Rena Owen12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Star of Once Were Warriors
by Daniel Robert Epstein
Suicidegirls, November 12, 2003
I still remember when I first saw Once Were Warriors. It was terrifying. it was not only the downfall of a family through abuse but it also was showed how far a powerful people, The Maori, had fallen.
Once Were Warriors is the story of a New Zealand family descended from Maori warriors and is bedeviled by a violent father and the societal problems of being treated as outcasts.
Rena Owen plays the mother of the family, Beth Heke who loves her husband no matter how hard he beats her and her children. It isn’t until the death of one of her children that she finds the strength to do something.
It’s been ten years since its theatrical run and director Lee Tamahori has become a powerful Hollywood director of such films as Die Another Day and the upcoming Deathlok. Our interviewee Rena Owen has moved to films like the Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Owen is just like every other New Zealand woman I have spoken to. From Lucy Lawless to Anna Paquin they are strong women with strong opinions who don’t take shit off nobody.
I was surprised to learn that Owen was a real punk back in the late 1970’s piercings, tattoos and all. I would have loved to see this beautiful woman up close looking all real punk and SGish.
Now New Line Home Video is releasing Once Were Warriors on American DVD for the first time with all new extras.
Check out New Line’s website for Once Were Warriors DVD.
Daniel Robert Epstein: Are you happy that Once Were Warriors is out on DVD?
Rena Owen: Absolutely. I have a lot of people always asking me when it was going to come out. I kept saying it hasn’t come out in America. It came out in New Zealand but it a different format.
DRE: What’s your best memory of working on it?
RO: The privilege of being involved in such a phenomenal project that became a big hit. As an actor you learn that big hits are a privilege in one’s career. So it’s a piece of work I will be proud until the day I die. I think it’s an amazing achievement in that it was shot in 34 days on a budget of $1 million with a fantastic soundtrack. What I’ve always said about the character of Beth Heke is that she was my privilege but not my pleasure. It was a grueling role to do but I knew then that a great dramatic female role is very rare. I relished her to the max.
DRE: Is the story very famous in New Zealand before the movie came out?
RO: It was a best selling novel. So it had a quite a life before the film. Before Lord of the Rings it rained as the number one film in New Zealand. At the time it slayed Jurassic Park at the box office. It was also part of Time Magazine’s top ten films in the world for that year. But all that changed a lot of people’s lives. I remember the first week it came out in New Zealand women’s refuge groups and anger management groups were inundated with people calling and saying they had a warriors problem. It kind of opened this whole door to healing. It even went as far as New Zealand governments where they made new domestic violence laws because of the film. They still play the movie on the Independent Film Channel. As an actor it spoiled me because I come from years of TV and theatre work then went straight into Warriors. I got the cherry on the top of my cake at the beginning of my career which was tough because it gave me no where to go. It was hard finding stuff as good.
DRE: Movies like Once Were Warriors don’t come along too often in any country.
RO: Even before it got made there was a lot of controversy. People said it should never be made. But once it came out that laid rest to any of those concerns. I have to take my hat off to the [director] Lee Tamahori because the scenes where Jake beats up Beth there were many people who said that he should not shoot that scene. That he should just allude to the fact that it happened. He stuck to his guns and said no. He wanted to shoot it as it is because if you just cut to the bruises people won’t get the point of the film. It’s a hard scene for people to watch but you see the full brutality of domestic violence. He was very courageous. I think he did a phenomenal job.
DRE: Did you do research for Once Were Warriors?
RO: First and foremost I had the novel. That book has so much information in it. You get to read the character’s internal situations. I pretty much got all my answers from the book and the fantastic screenplay. The only question I was left with was did she stay with him. So they hooked me up with a woman who had a similar situation as the woman in Once Were Warriors and I asked her that. I’ll never forget because she said it very simply “I loved him.” When I was playing Beth I was overwhelmed by her love of Jake. It’s kind of like an addiction. On the intellectual level you know he’s bad for you but emotionally you’re totally hooked. That was Beth’s syndrome. Ultimately Beth had to lose a child before she said enough is enough.
DRE: I read you were part Maori.
RO: Partly. My dad is Welsh/Maori and my mum is French English.
DRE: Are Maorian people in New Zealand much different from other New Zealanders?
RO: No the whole the country is westernized. Often you get tourists who come down and want to find the natives in the grass huts. They all live in houses and drive cars same as you.
DRE: Why was it important for the characters to be Maori?
