Rena Owen: Acting on Instinct01 Apr 2013, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Rena Owen confronted family ghosts for the inspiration behind her riveting performance in ‘Once Were Warriors’
by Pamela Stirling
New Zealand Listener, July 30, 1994
It was only ever going to be one take. Rena Owen knew that the harrowing suicide scene in Once Were Warriors could be done once and never again. “We deliberately didn’t rehearse it,” she says of the scene where her character, Beth, finds the body of her young daughter, Grace, hanging from a tree. “There was dialogue in the script, but I didn’t even think about it.”
Lee Tamahori, Warriors award-winning director, trusted her totally: “Just go for it, Rena,” he said, “just do what you have to.” “If for one minute,” says Owen, “the audience thought I was acting in that scene, if it looked forced, then that movie wouldn’t work. So, yeah, I knew how far I had to go. I’d dug deep for other scenes. For that one,” she says quietly, her voice on tip-toe in an effort to creep past the topic without rousing the disturbing emotions of that scene, “for that, I was prepared to do anything.”
Tamahori already knew what she was capable of. “Hell, her performance on that set was just riveting.” So “irresistible”, in fact, is the finished performance, says New Zealand Film Commission marketing director Lindsay Shelton, that a growing core of people in the United States are working to get her nominated for an Oscar when the movie is released there. “The most recent person to join the chorus,” says Shelton, “is the man at ICM, one of the biggest agents.”
Tamahori: “The thing about Rena is that she just gives everything. When she slaps Sonny’s character, Nig, just before she gets beaten up, I mean, there was no way she was not going to slap him. That’s the sort of actor she is.
“Everything has to be for real. When she was thrown round the kitchen, of course it all worked out stunt-wise so that people didn’t get hurt, but Rena was determined to get herself really thrown around that kitchen.
“She’s got excellent technical control,” he says. “She is a formally trained actor and, if I say you have to fall down there and you have to have your head facing in that direction, she’ll go crashing into something and do all that. But what makes this such an extraordinary performance is her intuitive intelligence. She can get right inside a character to a point where it’s almost dangerous.”
Rena is right in there, he says. Even the love scenes. Especially the love scenes. “The Americans,” says Warriors producer Robin Scholes, “just think she is so hot; so sexually vibrant and stunningly beautiful and hot.” “Magnetic,” as Variety magazine put it. In a local film industry where most love scenes wouldn’t inspire a rabbit to reproduce, the electricity between Owen and Temuera Morrison sparks: “Oh yeah,” says Tamahori, “when she kisses, she really kisses. She goes for the … her lips are open.”
And that suicide scene? “Bits of it I can recall,” says Owen. “Bits.” But for most of that scene her brain was in full flight-or-fight mode, where adrenalin suddenly smashes through the system. Her heart was racing. Pupils dilated. Her breathing quickened, becoming shallow. Every muscle was tense. “God,” she says, “the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, even talking about it.”
Scriptwriter Riwia Brown: “Writing that scene where she sees Grace hanging and carries her around the back yard, God writing it was very, very scary. Playing it would be absolutely horrific. It had to be so primal.”
But on the set that night, a freezing winter’s night, Owen was secure enough to just let go. “She’s a method actor,” says Brown, “and she does so much research and preparation for a character that it just blows me away. Rena will write notes and notes: where Beth came from, how she met Jake, I mean, things you will never see on film.”
Owen: “One of my first teachers always told me that you’ve got to know the character better than the character knows themselves. And you know, we were shooting all out of sequence. The first day of shooting we filmed the clothesline scene with the police, the second day we filmed the last scene of the film. It was crucial that I did my homework, or I would never have known where Beth was emotionally at the beginning of that suicide scene. If you’re going to go with the moment, you’ve got to be able to trust yourself.
It helped that she and Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, who plays Grace, had clicked. “She still calls me ‘Mum’,” says Owen. But although so much of playing Beth was instinctive, Owen always knew that this was the role she had waited for all her acting life: she couldn’t afford to make a single mistake with this scene. “Good female dramatic leads are rare in this business and yeah, I relished Beth, boy did I relish her.” So when Rena Owen walked onto the set that night, “shaking and already wrung out” as Tamahori tells it, people weren’t sure if it was nerves or if she was already “half gone”. Tamahori “just pushed her onto the set and let her go”. The next few minutes stunned even the crew. “It was so raw,” says Tamahori. Brown: “The crew and everybody there, we had chills running up and down our spines; goosebumps, tears. It was awesome.”
Afterwards, says Brown, “Rena needed a lot of awhi and love and a lot of ‘Let’s get warm.'” It was cold, but people say her shaking was more like a shock reaction. “We had lots of blankets round her and it took a long time, several hours, to come down.”
