Proud Warrior: Actress Rena Owen
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Proud Warrior: Actress Rena Owen

12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS

Proud Warrior: Actress Rena Owen
by Ed Rampell
Win Magazine, June 1, 1998


When Rena Owen played an abused Maori wife in New Zealand’s top-grossing film ever, Once Were Warriors, she was so convincing that many thought she wasn’t even acting. Although she is half-Maori, Owen has never been married and credited nine years of hard acting experience to the part.

“The amount of people who thought I just walked off the street into that role was incredible,” said Owen. “…what I brought to that film was knowing hard years of bloody slog…that was the cherry on the cake.”

The success of Once Were Warriors, made the 30-something Owen not only one of New Zealand’s most famous actresses, but also known internationally. The 1994 film won many international awards and is studied today in film schools worldwide. Its importance goes well beyond the sensitive subject matter — domestic violence among Maoris. Once Were Warriors was the first and most successful full-length feature film directed by, written by, and starring Polynesians.

The film tells the story of Beth Heke (Owen’s character), descendant of a proud Maori tribe, and her husband, Jake, who live in squalor in an Auckland ghetto. Jake, unemployed and frequently drunk, mercilessly beats his wife and children. Beth watches as her family is destroyed: The daughter is raped by one of Jake’s mates at a drunken party in the Heke household, and then kills herself; one son is imprisoned; another joins a gang. Finally, Beth stands up to her brutal husband of 20 years, and overcomes the domestic abuse.

Even while shooting the film Owen knew that it was destined for success.

“It dared to have the courage to explore things we’ve all known about, things that most societies keep in the closet,” said Owen. “It was time to look at domestic abuse, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse and cultural alienation, and not do it in a Hollywood way, but do it with honesty. And I also felt that it would be successful because… the world is emotionally and spiritually starved. And here was a film that is abundant in both spirit and emotion.”

A mixture of down-to-earth and movie star image consciousness, Owen is a strong-willed individual who does not suffer fools gladly. About medium height, with light brown hair, and a craggy, expressive, attractive face, Owen has a lithe figure, and can be quite a physical, even acrobatic actress. She exudes mana, the Polynesian word for supernatural power.

Like the character she portrayed on screen, Owen is a product of cultural alienation. She was born in the Bay of Islands located in New Zealand’s North Island, the middle of nine children. Her late father was Maori and her mother, English — a highly risqué match which resulted in the mother being disowned by her family.

Having never met her maternal grandparents, Owen was very close with her father’s whanau (extended family) with the usual “60 or 70” first cousins. She experienced racism early and was even discouraged by her relatives from learning Maori.

“It wasn’t the done thing,” she said. “My father’s generation were whipped and beaten when they went to school. That was the way they were forced to learn English. You couldn’t really blame them for not wanting to go and pass it on to their kiddies. They were more anxious for us to succeed in the Western world.”

The Maoris, who are of Polynesian descent, were New Zealand’s original settlers. But most of their land was expropriated by Western settlers, who began arriving at the end of the 18th century. Thousands died as the result of war and new diseases. Today there are 500,000 Maori — about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population — whose history and achievements are now finally being recognized

Love of the stage came early for Owen. As a child she performed in traditional Maori singing and dancing, and later starred in college productions of South Pacific and Calamity Jane. But she never thought acting could be a career choice.

“A woman’s career choices in the late ’70’s were to be a teacher, nurse, or secretary,” she said. “Secondly, I had no role models. We had no brown faces on our TV screens… We only had one Maori on our television, and she was a news reader. So, it [acting] wasn’t something a little Maori girl from the country could pursue.”

To please her parents and fulfill societal expectations, Owen became a nurse. But after a few years, she left her job to travel. She ended up in London where she stayed for seven years, “plenty of time to liberate myself and become an actress…I couldn’t have done it in my own country, where my cultural bonds and my family bonds were very, very strong,” she said.

She performed in countless British productions, and even wrote a play dealing with reclaiming cultural roots — the theme that would soon dominate her life. Owen didn’t go home for seven years until 1989, when her father died.

Although she initially hated New Zealand “cause I was such a Londoner,” Owen was soon turned on by the Maori Renaissance in the country. She decided that “it was more important for me to be in my own country, and make a contribution to my own people.”

That included a part in the first ever Maori television series, E Tepu E Rea (Grow Up Oh Tender Shoot). She also helped establish the Takerua Theater in Wellington which puts on New Zealand works — half by Maoris, half by whites — and served on the Maori Dance and Drama Committee

“…you can never repair the consequences of colonization,” said Owen. “And you can never recapture what has been lost. You know, whether we like it or not, we’re Westernized, and we live in a Western world. But it’s important for people to know who they are, and to be proud of who we are.”

The actress’s break onto the big screen came with a small part in the 1994 Kevin Costner-produced film, Rapa Nui, named for the remote Easter Island known for its huge stone statues. The Hollywood epic was a big bomb, but Owen’s major role was already in the works.

A few months earlier, Owen did a public reading of the second novel of Alan Duff. Half-Maori, Duff is highly controversial in New Zealand for portraying Maoris as violent, domestic abusers and thieves in his novels. Considered even more racist are Duff’s newspaper columns. There he tells Maoris to quit blaming the white man for their problems and pull themselves up by their own boot straps, instead of living off welfare. Owen said she makes a distinction between Duff’s creative works and his newspaper columns which she acknowledges are “redneck.”

When Owen first met Duff, his first novel, Once Were Warriors had already been commissioned to become a movie. After he heard the actress read his new novel, Duff told her “You read that exactly as I wrote it.” He inscribed a book to her “To dear Rena, Hopefully my Beth one day.”

The film’s director, Lee Tamahori, had seen Owen perform and also wanted her for the part. “He knew that I had the strength and the emotional capacity as a person to carry the role, but more importantly, the technique and skill. In New Zealand there is a lot of raw talent, but it’s not necessarily honed,” said Owen.

Since 1994, Owen resisted a few Hollywood offers that were monetarily tempting but aesthetically challenged. Still, she remains busy in her home region. She recently appeared in two New Zealand films — I’ll Make You Happy and When Love Comes Along — to be released at the end of the year. An Australian film in which she performs, Me to My Song, premiered at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, Duff has written a sequel to Once Were Warriors called What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, now being made into a movie, although without Owen’s character.

The movie star says she is very happy, but admits to one “gap” in her life: “…getting married and having children, which is an ambition of mine. And that’ll happen when the time’s right. At the moment, I’m never in one place long enough to have a proper relationship with anyone,” she said.

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