Warrior Woman12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
by Alex Patterson
Voice, February 28, 1995
“Our people once were warriors,” proclaims working-class wife Beth Heke in what amounts to her declaration of independence. Rena Owen plays Beth, and the people she’s referring to are New Zealand’s natives, the Maori. Related to Hawaiians and Tahitians, the Maori were indeed formidable fighters. And judging by the film in which Owen stars, Once Were Warriors, they still are, turning it on themselves via domestic violence, bar brawling, and other self-destructive activities. The long-suffering Beth is beaten by her bulletheaded brute of a husband, Jake (Temuera Morrison).
Once Were Warriors, by first-time director Lee Tamahori, is the latest in a list of daring NZ features including Heavenly Creatures and the unjustly neglected Desperate Remedies. Despite its disturbing subject matter, Warriors outgrossed The Piano and even Jurassic Park at the Kiwi box office. More significantly, Owen stresses, it’s spurred calls to domestic violence hot lines and even entered the national vocabulary. “I’m getting bags of mail from women saying, ‘I’ve got a Warriors problem.’ And from men saying, ‘I’m a Jake, but I want to change.’
“I can remember,” she continues, “telling Lee in a bar one night during the shoot, ‘We’re making something really special and important here, one for the history books.’ And he said, ‘Oh, stop talking a lot of bullshit.’ But I just knew it had all the ingredients. It had Tem, who’s a soap star a large following of female fans; it was the first entirely Maori film; and it had Lee’s very trendy, hip-hop eye, which would add the music, the leather, and all the elements that would appeal to young people.” These things “couldn’t guarantee a success,” she says, but the combination would create “an emotion, a spirit that people craved.”
As a child, Owen, who is half English, half Maori, performed as part of an aboriginal organization, entertaining tourists with traditional chanting and dancing; she later played Bloody Mary in a production of South Pacific. In her late teens, she earned a nursing degree (“Acting wasn’t considered a career; women had the choice of secretary, teacher, or nurse”), before a fateful period of high-impact clubbing in early-’80s London. “Chasing the dragon” (smoking heroin off tinfoil) led to what she describes as “a raging smack habit” within a year.
And also to a stint in a U.K. hoosegow for wayward girls after getting busted for possession of heroin. The experience, she feels, helped prepare her for Warriors: “On an intellectual level, Beth knows Jake’s no bloody good. Yet on a deeper, emotional level she can’t let go of him. It takes a tragedy or trauma; for me, the trauma was prison. Drugs, relationships, gambling, chocolate – it’s the same principle of addiction. But,” she says, “I’m bloody living proof that ‘Once a junkie, always a junkie’ is not true!”
After springtime commitments on the Auckland stage and in a campy sci-fi movie directed by Desperate Remedies’s Stewart Wells, Owen would like to return to the U.S. – despite having appeared in last fall’s Easter Island bomb, Rapa Nui. “It wasn’t very good,” Owen admits, “but I haven’t been put off” the idea of being on the American screen. That is, if the American screen is willing to put her on.