, I love Yoda. You know, my three favorite creatures of all time would be E.T., Yoda, and Gollum, I just absolutely adored Gollum, and it will never take away the actor’s performance. It’s like with Taun We when I did Episode II. It’s not just voice, I actually spent a whole week on set doing Taun We, they shot me doing everything. So that’s me walking and talking, and I mean she’s sexy. A computer cannot do that. That’s why he uses actors for those alien characters, or like that big creature in the cafe that Ewan’s character goes to see, that’s an actor. Because if you don’t have a human being in the essence of that character, that’d be very flat. The audience’s can’t feel them because a computer cannot generate emotion, it cannot generate energy or the human spirit. The day it does do that, we’re all out of a job. But fortunately, they still can’t do that.

So you’re always going to need actors. I was really happy to see, when the Gollum debate came up, about giving the actor a nomination because Gollum is made by that actor. As Andy Serkis said, “That’s my physicality, my emotion.” A computer can’t do that. And you love Gollum, because he’s so incredibly human. There’s no way that that could be made in a computer, you have to have the actor. So I was a little annoyed, I thought, “Why do they say voice-over?” Because true voice over, the product’s been made, you go in and you say words to images. That’s my essence in that character, that’s my hip swaying there. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of my stuff I could see, or feel in my character, I should say. And I got to be honest, man; I had more fun playing an alien than I did playing a human in Episode III. (Laughing) Aliens are great characters to play. You’ve got so much more license with them.

Andrew: How do you go about playing an alien? Did you put yourself through the same preparation that you would for any other role?

Rena: Oh, no, no. As most of us, you arrive on set not knowing what you’re doing ’til you get there. All I knew was that I was playing an alien. And George was very helpful in the way that he said to me… I said, “What are they, are they goodies, baddies?” And he said, “No, you’re good people but you’ve been kind of deceived by this guy. You still think you’re working for the good guys, you’re creatures of love and light.” And so he gave me his interpretation on how he saw these characters, he wanted them very sleek, very free flowing, hence my exaggerated walk. He wanted them to be very soothing, and I guess the other point of research for something like that is all the history and legacy of Star Wars, which is all very well documented. Whether that’s on the Internet, in novels, magazines… George gave me enough direction to take that information and turn it into what he wanted.

Andrew: So did you curl up with a stack of novels, and just read a week away? (Laughing)

Rena: No, no, I didn’t. I didn’t have a lot of time to spare, so basically I went to the departments that… Oh gosh, his name escapes me at the moment, but it’s his job, he does the website and all that, so he knows the whole history and legacy of these characters, so he filled me in on the Kamino aliens and the Kamino worlds. Yeah, I didn’t really have time once I was in Sydney to kind of spend days reading the novels. I picked through a couple but basically the guys from the Ranch who are there on every shoot, they were incredibly, incredibly helpful on Episode II. And on Episode III too, when I came back as a Senator, when I was trying to get a clue to what kind of characters they are, they gave me the whole history of what Senators are and where they come from, so those guys are great. George has a great team of people, absolutely fantastic group of people. I know for a fact that there is a lot of collaboration on the technical levels, but when it comes to the actor, its not. Because these storylines are set in concrete. There’s no room to say, “Well, can we change that or can my character do this?” You know what I’m saying?

Andrew: Sure. Now, given the opportunity to do something more like Once Were Warriors, maybe away from a franchise, or steer more toward the summer blockbuster, what side do you fall on?

