The Warrior Woman12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
The Warrior Woman
by Murray Waldren
The Australian Magazine, December 10, 1994
Photographs capture facets, and New Zealand actor Rena Owen is multifaceted. But pagan goddess serenity, while photogenic, is light years from the image soon to sear itself on the collective retina of Beth, the victim/star of Once Were Warriors. Its bleak urban environment, raw emotion and menacing violence make Warriors an unlikely cinematic phenomenon – yet this Kiwi flick, shot in six weeks on a tight budget, has slain ’em in the festival prize stakes in Cannes, Toronto, Durban, Montreal and Venice; in its homeland, it has surpassed Jurassic Park’s record as highest-earner, grossing $A5 million.
In no small measure this success is due to Owen’s earthiness and incandescence. At 34, the straight-talking stage and television star has few illusions about her worth: “I’m not being immodest but no other actress could have played Beth as I did. My whole life, all my experience, led to it. I wanted to play her from the moment I read Alan Duff’s novel, and when it came along, I gave it everything.” There’s a subtext here, a there-but-for-the-grace awareness – Owen’s own cv reads like a sitdrama synopsis. Raised in Smalltown New Zealand in an anarchic tumble of nine children, she knew both the idyllic and the tragic. Although her father, a direct descendant of a Ngapuhi tribal chief, rejected his heritage for acceptance in the Pakeha culture of her mother, childhood was still “rich in Maoritanga. We spent a lot of time on the marae, roaming in the fresh air and freedom … We also grew up accepting the violence and alcohol around us as normal.”
At nine, she wanted to be a nun; by her early teens she had tats and attitude. “I practically lived on the streets,” she’s said, “drinking, stealing, out of control.” At 15, against expectations, she passed the national school certificate examination. The rebel became a model student, a nurse (the only Maori in a class of 66), a raver in London’s clubland scene. Social insecurity there led her to drugs, to addiction, to prison and to a cell neighbouring Moors child-murderer Myra Hindley. Yet jail, a “violent and destructive place” of “screaming, head-banging and distressed calls”, led to metamorphosis when a last-gasp grab at therapy made her realise that “my family life wasn’t perfect, that there was poverty and violence, that I’d lost a dearly loved brother to suicide because of that background”.
On her release she studied video and audio-making, and acting, began to write, joined Clean Break, a theatre group for ex-cons. There she came under the influence of Royal Shakespeare Company actor/director Ann Mitchell, who directed Owen’s first play, Te Awa I Tahuti (The River Which Ran Away). After several years of wide experience, she returned to New Zealand, quickly establishing her credentials on TV and in Wellington’s Depot theatre company, before appearing in Kevin Costner’s Easter Island epic, Rapa Nui.
Playing Beth left her bruised and emotionally drained. “In a way I was very glad to see the back of her – it was a very demanding, even depressing, part to play. The movie really gets right to the heart and soul. It also hits you right in the guts. Violence is never pretty, but the film brings to the forefront issues we have to discuss and attend to.” Its predominantly Maori cast makes the film’s appeal “universal”, she says. There’s been a universal benefit, too. “Since Warriors came out … I’ve heard so many stories, personally and on radio and TV. This abuse cuts across society … the best thing is, people are actually now doing something about it.”
© The Australian Magazine