Portrait of a Warrior12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Portrait of a Warrior
Rena Owen is happy. So happy she wouldn’t change her life for the world.
by Amber Smith
Lifestyle, June 1, 1999
Many of us saw Rena in Once Were Warriors – her spectacular performance as a beaten wife made us cry, tremble and opened our eyes to a different world. We also remember the shock of Rena being charged with assault soon after, and the disappointment when she walked away without the best actress award in the NZ Film & Television Awards.
It’s been a long road for Rena, but one in which she has learnt a lot. She has had to overcome personal family grief (including a brother’s suicide and her father’s death), a prison sentence, a tough working schedule and continuing media intrusion into her life.
Life for Rena started in Moerewa in the early ’60s. Moerewa, for those unfamiliar with small town New Zealand, is in the Bay of Islands. When Rena was a child it was a thriving industrial township, but the closure of the local freezing works since has changed that.
Born to a Pakeha mother and a Maori father, Rena was the middle child of nine. “It is common,” she says, “for actors to be middle children.”
Her childhood days were filled milking cows, riding horses and playing in the family’s huge backyard with the neighborhood children. “WE had such an incredibly creative childhood. I’m really so grateful I grew up in a country environment. You learn early in life what is important.”
Weekends consisted of trips out of town to watch te rugby. With five brothers and a father who was a big rugby fan, there was no chance of avoiding the nation’s favourite sport. “I grew up in a very Kiwi way,” Rena laughs.
She took part in the local Maori culture group, was involved in school drama and excelled in athletics. “I was always very heavily involved in extra-curricular activities. I knew I was never destined for an office job. I knew as a teenager that one, I had a love for the stage and two, I had a natural talent for it.”
However, an acting career at that time was not possible. For one thing there were no role models for her, and for another she was female. “For a little Maori girl from the country it wasn’t something I could consider. It wasn’t seen as a proper job for a woman in the ’70s. The choices were nursing, secretarial or teaching.”
Rena applied for nursing and teaching. She was accepted for both but chose nursing, because of a British television series called Angels “I got this real glamorous image of what it meant to be a nurse.” She also had one of the main qualities needed for nursing. “I was always a people person. I knew that whatever I wanted to do, it was with people.”
After qualifying she went on to spend four years working at Auckland Hospital, first as a general obstetrics nurse, and then specialising in children. “Nursing was a brilliant background,” she says.
At 22 that ferocious independence came out again and Rena craved another lifestyle – that of the Big OE. “It was my first taste of freedom in a way. The freedom to explore and experience life. I wanted a year just to live and not be stuck in a job.”
In London Rena started work at a movie theatre called The Gate Bloomsbury, where she “got to watch free movie after free movie.” Her mind was always on the actors’ performances. Unfortunately, the city scene soon encaptured her and Rena became victim to the dangerous world of drugs. “I started playing with drugs. It was a bit of naivety on my behalf,” she confesses. “Nobody can just play with drugs.” Caught in the middle of a drug deal, Rena was sentenced to six months in prison.
“I don’t regret that experience because I wouldn’t be this way. I really believe that life is about learning the lessons. It stopped me using drugs and I was able to take time out. I always try to find the positives in experiences and I have never gone back. As the saying goes ‘once bitten twice shy’.”
On her release she enrolled in a basic acting course through the Actors’ Institute. Later she wrote and starred in a play she had written while in prison, Te Awa I Tahuti (The River That Ran Away). “Behind the extrovert there’s the introvert, and that’s the writer in me.”
In 1989 she booked her flight home, intending to return to Moerewa for her father’s 60th birthday. Shortly before leaving she received word her father had died. She returned home and tried to settle back into the Kiwi lifestyle, but it wasn’t easy. For one thing she had a “thick London accent”, and for another her hometown had changed dramatically. “Back in ’89 I was horrified it had become such a ghost town.”
She moved to Wellington and spent the next couple of years working in theatre. Then the role of Beth in Once Were Warriors came up and she jumped at it. “It was my eighth year as a professional. I felt I had earned it. I put everything I had into that role.”
Her performance struck us as a nation. But it was followed by disappointment when she missed out on the best NZ actress award. Winning awards in other countries “gave me back my confidence,” but in the end “your own country is the one that matters,” she says. However, she endeavours to look on the bright side. “Things like that can only strengthen you. If you’ve got awards on your mind you never do a great job.”
Rena still receives feedback about the film. Recently a man approached her while she was shopping in L.A. “Are you the woman from Once Were Warriors?” he asked. When she nodded, tears came to his eyes and he said, “I want to tell everyone in New Zealand thank you, thank you, thank you. Your film changed my life.” He didn’t elaborate, but it was gratitude that Rena understood and appreciated. “It makes you realise the effect it had on so many people, not just those at home but around the world.”
But despite, or maybe because of, her brilliant performance in Once Were Warriors, there was wide-spread condemnation when she was involved in an incident with a pool cue at a Northland pub. “A woman who was drinking and was aggressive approached me and wouldn’t leave me alone.” Rena poked her in the cheek with a pool cue. “I made a mistake. There was an accumulation of pressure. I had to change a few attitudes and form new responsibilities.”
Responsibilities now include trying to fit everything she needs to do into a tight schedule. She still travels the international film festival circuit to prote her work and as a judge, and is currently working on a short film with the Oscar-winning cinematographer Vlimos Szigmond.
She did, however, take time out to return to New Zealand for the May 22 premiere of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted – the long-awaited sequel to Once Were Warriors – a movie that once again is destined to take the world by storm. In the sequel Rena appears in only four scenes, quite a contrast to her major role in Once Were Warriors. “It’s Jake’s story. It’s not my movie. It should be called ‘What Becomes of Jake’.” The story picks up where the last one left off – except this time Beth has managed to leave behind the life of violence and uncertainty, while Jake remains on a downward spiral.
For the time-being New Zealand films are out of the question. She is living in L.A. hoping that it can supply her with financial security, something NZ is unable to do. “It’s the movie, the money, the man in that order,” she says, laughing. “I haven’t stayed in one place long enough to meet a man.” The man, however, has only a few years to appear in order to fulfill Rena’s plan for a family.
It’s been a busy life for Rena, full of successes, disappointments and always full of hope. Her success isn’t something that just “fell out of the sky”, and it’s something she would like to see more New Zealanders inspire to.
“The most important thing is to have the courage to follow your heart. In your heart will be your dreams. I’m a great believer that you can achieve anything you want in life. Once you’ve got that dream, follow that dream and don’t give up.”
From anyone else that advice might sound a bit over the top, but for Rena it’s the story of her life.
© Lifestyle Magazine