Rena, Warrior Princess12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Rena, Warrior Princess
Beating a bad attitude
by Tom Hyde
Metro, June 30, 1997
TOM HYDE caught up with Rena who is still very much alive and about to start shooting her second feature film.
Maria Makarena Owen has just finished a 10-hour day on the set of Medivac, the Australian-produced television drama series she has starred in since moving last year to Brisbane from her home at Muriwai Beach. Rena (not “Reena”) now lives in a charming 150-year-old “Queenslander”, a working-man’s cottage in the suburb of, curiously enough, Fortitude Valley.
After a cigarette and her second session of the day in make-up, she appears in a long, black gown, heels, her hair up, ready for a guest appearance at the Queensland New Filmmakers Awards. “I’m tired,” she admits, “but I see this as part of my job. Plus I like to get out and meet young filmmakers. They need all the encouragement they can get.” She laughs cheekily, “and who knows, one of them might offer me a job someday!”
Not that she needs a job right now. The move to Australia has been good for her. She’s left a controversial post-Warriors period in Auckland behind her, resettled where people have admiration and respect for her and she’s in demand to the point where getting the time for a long walk in the Queensland sunshine with her friendly dog Maru (“protector”) or cooking for friends feels like a luxury.
This month she finishes her stint with the Medivac team and begins shooting her first feature film since Warriors. She’s also making a cameo appearance in another, playing the lead in two short films and working on her own film script. Still lingering in the jetstream of Warriors is the occasional overseas invitation; she recently declined an offer from Brazil.
Rena Owen describes herself as “a workaholic” but she has the ability to turn it on and off in a disciplined way. She has weekly sessions of acupuncture, yoga and massage. She has voice lessons in preparation for her next film where she must speak like an Aborigine who has lived her adult life in England, if you can imagine.
In the 12 months she’s been in Brisbane she’s also made many friends. After hours, she strives to be ordinary. On weekends she shops at the local supermarket where, according to a source, “she loves meeting people and she’s accepted as just one of the neighbourhood girls”. Just one of the girls. That’s Rena. “I’ve always felt a need to keep in touch with the real world,” she says. “It keeps my life in perspective.”
Owen is not a fatalist but she does believe in fate. In her world there’s no such thing as an accident. Of course she would think that, you might say, because she was raised a Catholic. But there’s more to it than that. It’s like luck: people aren’t simply lucky, they put themselves in a position to be lucky. Owen believes that if you keep trying, if you have the will and desire to overcome setbacks with your life, you can. And you’ll have fate on your side.
That is her message to the audience of 300 at the 11th annual Queensland New Filmmakers Awards at the Music Conservatorium, a venue on the south bank of the Brisbane River. Backstage, Anne Deny-Geroe, artistic director for Film Events Queensland, tells me, “Rena gives a great sense of pride to Queenslanders. Young people here have a lot of respect for her, so we were thrilled when she agreed to attend our awards.”
Introduced by a local television personality as “a true legend”, Rena and Ross Dimsey, head of Film Queensland, give out three awards. Before she leaves the stage Rena turns suddenly to the microphone and says, “To all of you, I just want to say don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up.”
At the party afterwards she signs autographs and shakes hands, dealing patiently and graciously with the constant stream of people who approach her, who just want to shake her hand and say how much they appreciated her performance in Warriors.
She’s so much a centre of attention that she’s unable to finish the one glass of red wine (“always red wine, love”) someone brings her. At one point a boy, no more than 14 or 15 years old, the son of an Australian film somebody, takes her hand and kisses it like a prince courting a princess. Later he takes it upon himself to hail a taxi for her. “Thank you, love,” she says and kisses the kid on the cheek. From the grin on his face, it was clear that was what he had been hanging out for all along. “I’m dead tired,” she says, once inside the cab, “but that was fun, wasn’t it?”
If ever anyone needed evidence to support the idea that women are intrinsically stronger than men, one need only point to Rena Owen. And it has nothing to do with the fact that she played the strongest women ever to appear in a New Zealand film, that of Beth Heke in Once Were Warriors. Beth Heke was strong because the actor chosen to play her part is an intense and spirited soul, strong enough to say goodbye to her Northland family at the age of 22 and head for the bright lights and dark alleys of London; strong enough to overcome heroin addiction and survive a prison sentence; strong enough to succeed in the tough, unforgiving world of professional acting. “I have a strong constitution,” she says.
