On Top of Down Under12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
It was a battle between a Kiwi and a Tyrannosaurus Rex – and the Kiwi won
by Juan Morales
Detour Magazine, March 1, 1995
Last year, Rena Owen witnessed the stark contrast between a low-budget independent film and a high-dollar Hollywood opus firsthand. First, she made her screen debut in Rapa Nui, the period adventure set on Easter Island, starring Jason Scott Lee. Produced by Kevin Costner and directed by Kevin Reynolds at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, the film took five months to complete. When production finally wrapped, Owen, the fifth of nine children born to a Maori father and an English mother, returned to Auckland, where Once Were Warriors was shot in just six weeks for a paltry $1.2 million. Rapa Nui was critically panned, and according to Daily Variety, has earned roughly $300,000; Warriors has been roundly praised by critics, won awards at festivals, and recouped more than three times its budget. “I’ve always believed the best films would be made by passion, not necessarily by money,” Owen says.
Passion is something the 34-year-old actress possesses in abundance. As Beth Heke, the mother of five who endures chronic physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Jake, her hard-drinking brawler of a husband, Owen is riveting. With no makeup, and hair hanging freely at her shoulders like Anna Magnani for the ’90s, she inhabits Beth so thoroughly it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.
“I couldn’t see anyone but her playing Beth,” says director Tamahori. “She possessed an intensity that was just what the character needed. She was the only one I knew that I wanted in the movie.”
“She has just an amazing, full source of emotional energy,” agrees Temuera Morrison, who plays Jake. “She’d look at me, and I thought she’d give me a hiding sometimes. She’s got that fire in her eye; she’s a very powerful performer, very intense.”
“I totally believe that I was born to be an actress,” Owen says. “I’ve always been very dramatic and hypersensitive.” Yet even though she knew in her teens, after performing in stage productions of South Pacific and Calamity Jane, that she wanted to make acting a career, it took her years to commit to the profession. In the 1070s, there were no show-business role models for young Maori girls; if you weren’t a wife or a mother, you became a secretary, nurse, or teacher. So Owen dutifully spent four and a half years studying nursing. Then, in the early ’80s, attracted by the punk music and fashion scene, she set off to London, where, she says, “I messed around for a while and had a bit of a wild time, to say the least, then got back into acting in ’84.”
Although she is single, has no children, and has never been in an abusive relationship, Owen was able to connect with battered wife Beth Heke’s survival instinct, because she has survived substantial hardship herself. In London, free from parental and societal expectations for the first time, she worked part-time at an art-house cinema, traveled throughout Europe, and immersed herself in the city’s byzantine nightlife. She also acquired a drug habit, and served an eight-month drug-related prison sentence. The experience, she says, saved her life. It also convinced her to finally pursue her acting ambitions. She recalls an epiphany while attending a West End performance of For Me and My Girl. “I’ll never forget watching it,” she says. “I wanted to cry – not because it was a sad piece by any means, but I just had this burning sensation in my gut, because I knew that that was what I really wanted to be doing.”
At age 24, she did not want to go back to school, so she learned her craft on the job. “I was prepared to do anything for nothing,” she recalls. “I was very hungry, and prepared to start at the bottom. That’s what some actors who come into this business won’t do. They won’t do the little jobs, but I say you do the little jobs because all the little jobs add up to big-time experience. If you’re arrogant, or you think you’re too big for a little part, when your big job comes along, you’re not ready for it.”
When Warriors came along, Owen was more than ready. In London she had worked with Theatre New Zealand, the Clean Break Theatre Company, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and had extensive theater, television, and radio experience in New Zealand. Also, the sluggish Rapa Nui shoot gave her months to prepare, so that by the time she walked onto the Warriors set, according to Morrison, “She got the part like that. There was nobody else. It was Rena Owen–bang.”
With the enormous positive response to Warriors, Hollywood has already come calling. Owen has signed with the ICM agency, and is eager to work internationally, where her distinctive, slightly exotic look makes her a candidate for a variety of roles–she’s often mistaken for Italian, Greek, or Spanish. Morrison also has a U.S. agent, and recently met with director Renny Harlin about a role in Cutthroat Island, the pirate extravaganza starring Harlin’s wife, Geena Davis. And Tamahori has signed to direct MGM’s Mulholland Falls, a ’50s crime drama starring Nick Nolte.
A prize winner at last year’s Montreal International Film Festival, Warriors is the rare motion picture that has extended beyond the screen to become a sociological phenomenon. An unflinching look at a working-class Maori family, the film version of Warriors, as the novel had before it, launched a public debate in New Zealand about the validity of its portrayal.
The novel generated immediate controversy because author Alan Duff, who is Maori, was so critical of his own people, showing the seediest, most grotesque, and depressing sides of their lives–alcohol abuse, domestic violence, rape, and suicide. A notorious, brazenly outspoken writer who relishes conflict (“He’s either attacking or he’s defensive–he hasn’t found a median ground,” says Owen), Duff was taken to task by revisionist Maori who saw him as a turncoat. But others praised him for his courage and frankness.