There was a certain distinguished producer at Cannes who felt the same way. In fact, he couldn’t leave the cinema for nearly half an hour because he still had red eyes. Reviewers note that audiences came out of that movie “not just crying but sobbing.” “All they wanted to do at Cannes,” says Scholes, “was touch Rena, clasp her on the shoulder, hug her, because she has shared so much with them emotionally that they felt they knew her.”
One of the few people who didn’t cry on the premiere night in Auckland was Rena’s mother, Cynthia. “I know when I go again, by myself, that’s how it will be for me, too,” she says. But on that first night she was “far too frightened for Rena” to cry. “Very proud, so proud, but scared for her. I knew that scene with Grace would have really got to her.” Because Cynthia Owen knew what few other people know: that for the suicide scene Rena went way back to the pain she felt when her own brother, Frank, put a bullet in his chest at age 21.
“We never expected it with Frankie,” says Rena, who during two long interview sessions doesn’t mention any of this. It still hurts too much; she doesn’t want people to know. She is hugely resentful that it is asked of her – “Why, why do you have to know this?” – and, in the end, is only persuaded to talk because of the powerful response to the film. The enormous box-office success of Warriors – in less than 10 weeks here it has grossed more than $3.8 million, beating the record of $NZ3.7 million set by the The Piano over 33 weeks – is partly a result of the fact that it has become such a huge hit with teenagers. “That’s distressing in a way,” says Lindsay Shelton, “because we had looked upon it as a film for more mature audiences.” There is real concern among counsellors that some young viewers see Grace’s suicide as an honourable way out. “Oh, but it’s not,” says Owen softly. “Not when the people you hurt so much are the ones who care most. And, look, I’ve been as depressed and as low as you can go,” she says, “but, like, hey, I’m still alive. I’ve wondered why such shitty things happened in my life. But you can work even through the worst tragedies and go on to be happy and have a good life. Look at Boogie in the end of the film: you can achieve a real transformation.
“But poor Frankie,” she says. “We all knew he was having problems, that he was depressed, yet we never expected him to do that. They say suicide is an outrage at the world. But he just wanted to be happy. The day he did it, it was raining and he said to Mum, ‘I’m sick of the rain’, the rain and the hard work, because it was a real effort for him to be happy.” When he shot himself, he did it in the chest, says Rena, because he was “the handsomest out of all the boys” – the nine Owen children were renowned for their looks – “and there was no way he would ever have hurt his face”. He was still alive when they got him to the hospital “and, you know, he could have survived, he could have, because, like the doctor said, he was fit. He was a big, tall, handsome man, with a wonderful physique and if he’d fought for his life … But he didn’t. He just kept saying, ‘Let me go, Mum, let me go.'”
For Cynthia, to whom Rena talked for a long time before the Warriors suicide scene, losing a child like that was the worst that could happen. For Rena, too, it was to be shattering. “I was very, very close to Frankie. He was number four in the family and I was number five. I looked up to him so much; he was so sensitive, Frank. For a long time I felt like I lived for the two of us. You feel hell of a guilty, thinking you didn’t do enough …”
Five years later, when an addiction to smack and cocaine – a way of blocking out her emotions – landed her in Holloway prison, Rena still hadn’t accepted he was dead. “As far as I was concerned, he was still alive and it had never happened.”
Little Maria Makarena – Rena for short – was the last kid who would ever suppress her feelings. “She was born dramatic,” says Cynthia. “When she was happy, she was really, really happy and when she was sad, she was so sad. If you ever got angry with her, she’d start yelling before you ever got near her. She never got a slap because she’d start screaming and then you felt so sorry for her. But she’s always been such fun. You know when Rena’s in town.”
Sipping chardonnay in Wellington’s trendy Opera restaurant, all glammed up in a gorgeous sheer chiffon top and with only her ego to keep her warm against one of the coldest days this winter, Rena Owen gets all actressy about it: “I’m a Cancerian and we are innately emotional people, so I’m very in touch with emotions.” The next day, walking into the Downstage bar in jeans, bomber jacket, and a good warm singlet showing, and still eating a bit of Marmite on toast, she sits down and talks quietly about the gift of spirituality bestowed upon her – along with her name – by her beloved Nanny and the old people of the Ngati Hine. Born in the little town of Moerewa, in the Bay of Islands, she spent a lot of time in the country at Kawiti with her Nanny Upa, “a Maori matriarch in every sense of the word”. Little Rena was carted around to every hui and tangi: “The marae is home to me before any other place.”