And so she should have, being the daughter of a Pakeha woman who was herself courageous enough to marry a Maori against the wishes of her family, and a man who is descended from a Ngati Hine chief.
At Bay of Islands College, Owen took part in school plays but acting wasn’t deemed to be a proper career. So after passing school certificate at UE, she enrolled for nursing, the only Maori in her class. She worked at Auckland Public Hospital for four years before embarking on the great OE, destination London. There she moved into a flat with a junkie. “I didn’t know that when I moved in,” she says, “but that’s not an excuse.”
It started very casually, on weekends only, while she managed an independent cinema. For most of a year she kept her use of heroin hidden, until it became a daily habit. “Once I realised I was hooked I tried to get away from it. I used to go to a friend’s house in Kent and dry out, but as soon as I got back to London, well, nothing had changed, changed inside, if you know what I mean. You don’t make a real change, a deeper shift, until you discover the reasons you do something. And it doesn’t have to be heroin: it can be any thing – alcohol, gambling, chocolate.”
When I ask what those reasons were, she replies, “That’s private.” In another interview she mentions her brother’s suicide and admits she had never really grieved for him. Frankie was only 21 when he shot himself in the chest, about four years before she went to London. “I can generalise,” she adds, “and say that I lacked confidence and drugs gave me confidence, but there were deeper reasons.”
Did therapy help her discover those reasons? “Absolutely. You see, I never surrendered to heroin. At no time did I ever accept myself as a junkie. Intellectually I knew it was bad for me and I wanted to quit but I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know how to because I didn’t know why I was doing it.”
Eventually it, and the police, caught up with her. “I got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I got caught at my dealer’s house. I went to score but she didn’t have any gear, so I drove her to a place where she could get some. We picked up the smack and went back to her house. As it turned out, her place was under surveillance, so we were sitting at her kitchen table and she’s chopping it up and sorting out my bag, and the next thing, woof! – cops smashing down doors, D’s coming over the balcony, through the window, and there I was.”
She was arrested. “They took me down to the cop shop and searched me and eventually they realised that I was not a dealer, just a user, but they asked me for a statement. Essentially my experience of cops was working with them as a nurse, so being a good girl I told them the truth, how I drove this girl to pick up gear. That’s what got me busted – my own statement. I admitted driving her, so I had knowingly helped her to supply.”
Owen spent a month in jail on remand, then awaited four months for her trial. “It was while I was waiting for my trial that I did the most damage to myself. I started using cocaine too. There was a lot of denial going on in my mind. I thought of my family, I mean, I had been my father’s pride and joy; I was ‘Daddy’s girl’ and I couldn’t live with what they were going to think of me.”
Her sister came to London to bring her home, but just at the time Rena was about to appear in court, Britain was swept up in a wave of anti-drugs hysteria. Most of it was political hype. The day before she appeared in court, Margaret Thatcher made a nationally televised address on the subject from a Tory party conference in Brighton. Where Rena Owen might have hoped to get off with a fine and deportation, the judge told her he had to make an example of her. She spent the next seven months in jail.
“Looking back, I was quite grateful for that time because I knew I needed time out. It forced me to either give up once and for all or live the rest of my life as a junkie… that’s how I saw it. Physical withdrawal was not a problem for me, my problem was this,” she says, pointing to her head.
She finally got help from the jail’s head nurse who was also a trained therapist: “For six months, two sessions a week, we stripped away the layers and I came to terms with past traumas I had never dealt with. My brother had died five years earlier and I still had not dealt with that.”
Her lover and best friend at the time, New Zealand actor Mark Clare, kept in touch with her throughout this period. He was there to pick her up when she was released. She’s telling me this in the privacy of her own home where she begins to let her guard down. She pauses, looks away and becomes tearful as she says reflectively, “Good friends…you can’t go through life without them.”
She stayed with Clare for a short while before moving in with another New Zealand friend. Deciding that she wanted to act, she enrolled for a course at the Actors’ Institute. She had kicked her habit (“I’ve never touched smack since”) and was ready for a change in direction.
