When Once Were Warriors made Rena Owen's name in 1994, many thought it was another case of overnight success. In reality Owen had eight years of acting experience behind her. Since Warriors, she has acted everywhere from Auckland to Vancouver, and played nuns, mothers, vampires and singers on the slide.
Owen grew up in the Northland freezing works town of Moerewa, the middle child of nine children. Her father was Māori, her mother Pākēha. While at high school she joined kapa haka groups, and starred in school musicals. "I always wanted to be an actor, but I had no role models," she says. Growing up, the only Māori face Owen recalls seeing on television was newsreader Marama Kingi. Instead she trained as a nurse (one of just two Māori, in a class of 66). She spent four years nursing before leaving for England.
In London her life fell apart, then began anew. After eight months in prison on a drugs charge, she began acting training, and was cast in play Inside Out, about women in prison. She also found a mentor, British actor/director Ann Mitchell. Owen had begun writing as a child; Mitchell encouraged her to rework the script of her debut play Te Awa i Tahutu, "about a young Māori girl reclaiming her heritage". Owen acted in the play at fringe theatres around London.
Owen "lived and breathed theatre for eight years before Warriors". Returning to New Zealand in 1988, she started getting the occasional screen roles, including parts across two different episodes of landmark Māori series E Tipu e Rea. The bigger role was in Roimata, as the extroverted city sister of the title character (it was written and directed by future Once Were Warriors scriptwriter Riwia Brown, who would also direct Owen's second stage play, Daddy's Girl.) Owen's other E Tipu E Rea episode was a non-speaking part, in Variations on a Theme).
Owen auditioned for Once Were Warriors early on, realising that the role of strong-willed wife Beth Heke "was as good as it gets". Casting director Don Selwyn had put her forward for E Tipu e Rea, and felt "Rena would be hard to beat" for Warriors. For director Lee Tamahori, Owen was the only choice. "She's a classically trained actor and she has a kind of method approach, so she throws herself into it with enormous gusto".
Circumstances gave Owen an extended period to prepare for the film, which was shot in just six gruelling weeks. She learnt she had the part during a six month stint on Easter Island. In-between making her big screen debut in a "small but juicy" role in American epic Rapa Nui, there was time to read Alan Duff's Warriors novel twice more.
Once Were Warriors won her Best Actress awards at festivals in Montreal, San Diego and Oporto. Owen travelled to many of the festivals. "I thought 'you're never gonna make Warriors again. You gotta go with it while you can'". Critics raved: "an electric performance" (Vogue); "Owen burns up the screen...now, if only the roles can live up to the actress" (Elle); "riveting" (The Wall Street Journal); "a deft mix of vulnerability and strength" (Newsday); "It is a tribute to Rena Owen's fine, grief-racked acting that she almost succeeds in making us understand the battered-wife syndrome" (The Sydney Morning Herald). Newsweek, Premiere and The New York Times compared her to French legend Jeanne Moreau.
Owen talks about Warriors in detail in this video interview. Playing Beth reawakened childhood memories of witnessing gang violence at a pub near her home. "I can relate to the spirit in her, that wants something better for not just herself and her children, but also her people". Owen later hosted a documentary about domestic abuse, Beth's Story. She spoke of meeting people for whom Warriors had provided "the courage to get out of violent domestic relationships".
In the period after Warriors, Owen turned down a number of international offers in order to fulfill obligations to star in a film directed by Stewart Main. The project was delayed, and later abandoned.
As if to make up for the gap, the last half of the 1990s got very busy. Owen reprised her role as Beth in a few scenes of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, and played a prostitute in low-budget romp I'll Make You Happy. On the small screen she was mother to the rugby-playing main character in Anglo-Kiwi miniseries Savage Play, and was award-nominated for a guest role in Cover Story, as a woman working with disruptive teenagers.
Across the Tasman, Owen did 48 episodes as an emergency nurse in hospital drama Medivac. She was nominated at the Australian Film Institute Awards for her work in Rolf de Heer feature Dance Me to My Song, the tale of a cerebral palsy sufferer and a manipulative carer (Owen played sister to the main character).
Owen's performance as a famed singer on the slide in Garth Maxwell's When Love Comes won good reviews, despite a dust-up when a Variety reviewer got the film confused with another in which Owen was to have played a transvestite.
In 2000, after co-starring in this episode of te reo series Aroha, Owen moved to Los Angeles. She stayed for nearly two decades. She had roles as a psychiatrist, a troubled nun, a musician, an alien writer and (after six auditions) a witch. For Buffy spin-off Angel, she donned hydraulic wings to play a demi-goddess. Small roles in the second and third Star Wars prequels launched a new run of fan mail, and a long run of invites to sci-fi conventions.
She played the warrior role model to a Fijian girl in 2004's The Land has Eyes, the first feature made by a Fijian. Long keen to play the villain, she faced off against Ian McShane in Kiwi/UK/Canadian thriller Nemesis Game, and was an eccentric villager who befriends a lake creature in Mee-Shee: The Water Giant (also partly shot in New Zealand).
In 2008 Owen returned downunder for Vincent Ward's acclaimed genrebender Rain of the Children, as one of a number of actors portraying Māori woman Puhi — partly because Puhi reminded her so much of her own grandmother, who also lived a "very hard" life. Next came Fiona Samuel's telemovie Piece of My Heart, as a mother forced to adopt out her child. Samuel wanted her for the role because of Owen's ability to combine toughness and vulnerability. Owen also co-wrote and starred as a vampire in 2009 short film Spout.
In 2010 Owen joined the "well-oiled machine" that is Shortland Street, as an ex-drug addict. Though she joked at having "never had to work so fast in my entire career", Owen was clearly up to the task — she was named Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 Aotearoa Film and Television Awards.
In TV series The Straits (2012) she was the part-Māori matriarch of a family of smugglers, based in northern Australia's Torres Strait Islands.
Owen went on to join acclaimed mermaid series Siren. She was in Vancouver, preparing to shoot the final of season two, when she squeezed in a successful audition for Tasmanian series The Gloaming. Owen plays a mysterious woman descended from Gaelic convicts. In Australian war movie Escape and Evasion (2019) she plays her first military officer.
Owen continues to develop her own dream project: a movie version of Heretaunga Pat Baker's novel Behind The Tattooed Face, set in the time of James Cook.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 16 May 2019
Rena Owen website. Accessed 15 May 2019
Nick Grant, 'Nemesis Dame' (Interview) - Onfilm, November 2003
Don Groves 'Rena Owen explains her quest for unique roles' (Interview) If website. Loaded 14 May 2019. Accessed 15 May 2019
Anna Hurst and Lesley Douglas, 'Rena -- on Hollywood, passion and her co-stars' (Interview) - Magneto, 14 June 1999, page 17
Tom Hyde, 'Rena, Warrior Princess' (Interview)- Metro, June 1997
Frances Morton, 'Rena Owen's revival' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times (Sunday magazine pullout), 31 October 2014
Ian Pryor, 'Round the world with Rena' (Interview) TNT number 585, page 28
Unknown writer 'The Straits begins shooting today'(broken link) Encore website. Loaded 14 June 2011. Accessed 18 July 2011
Once Were Warriors press kit