RO: The author of the novel, Alan Duff, based it partly on his own life so he is part Maorian. But at the end of the day we all know that family could have been black, white, yellow or anything. But I think what made the film more unique is that it was a Maori film so you had that aspect of the culture like the singing and the tattooing of the face. I do believe that element helped the film. I don’t think it would have been as interesting if it had been a Caucasian family.
DRE: Have you had any contact with Lee lately?
RO: Oh yes I love Lee. I haven’t seen him for a while because I live in America now. He may be doing XXX2.
DRE: He’s turning into one of the biggest directors in the world.
RO: From little old New Zealand. It’s the same with the likes of Sam Neill, Roger Donaldson, and Martin Campbell. They’re good old Kiwis.
Of course we can’t forget our favorite hobbit Peter Jackson.
DRE: Peter Jackson has been a big director there for a long time.
RO: Peter is a genius. I’m a huge fan of his work and I will cry if he doesn’t get the Oscar this time around because what he’s achieved with the Lord of the Rings has been absolutely amazing. They’re epic and enormous. I can’t wait to see that last one. So I’m going to fly back to New Zealand to attend the premiere for the last one.
DRE: Are you a big fan of Peter’s horror films as well?
RO: Oh yeah! Meet the Feebles is so brilliant. Peter, Lee and I toured the world because the same year Once Were Warriors was released so was Heavenly Creatures. What a coup that was for New Zealand.
DRE: I hear New Zealand is the most beautiful place on earth.
RO: It really is paradise. There was always this story about New Zealand that it was called God’s Own. That when he made New Zealand he made it for himself to stay in. It’s really got a little piece of the entire world in these two little islands. You can go from desert to tropical beaches to snow mountains in an hour. That’s what makes it an idyllic film location. I was told Tom Cruise had a sensational time making The Last Samurai there.
DRE: How has the Star Wars experience been for you?
RO: Star Wars is a genre all its own. In Star Wars Episode 2 I played the tall sexy alien with the long skin neck. I had an absolute ball doing that. I just came off doing Episode 3 as a different character, a senator. But I would have to say that I had more fun playing an alien. 2000 was a good year for me because I went from Star Wars to being in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. To go back to back from Lucas to Spielberg is quite the coup in a lifetime let alone in one year. Doing Star Wars I learned a lot about animation and CGI. That’s a big part of the future of filmmaking. But it’s not a great acting journey. It’s more about being a pawn on a chess board because so much is about the special effects. It’s still a wonderful experience because the cast is wonderful. Ewan McGregor is such a babe.
DRE: Is Ewan a big flirt?
RO: He’s not actually. He’s married but he is very friendly. Sadly I can’t say he flirted with me. Ewan is down to earth and very real. In Episode 2 all of my scenes were with Ewan.
I thought doing a Star Wars movie would be a fun gig but as soon as they put my name on the website as an official character I started getting bags of fan mail. Even if you’re only in it for one second you mean so much to those fans.
DRE: I read some pretty wild things about you. You had a drug habit in London.
RO: Yes I was a punk rocker 20 years ago. I think most artistic people dabble on the dark side. I’m kind of sorry that happened but I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. From my perspective I’m glad I did it back then before I got into the film industry. If I hadn’t done it back then when I was young dumb punk I would have been doing it now.
DRE: Were you a real punk?
RO: Oh yeah. The clothes, safety pins, the constantly changing spiky hair and the works.
DRE: Do you have a tattoo?
RO: I do but it’s in a place that cannot be seen [laughs].
DRE: What kind of music was it for you back then?
RO: The Sex Pistols, The Clash, UB40 because I was living in London. I was smack in the middle of it and that’s how I got into the drugs too. I was naïve. I had college qualifications but I hadn’t seen those kinds of hard drugs in New Zealand. When you get into the entertainment scene in London it was part and parcel for the whole club scene.
DRE: What drugs are we talking about here?
RO: Heroin, speed lots of stuff. I thought I could just play around with those hard drugs but nobody can. Once is too much. I don’t believe in regretting stuff that happened but you learn from it. Also having been through those experiences, that’s part of what gives me that ability to go to deep dark places for acting. I feel safe in myself.
DRE: Do you still feel anarchic today?
RO: Yes I have to watch my rebellious tendencies though. It’s been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I have to check my attitude sometimes.
DRE: What brings it out in you?
RO: I have impatient tendencies. To this day I want to rebel against authority sometimes.