“One day I came home and a guy who lived upstairs, who knew I was a Kiwi and interested in acting, knocked on my door and showed me an ad in Stage, a newspaper for actors in film and television. Someone wanted New Zealand actors, Maori or Pakeha, for a play to go to the Edinburgh Festival.
“This happened on the last day for applications, so I rang immediately. The asked me about my experience and all I could tell them was that I played Calamity Jane in high school and that I was in a Maori culture group. The woman said, ‘Sorry, we’re looking for professional actors.’ She was about to hang up when I asked, ‘What’s the play about?’ She said it was about seven women in prison. My mouth dropped open, and when I told her I had just come out of prison they wanted to see me straight away.”
The play, called Outside In, was written and directed by New Zealander Hillary Beaton and performed by the New Zealand Theatre Company. About 30 actors auditioned for the seven parts. Owen got one; Hinemoa Holmes got another. “Rena has often said she was lacking confidence then and she probably was,” says Hinemoa Holmes, “but it never showed. She came across as a very strong person with a lot of real-life experience behind her. One day she and I had to sit facing each other. We had to think of somebody we had a lot of love for but also a lot of anger for. We had to talk to them, say what we felt. I talked to Rena first and then she talked to me, and I can tell you she was extraordinary. She had a lot of emotion.”
Before long, fate intervened again. As Owen remembers it, “I was developing an interest in meditation, so I rang what I thought was the number for a meditation centre but instead the woman who answered the phone says, ‘Sorry, this is Clean Break.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon,’ and she says, ‘Clean Break… a theatre company of women ex-prisoners.’ I thought, this must be some kind of joke.”
An accident? “I don’t believe in accidents.”
She had started writing a play in jail. By the time she joined the Clean Break Theatre company she was confident enough to show it to someone. But who?
“I was getting up at five every morning for a foot-courier job that finished at eight. I’d go to the Actors’ Institute from 10 to 12 and then to the Groucho Club where I was a waitress during the lunchtime shift. After that, I’d rehearse for Clean Break. One night I walked into Clean Break – I’ll never forget it because it was pissing down and I had a rag for a raincoat – and I met a woman named Ann Mitchell who was directing a course that six of us, all ex-prisoners, had joined. She read my play and said, ‘I’ll be honest, dear, it’s not very good, but I can see you have something to say and that you are 100 per cent dedicated’; on the strength of that she worked with me on the script.”
What did Rena Owen have to say? “I wanted to show a need for addicts to be helped, not punished.”
Owen’s association with Ann Mitchell opened doors. She appeared at the Royal Shakespeare in a play directed by Mitchell called Voices From Prison, and eventually her own play, Te Awa I Tahuti (The River That Ran Away) was produced and performed in fringe theatres around London. That led to offers from a publisher and a filmmaker to write a novel and make a film, respectively, based on the play.
“I was reluctant because the play was a personal catharsis. I wasn’t ready to write a novel, and the idea of getting an advance frightened me more. I also wanted to return to New Zealand for the first time in seven years for my father’s 60th birthday. To do that I got a job nursing at a private hospital where I made good money,” she says.
The trip home was booked and Owen was a week off leaving London when the phone rang in the middle of the night: “It was my sister, I’m thinking, she’s ringing to check on my arrival time; instead she says, I’m sorry, I’ve got bad news. Dad’s just passed away.”
She hadn’t seen her father in seven years. His death “was a real blow” but she was organised enough to be on the next plane to Auckland. Rather than return to London, however, after a few months in Northland, she went to Wellington where there were opportunities for her in theatre. “I lived and breathed theatre for eight years before Warriors. I’m glad I started in theatre because that’s where you learn the nuts and bolts. I mean, people who go straight into camera work, like on Shortland Street, all they end up doing is getting involved with their own ego. In theatre you’ve got to do it for love and out of passion and because you’ve got something to say. For me, those are the prerequisites of an artist.”
She was living in Wellington in 1990 and “doing theatre” when a flatmate came home with a book he insisted she read. The book was Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors. “When I read that book my brain was ticking away and I thought, ‘if this is ever made into a film, the part of Beth Heke would be a fantastic part for me to play.’ About a year later I heard Communicado had gained the rights so when I next came to Auckland I got in touch with them.
