Rena Owen: Acting her age
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Rena Owen: Acting her age

12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Rena Owen: Acting her age
Rena Owen will speak openly about her addiction, prison time and love life – just don’t ask how old she is, says Megan Nicol Reed.
by Nicol Reed
Sunday Star Times, November 16, 2003
Rena Owen will speak openly about her addiction, prison time and love life – just don’t ask how old she is, says Megan Nicol Reed.

Rena Owen is a Cancer, and according to a reputable online film database, she is 41. But a nine-year-old Listener article has her at 34, which would make her 43. And in a 2002 New Idea article, she admits to being a few years older than her then 35-year-old husband, putting her somewhere in her late 30s. In a search to establish Owen’s age, her star sign is the only certainty.Perhaps this story should have kicked off with the actress’s former drug addiction; the time she served in a London prison; or even the famous pool cue incident when she assaulted a woman in a Kawakawa pub. Over the phone from Los Angeles, Owen is only too happy to talk about any of this. She speaks freely and openly for over an hour about all manner of things: the love and sense of security she has found with her husband Olo Alailima, her aspirations to write and direct, the possibility of getting involved in politics, her desire to have children. Owen could, in fact, talk the hind legs off a donkey. The only thing she won’t be drawn on, however, is her age. Which, of course, makes it the thing you most want to know.

Her website,, says she was born “sometime during the 60s”. Does this mean she’s unwilling to divulge her age? “I think it’s always safe to say born sometime in the ’60s. That’s the media-friendly, acting-friendly way to say it. Sometime in the ’60s.”

As irritating as it is, Owen has a point. Decent roles for so-called “mature actresses” diminish with every candle added to the birthday cake. She says she is disturbed by the Hollywood obsession with an unobtainable aesthetic and the pursuit of eternal youthfulness, but she understands how actresses fall into the plastic surgery trap.

“When I first came here, I’d sit in a room of women, and they’re flawless, beautiful, stunning, drop-dead gorgeous women, feeling like OOh God’, so plain and ordinary. I’m thinking, in order to compete am I going to have to buy into the silicone boobs? Then I realised that I can’t afford to buy into it, because I’d do myself out of so much work. I could never come back and play Polynesian women looking like a freak. I actually think I will get more work because I look real.”

Owen is all too aware of what she’s up against in a town of blonde carbon copies, where only 6.2% of the 145 films released between May 2001 and April 2002 by Hollywood studios were directed by women, where only 38% of the Screen Actors Guild roles in 2000 were performed by women, and where there is a huge decline in actresses working after the age of 40. But she’s realistic; a girl’s got to earn a crust.

“I hear people say it’s an ageist, sexist, racist town, but I can’t afford to entertain the limitations,” she says in her husky cross between a Californian drawl and a Kiwi twang. “If I thought about those things too much I wouldn’t be here.”

She won international critical acclaim for the role of Beth Heke in the 1994 film Once Were Warriors, receiving four international best actress awards, the NZ Benny Award for Excellence and Contribution to the Industry, and the NZ Toast Master’s Communicator of the Year Award. A role as the voice and the motion-capture template for a computer-generated alien, Taun We, in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, earned Owen box-office credibility and a legion of sci-fi fans.

“When I had finished working on it, I started getting all this fan mail. The film hadn’t even come out, and I’m thinking I’m a five-minute alien, you can’t even see my face; what do you want my autograph for?” She is also appearing in the next Star Wars. This time she gets to play a human.

Her Once Were Warriors co-stars Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis have gone on to enjoy a relative degree of Hollywood success, Curtis in particular developing a niche market playing Middle Eastern and Latin American baddies. While she has never been out of work – she’s in supernatural sequel The Crow: Wicked Prayer, and the family movie The Water Giant, which was filmed in Queenstown – Owen hasn’t exactly cracked the big time since Once Were Warriors.

Her latest film, Nemesis Game, a New Zealand/Canadian co-production which opens on Thursday, is the story of a young woman who gets caught up in an evil, underground riddle game. Owen plays Emily Gray, a psychotic woman who holds the key to the riddle in her deranged mind. Owen hasn’t played many baddies, but she is very, very good at it. By far the strongest performance in the film, her part is mesmerisingly terrifying, but disappointingly brief.

Does she feel bitter that the success of Once Were Warriors hasn’t led to bigger and better roles? Absolutely not, she says.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than Warriors. The box offices it broke in New Zealand and Australia, the numerous awards it won internationally, and the kudos it still enjoys today, it’s a cult classic film; but more importantly it made a difference, it changed a lot of people. The only way it can get any bigger is a film that has a bigger budget. But let’s face it, we’ve seen a lot of bigger budget films, and a lot of them are pretty crappy. To me, I’ve had the ultimate, and it would be really wrong of me to bitch, ‘cos I’ve got nothing to bitch about. There are actors who give their whole lifetime to this industry and they never know the experience of being in a film that’s a hit.”

When you ask Owen a question, this is what you get back – an entire speech. She laughs frequently, and listens intently. She has the knack of repeating a question, and returning to it, thereby validating her interviewer. It’s both gratifying and flattering. Her “gift of the gab”, as she puts it, has won her many invitations to speak at universities, film schools and conferences. Who knows, she says, when she eventually returns to New Zealand, she may even consider a career in politics.

“La La Land” has been her base for several years now. She met her husband, an American Samoan, at the David Tua vs Lewis Lennox 2000 fight. (“I’d really gotten to that point where I needed to find my mate.”) They hope to have children soon, and Owen says, despite his job in security at some of Hollywood’s swankiest joints, and all the premieres and ceremonies her name earns them entry to, she is happiest hanging out at home.

“What I do for a job is very complex and bizarre, and odd hours, and extraordinary. So I keep a very ordinary life. The things I get off on are very simple family things. I realised very quickly you don’t advance your career by propping up bars.”

Of course, this wasn’t always the way. One of nine children, with a Maori father and a Pakeha mother, Owen was brought up a Catholic (her full name is Maria Macarena – Mary Magdalene) in the Northland town of Moerewa. Given the choice of becoming a secretary, a teacher or a nurse, she trained as a general obstetric nurse, before leaving for the UK on her OE. Her biggest addiction? Sweeties and ciggies. But in London, she discovered drugs, a taste for speed developing into a full-blown heroin addiction. In the wrong place at the wrong time, she was jailed after her dealer’s place was busted in 1984. It was while she was in prison that she realised she really wanted to be an actor and wrote her first play.

On getting out of jail she trained at the Actors Institute in London, and worked in the theatre. She returned to NZ in 1989, where she continued to work extensively in theatre and television until she got her big break with Once Were Warriors. She says the public thought the film-makers had found a real life Beth Heke and plonked her in a movie, and this perception was confirmed by the charges of assault and drinking under the influence, which came in the immediate aftermath of the film’s success.

“I was never a drinker. I never liked alcohol, but I had a very hard time coping with the attention and the fame, and there was free-flowing champagne at a lot of these dos. I found that a couple of glasses would make me feel not so nervous.”

After the “drunken, foolish” incidents, and a stern talking to from her mum, she realised it was a bad pattern and knocked the drinking on the head. “I am a living example of transformation. You can make mistakes, but you know what? You don’t have to stay down and out.”

© Star Times

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