“My dad,” says Owen, “was actually born and bred to carry the mantle of the Ngati Hine. But he never fulfilled it. He was a fluent speaker, but he turned his back on it in the 50s and 60s when it was a sin not to be white. He married a Pakeha woman; she was his ticket to the white world. White was right and, hey, the marae didn’t matter any more. He was a big man, my Dad, in the newspaper all the time with his bowls, the Lions club, he was a North Auckland selector and rugby coach and referee. But he lived with those demons.” And Rena, like Beth, knows what they’re like.
“For a long, long time I was ashamed of the colour of my skin. No one in New Zealand ever came up and said you were inferior. You just knew. You grew up knowing you were second-class. And you felt almost dirty.” When she went to Auckland to do nursing training in the early 70s, she “sort of hid my Maoriness. I knew it wasn’t acceptable.”
But growing up in Moerewa, it was fine to be Maori. “Heck, only a few people weren’t Maori.” The Owens had a flash house – “the first Lockwood home in the North” – with lots of flowers, fruit trees, a big vegetable garden, chooks. The kids swam in the river, milked the cows, played in huts. Everything was pretend. “It was whole-hearted, creative play,” says Owen, “and that’s what I do again now: theatre and film is all about play.”
But it wasn’t all idyllic. “Yeah, I did grow up with a lot of violence around me, because Moerewa, well, gang violence put out town on the map.” The Owen house was near the pub: “Every night we used to see them through the lounge window, stumbling home drunk. I saw a lot of violence and a lot of sex.” At six, playing hopscotch on the front footpath, she saw a man bottled right in front of her. “I used to see gangs fighting, couples fighting.” She won’t say more: “I’ve got a family to protect.”
But she will talk about her admiration for her Mum. “We grew up so healthy. Mum grew all her own veges. We always had wonderful meals. Mum was our saving grace, because she was there for us the whole time. Rock solid. Always home. You could always say to Mum, ‘Where’s my school uniform?’ When you woke up, the porridge was always on the table. Your clothes were always washed and ironed.”
“Actually, I wasn’t a very good mother,” confides Cynthia Owen. “I was a very lazy mother. I was never house-proud, but it meant the kids were able to play and dress up and make a big mess and they thoroughly enjoyed it.” Alan Duff, author of Once Were Warriors, probably wouldn’t approve, she says of such slackness, “but I always just felt happy if they were home. They’d bring half the kids in the rest of the street in with them, but that was all right because at least mine were where I thought they should be.”
“I still believe,” says Rena Owen, “that there’s a lot of value in the old-fashioned mother who’s there for her kids. Okay, you look at Jake and Beth, they may not have been there for their kiddies because they were busy boozing and partying, but you get the same thing with people who are so totally busy with their work.” Owen, after her portrayal with Beth, has had lots of sad little letters from kids with grim lives, saying, “I wish my Mum was like you.” “Kids need love,” says Owen, “and they need to feel that they are worth your time.”
But no, Owen is not talking about going back to how things were for her mother. “That generation was totally submissive, totally, and not much better than being a servant to Dad. If it was jump, you jumped.” Rena Owen played Beth, the victim who is ultimately empowered, for all the women of her mother’s generation, “Not just my Mum, a lot of women had the same thing. You never questioned. You never asked. You just cooked. Dad was an absolute perfectionist. He was a very, very vain man. A big man in society, a boss at the freezing works, and the creases on his trousers and his shirts just had to be immaculate. No one was allowed in the bathroom. Dad always had the bathroom first and he would spend half an hour to three-quarters of an hour in the bathroom with Lady Grecian, the aftershave. He was absolutely particular about his presentation. And he did, he always looked amazing. I was really proud of that side of Dad, because he was a man who had a lot of mana, was very respected in the community and all the rest. But … well, Mum was basically not much better than a doormat. But then you can’t blame Dad for that. It was the times they lived in, they were just playing out their roles.”
The role of women – Beth, for example – has always been, she says, to live in hope. “But it’s not good enough to just keep blaming men for violence. If a woman is going to stay in that circumstance, she’s saying, ‘It’s okay that you beat me up, it’s ok that you’re fucking my children up.’ Put it this way: if Beth hadn’t left Jake, you’d think, ‘You bloody fool Go on, go and get another hiding.’ Women have to change their roles, too.”
As a kid, Rena Owen didn’t dare believe that her role was to be an actor. Apart from television presenter Marama Martin, there were no Maori role models. But she went from one minor part to another in her own life: clever, pretty little girl with the big smile, swinging the pois in the kapa haka group and then suddenly a rebellious teenager, indian-ink tattoos on her knuckles (long removed), hanging out with the gangs, on the pill at 16. That was followed by a complete role reversal to the lovely hometown sweetheart who got UE, was a star in school productions, received prizes for her contribution to the cultural life of the school and fulfilled her parent’s dreams by becoming a trained nurse. There was a walk-on role in the punk scene – she could never bring herself to spit properly, but used her pink hair to rebel against society for Frank’s death, the colour of her skin, everything – and then a huge drama in London.