“I was in town with a play and I was playing a similar sort of character to Beth – a solo mum with a bit of a drink problem, hard times, social issues… Communicado put me on to Ross Jennings who was looking after Warriors in those days. I invited him to the Maidment to see our play and told him that I’d love to audition for the role of Beth.
“He liked the play and agreed to audition me. He also said – and I’ve never forgotten this – ‘We don’t know who will be directing it, although it would be nice if we could get a Maori director.’ I said, ‘What about Lee Tamahori?'”
Why Lee? “Because I knew him from one of the E Tipu I Reo drama series I appeared on when I first got back to New Zealand in 1989. It was the first drama I had done in New Zealand and I liked his approach.”
Tamahori was chosen to direct the film and Rena Owen eventually got her audition. “I actually did it in Whangarei on my way north to visit my family. Don Selwyn auditioned me. When you audition, you know when you hit it and when you don’t. I knew this time I had hit it,” she says.
Don Selwyn had seen Rena in a production at the Taki Rua Theatre and then cast her in a non verbal part in the television drama Variations on a Theme. What interested him was her ability to challenge an emotional range.
“When I read the treatment of Beth’s character I felt that Rena would be hard to beat. It was a great audition; she was really put through her paces,” he says. “Rena was great to work with in the rehearsals. Some nice things emerged between her and Temuera. Couple of rocky passages, but they were good for each other.”
Communicado was still getting its act together, so Owen accepted a role in Rapa Nui and spent six months on Easter Island. “My time there was useful,” she explains, “because it rained a lot and we didn’t work, so I had a lot of time to prepare for Beth. I read the book twice more to understand the psychology of the characters. That’s how I always prepare for a role. For me a character’s life does not begin at the beginning of a film, it begins the day they are born, so I try to understand their childhood.
“In Beth’s case I also imagined how she met Jake. You don’t see these things in my performance but they’re there; that’s why Beth came across as a whole character. I mean, how do you know how a character will react if you don’t know their background? I’m an inside out actor. I don’t work from the outside. I don’t layer. I work from here” – she points to her gut. “People think I just walked off the street and did that part; what they don’t appreciate is that I had eight years of intensive theatre work behind me.”
So why did Beth live with a man like Jake? “Because she loved him.” Even though he beat her up? “Yes. You see, something else I could use for the role was my own addiction to heroin, because that’s similar to what it’s like in a violent relationship. On an intellectual level Beth knew Jake was bad for her and the kids but on an emotional level she was hooked. It was the same for me when I was on smack. It’s a love hate thing. I knew what I was doing to myself was bad, but emotionally I couldn’t stop. I used my own drug experience to understand the relationship between Beth and Jake.”
Once Were Warriors broke the mould, earning more than $6 million in New Zealand, more than any film before or since, including Hollywood “blockbusters” like ET and Jurassic Park. But more than that, it exposed a shocking dimension of New Zealand society which, until then, had remained hidden from the mainstream. It spawned anti-domestic violence campaigns that, in one way or another, adopted Rena Owen as their queen.
What was the lesson she learned? “That, as you go through life, the important thing is to not repeat mistakes. It’s often a matter of changing your attitude or certain notions you have about yourself. Rather than see something as a problem, a mistake should be seen as an opportunity to learn.”
Like learning how to deal with fame? “I didn’t like fame initially. I wasn’t prepared for it. I was rebellious about it and I thought, why should I change? Why can’t I do what I’ve done every bloody day of my life? But that attitude wasn’t serving me, so I made mistakes and then the media persecuted me and da, da, da. I had to learn to live with fame or get out of the industry. I mean, if you put yourself in the public eye, you’ve got to expect that people will want to talk to you, touch you, and you can’t blame them for that. And I should say that most people are really nice – I’ve only met one or two arseholes.”
She’d handle a similar situation differently now? “Yes. One night I was with my mother and sister and a guy comes up to me – this is after the poolcue thing – and he’s drunk and he’s staring at me. Finally he says, ‘You know, you’re not even pretty. In fact, you’re pretty bloody ugly, and you’re fat as well.’
“Now because I had not been drinking, I was able to laugh. It all struck me as amusing. He was aggressive; he wasn’t trying to be funny, but I was able to walk away. Had I been intoxicated, I may not have reacted that way. As [Once Were Warriors actor] Cliff Curtis said [in the documentary Beth’s World], because we’re Maori and there are so few of us, we are role models. I accept that now but that didn’t happen overnight. Now I choose where I go and I know that if I drink in public, I make myself vulnerable, so I no longer allow myself to get drunk.”