Although many copies were sold, the book nonetheless had a very narrow audience. Most who bought it were from the white middle class; few Maoris, apart from the academics, read it, because demographically, Maoris do not read much. They do go to the movies, though, which presented a challenge to Tamahori. “I wanted to make a film of this very, very tough book and widen the scope–get Maoris themselves to come see it,” he says. “Working class, middle class, young people, old people, everyone.”
While the story presents an honest portrait of one segment of society, there was concern that people would think it represented all Maoris, which is not the case. “It’s not the norm,” says Owen. “It’s like me going to watch a film about the Italian Mafia–I’m not going to presume that all Italians are in the Mafia. If you go and watch Warriors, you can’t presume all Maoris are like that. We have upper-class Maoris, we have middle-class Maoris. In fact, of all the indigenous people of the South Pacific, we’re probably one of the most westernized cultures. We have Maori politicians, Maori lawyers, Maori corporate people, a ton of Maoris at universities, and we also have the lower-class Maoris like the Heke family.”
Maoris, the Polynesian natives of New Zealand, were historically fierce warriors, hence the film’s title. Today, although the compromise only 12 percent of the country’s population, Maoris make up more than half of the prison population, are responsible for half of all domestic violence cases, and their affinity and capacity for alcohol are legendary. But this is not surprising when one considers that, like the Native Americans and Australian aborigines, Maoris were coldly reracinated by colonists. For years they were brought up to reject their culture and absorb the English ways–Owen recalls that as recently as her father’s generation, natives were still beaten for speaking Maori.
Although recently a government-sanctioned pro-Maori cultural movement has emerged, the changes will take time. “I’m glad that now young Maori kids are growing up knowing who they are, and proud of who they are,” Owen says. “I grew up in a generation that had an innate inferiority complex, because if you were Maori, you weren’t as good as a western person. And if you look at my generation, most of them ended up in prison, in gangs, and on drugs…what you’re getting are still the results of colonization, I believe. We’re only five generations old, so we’re still very young. And if you destroy the soul of a culture, it takes many generations to heal and to reclaim it.”
The Maori population is especially ravaged by alcohol. In the film, the characters frequent an enormous bar the size of a warehouse, where they chug from liter bottles, sing popular songs, and get in bloody, bone-crunching fights. What few people outside of New Zealand know is that this environment was created through an agreement between the government and corporate brewers designed to regenerate revenue through taxation and beer sales. In the ’50s, the major brewers in New Zealand developed a 24-hour fermentation process and began dispensing beer in containers the size of fuel tankers. At the same time, they built outlets to dispense the beer–gigantic spaces with concrete floors that could be hosed down each night. In such establishments, the enjoyment of alcohol as a social activity based on conversation and civility was destroyed. The goal was to pack in as many people as possible, to sell as much beer as possible.
This accessibility, combined with depressed economic conditions and the aggressive Maori temperament, led to increased alcohol abuse and automobile accidents, and widespread alcohol-related violence. “We have a lot of alcohol-related violence in all areas, but mostly in the lower socioeconomic brackets,” says Tamahori. “Welfare dependency, alcohol, large families, kids getting into crime, fathers that don’t care–that sort of thing is not hugely pervasive, but it’s there in a lot of areas, and that’s what this film has unlocked in our own country. One of the reasons people go to see this is that they know it to be a truth–it may be the toughest truth they have to face, but at least it’s accurate. And they’re not afraid of it; they see it for what it is and say, ‘My God, at least someone’s done something, and forced this onto the public agenda so that we can all talk about it.”
Although Hollywood has occasionally tried to address domestic violence, Warriors makes films like Sleeping with the Enemy look like an episode of Ozzie and Harriet. A scene in which Jake savagely beats Beth during a party at the Heke home is one of the most harrowing ever filmed. Rather than averting the camera, Tamahori, the country’s leading commercial director, who makes an unforgettable feature debut with Warriors, focuses directly on the assault. Many viewers, especially women, find it difficult to watch.
Temuera Morrison, who also stars as a doctor in Shortland Street, the country’s top soap opera, and is nothing like the monster he plays in the film, says that Warriors may have saved some women’s lives. “I had a beautiful compliment not long ago,” he recalls. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘My husband saw your movie. He was like you, but he saw himself in the movie, and now he doesn’t drink anymore.’ And I thought, Jesus, that’s amazing. The biggest thing it’s done is that it’s got people opened up and talking, which is the hardest thing for them to do. And now all around the country, women’s refuges in New Zealand are getting calls: ‘I’m like that girl in the movie. That’s happened to me.’ So out of all the negativity that we thought we were going to get has come positivity.”
While Warriors was expected to draw attention, none of those involved could have predicted the degree of its influence or the amount of money it has made. Owen feels that its willingness to face taboo subjects head-on has touched a nerve. “Domestic violence is not a modern-day concept, neither is sexual abuse,” she says. “They’ve been around for centuries; the only difference is, we’re now allowed to talk about them. I don’t think any society serves itself by keeping things in the closet or under the carpet and trying to pretend we’re all perfect, because we’re not. It’s a movie that deals with things that needed to be talked about, and I’m glad we were able to do it. Some films have dealt with this in a very superficial way, but this goes straight to the gut of the problem–right to the belly.”
© Detour Magazine