Known back home as the Grunt Machine – after the TV programme – because of her ability to talk, hell, opinionise to anyone, Owen suddenly couldn’t find the confidence to socialise in the London nightclub scene without taking drugs. She was first given heroin by a flatmate. Soon, “if I was feeling nervous or intimidated, I’d do a bit of smack so I could do that scene with all the Boy Georges and the rest.”
A year and a half later, addicted and desperate for a fix of coke, she drove her dealer to the suppliers and got busted. “In my naivity, used to helping the police as a nurse, I signed a full statement. And I got done for ‘concerned to supply’.”
Boy did they laugh about that in prison. Owen ended up with two months in Holloway, then six in Cookhamwood. “I don’t regret it. If that hadn’t happened, I would probably be dead.”
Known in prison as Yoko – “well, I was foreign” – she avoided the human food chain, the cursing at officers, all that, and fought instead for therapy. In the fourth week of therapy, she cried: the first sign of any emotion. “I remember sitting at the desk of this wonderful therapist, Jane Elliot, and sobbing about … well, the bad times … and I just felt this passionate need to express my emotions. I wanted to write. I wanted to act.”
She left prison clear about drugs – has never had more than a puff since – and enrolled at the Actor’s Institute. Through a series of unlikely coincidences – “it had to be God” – she got a first break in Theatre New Zealand’s production of Inside Out. Went in to the Edinburgh Festival, then joined the Clean Break Theatre Company, where she was to meet her mentor, Bafta award-winning Ann Mitchell.
She was on her way: she has since performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbicon, worked with Lynda La Plante, directed, written her own plays – including the well-reviewed Daddy’s Girl, been in TV series such as Shark in the Park, and appeared in films such as Roimata and Kevin Costner’s Rapa Nui. But now Rena Owen, star, is back on the dole. She was paid less than $15,000 for two and a half months work on Warriors. “Actors here are in the same income bracket as cleaners.”
In future, she says, “if I know I’m going to do a part like Beth and carry a film where the wage is low, I won’t do it without a percentage. Otherwise you’re left feeling exploited and a bit resentful.” Owen turned down a highly paid nude role in the stage-play Streaming because she felt it would detract too much from the mana of Beth while Warriors was still screening. But the only other work she has had was a small part in Crimewatch and some radio drama. Owen – just 34 and still dreaming one day of a husband and three kids – drew the line when a “very, very big buyer” at Cannes tried it on one night. “God help me, I hope I never ever sell myself. No job is worth that.”
Lindsay Shelton believes Rena Owen is “poised on the brink of stardom in a country where there have never been women movie stars.” Already, she has her own fan club. Excited staff at the Film Commission ran to get her autograph when she called in: that’s never happened before in the history of the Film Commission, says Shelton. Kiri Te Kanawa has already proven that the colour of your skin is not a barrier to taking on any role. But ask him if there’s a star structure in the New Zealand film industry and he replies: “I wish, I wish.”
Owen is full of praise for everyone who worked on Warriors. But it hurt, “God it hurt”, to be the “only one who missed out on an award”. What hurt most was that the New Zealand best film actress award went to an Australian. “Gen Picot is a fine actress,” says Owen, “but I took great risks playing Beth and I did it for New Zealanders. There’s no way the Australians would give their top award to a Kiwi, no way.” Owen simply doesn’t see that she faltered: “There is not one moment in that film when I was not totally into that role.” But ask if the egg scene isn’t a little overcooked, and she’ll admit, “that’s the one scene that makes me cringe”, though at the end of the day, she says, “You listen to your director.” It was one of the first major roles for a Maori woman, certainly the first time a Maori woman had been up for that award. “It’s been a long time coming,” says Owen. And the morning after, feeling that she had let everyone down, it took a long time for her to be able to listen calmly to her mother in the hotel.
Cynthia: “She kept saying, ‘Oh to hell with acting’, that sort of thing, it’s natural. She had a good weep, she was feeling bitter. And I don’t know whether I was right or I was wrong, but something led me to say, ‘I think of your brother, the awful disappointment he felt with life. All he wanted was to be able to work; to work, to play rugby and to have a girlfriend.’ I said, ‘He didn’t even want what you want. But he kept trying, even though it just wasn’t possible for him.’ And, you know, Rena picked herself up then and she said, ‘I can handle it, Mum. I’ll keep trying.'”
© Listener 1994