Always? “Don’t get me wrong. If I’m with my family and we’re in the old garage, if I’m in safe company I can let my guard down, but I Have learned how to be responsible to myself and my fans when I’m in public. I’ll be very honest with you, it took me a year and a half to get through the pool-cue thing and to learn a greater sense of responsibility.”
In January this year a story appeared in the Herald with the headline: “Rena Owen In Wars Again”. The story reported that she had been involved in a scuffle on the set of Medivac and quoted a Network Ten spokesman saying, “She was in an altercation with someone on the set.” No further details were given. The paper ran another story the next day suggesting that Owen had broken someone’s nose. She still gets angry when she thinks about it. “Nothing happened,” she insists.
Nothing? According to Owen the other woman was drunk and wouldn’t leave her alone, as in the Northland pub encounter, but in this case she only pushed the woman away. That was enough apparently for the woman to scream bloody murder. The incident occurred in the toilets at a private function, not on the set of Medivac. There were no other witnesses and in the end it felt trite to pursue the matter further with the show’s producer, Tony Cavanaugh, who said: “I understand there was an article in the New Zealand press that she whacked someone, but it didn’t happen, full stop.”
After Warriors, Rena Owen had offers from Hollywood, but Hollywood being Hollywood, you can’t count on the sun rising each day (or seeing it if it does). She auditioned for a role in Ransom, with Mel Gibson and Rene Russo, but the part was changed to accommodate a tinsel-town blonde with big boobs. She kept reading scripts.
“I was in Toronto,” Owen tells me the next day on the set of Medivac, “and sitting in front of about 30 scripts. It was never my intention that the next movie after Warriors would be a New Zealand film, but out of all those scripts I can honestly say that the most original and the most gripping was a New Zealand script, You’re My Venus. I liked it because I felt the character I would play would serve me well. The role was ultraglamorous and challenging because she was a transexual.”
She committed to the film but it wasn’t made. The director, Stewart Main, is still looking for funding. Nevertheless, Rena Owen had made her choice and once she does that she remains loyal, even to her own detriment. She turned down offers in Europe, the United States and Australia waiting for Venus to get under way: “People say I was crazy and maybe I was. An experienced and wise actor has since told me, ‘Darling, if they haven’t given you the money in hand…’ so I’ll never do that again. Medivac was my fifth Australian offer and by then it wasn’t worth it to keep turning down jobs, because sooner or later the offers would stop coming.”
Medivac’s ratings in Australia, however, have been unexceptional to the point where it suffered a funding cut last month and Rena’s role was written out.
One report, published by the Daily Telegraph in Australia and picked up by the Sunday News, implied that she had ignominiously dumped from the show. Owen rejects that implication.
“I was using a clause in my contract to take two months off to shoot a feature film anyway,” she said. “I would have come back to the show in September but there would have been only four episodes left in the series at that point so it didn’t make sense to any of us for me to stay in. So my character is killed off in one of the episodes.
“I’m happy about that because I’ve always wanted to do film, not just turn-around television which, quite honestly, I’ve had enough of for now. To suggest that I was fired or that I’m leaving the series under unhappy circumstances isn’t true. But I can see some New Zealand media playing it that way because that’s the way they are.”
Her feature film, Radiance, is about three Aboriginal half-sisters who leave home and go their separate ways only to be confronted by their spiritual past when they return home again years later for their mother’s funeral.
In a way it is Rena Owen’s story too. Some day she intends returning to her spiritual homeland. “I want to build a home on my section up north,” she says. “Until then I have a very clear game plan. For the next decade, acting will be my number one priority but after that I’d like to make films. By the I hope to have a husband and a family, too.”
In the meantime, she’s making Brisbane her base. She’s thinking of buying a workingman’s cottage she’s living in now. She’ll be shooting a second feature, Dance To My Song, with Australian director Rolf de Heer, after Radiance and just before this story went to press she was contacted about an American-financed feature to be shot in China later this year. There’s also talk about her appearing in a stage play in Hawaii. In any event, she’s happy to be back making films. I wasn’t surprised to hear her say she had no immediate plans to return to New Zealand.