Rena: Yeah, I’d pretty much fall on the drama side. But you know, having said that, I like a mix. It’s good to do a bit of commerce and a bit of art. And if you get that rare project that has both qualities, that’s the ultimate. Really a high work of art that is also a commercial hit. Films like, American Beauty, films like Boys Don’t Cry, there are a few others. There’s some stunning films out there that became big commercial successes as well that were essentially deemed arthouse/independent films, but because people like Miramax, you know… A distributor like Miramax can make or break a film. And Miramax has proved quite a lot with these films, little films that have gone on to win Oscars. So that’s the ultimate, to be in that kind of film. That’s a great journey as an actor, but I’m kind of wide open. I consider all things: short films, TV, big budget studio films, and independents. I think it’s good to be diverse and to do a little bit of everything. If it came down to the fact, though, if I had to choose between a phenomenal script high art, low budget film and a bad big–budget script, I’d go with the work of art. At the end of the day, I’d go with the work of art. Because for me, you can live down a bad stage play, but celluloid is life. Its there for life. And I like to feel that I’m going to be proud of what I commit to celluloid. Because it’s around forever…

Andrew: Is there anything else in the near future that might have your name on it?

Rena: Well, there’s a lot of talk right at the moment. Nothing quite in concrete. Two things that are definitely going to happen are an independent film, an edgy kind of rock film which I’m really excited about that’s going to get shot in Minnesota in, well, the director is talking October but you have to believe these things when they actually happen. The other thing is that I’m also attached to do a film with Rachael Griffin (Ed. note – Might be Rachel Griffiths, the tape is a little foggy here)

Andrew: Oh really?

Rena: Yeah, which is very exciting, because the director is a phenomenal, phenomenal director. The woman who made an Australian film in the mid-90s called Head On. You know, she’s phenomenal and I’m very excited about that. They’re kind of saying end of the year, early next year, but it’s the nature of the film industry, you don’t really believe it until you’re on set and you hear the director say “Action”. (Laughing) I’ve had six starting dates on one film, one year, where we had six start dates and it never happened at all. So it’s a day to day walk in this industry. It’s the only way you can be, because things are subject to change. I lost two big films recently, and they’re both coming out very shortly. One of them is “The Human Stain” with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins. I auditioned for Robert Benton, and got offered the role, and then the role got cut out of the script.

Andrew: Oh, no.

Rena: So that didn’t happen, and then the other one this year, and I was really disappointed about, was I got attached to Gothika. I read that script December of last year, and I said to my agent it was one of the best scripts I had read in years. At that point they had Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz, and Robert Downey Jr. and shoot it in Australia. So I could come under local content in Australia, and then at the last minute they changed shooting locations and went to Canada. And they could only take their leads. And the only way I could do it was if I was a Canadian resident. And I wasn’t able to become a Canadian resident in a week. So I was really disappointed because I loved that project. I’m dying to see how the film comes out, but I absolutely adored the script. Such a brilliant script. And I’ve seen publicity about it now, and I’m thinking, “Daang!” Because that was a great supporting role. That one… That would’ve been a career maker, that film. You hear what I’m saying?

Andrew: I do, I do.

Rena: So you know, it happens. And that’s why you can’t really get too carried away until as I say, you’re actually on set and working, and you’re actually doing it. And it happens all the time to actors, as they say it’s the nature of this industry; it’s the way of filmmaking

Andrew: Well, with any luck, Once Were Warriors JUST hit American shores; the DVD just came out this past Tuesday here. So hopefully… I mean, that performance is absolutely stunning; I would compare it to any lead female performance in the last ten years.

Rena: Thank you very much. When I got that role, I knew. I thought, you know what, this is such a gift, this role.” Right back to the novel. I will always be proud of Once Were Warriors, and in this industry if you’ve had the privilege of being in a hit. And all going well, I’ll be in a lot of hits to come as well. But you don’t really know how rare it is as an actor, there are a lot of actors who work all the time but never have the joy of a film going off big time. So to be a part of Time Magazine’s Top Ten List of the best Films in The World is a wonderful achievement.

So there you have it. Screwed out of two roles that would’ve been great, she still manages to hang on to something as small as starring in one of Time’s top ten films in the world. Lot of heart, that one. Check out Once Were Warriors as soon as you get a free moment. The only caution I would give would be that you may not want to double feature Warriors with something like Requiem For A Dream. Chud can’t have readers just offing themselves left and right, you know?


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