The actress Rena Owen, 57, sits upright in a black burgundy Georgian inspired dress. A proud streak of grey is visible within her soft, dark beehive and she wears a bemused purse of red lips, in the images taken by her friend, portrait photographer, Hugh Stewart.
That Owen appears regal and resplendent in the photographs is no surprise to Owen herself. “It’s called getting old,” she says over zoom from her rent-controlled apartment on the borders of West Hollywood and Beverley Hills. Ageing provides an emancipation from the need to belong, and it can reveal a beguiling self-comfort she tells me. “When you discover it, it’s like a freedom.” Actresses Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren didn’t get their big breaks until they were in their fifties; this makes sense to her now although it will never be her path.
Owen was 30 years old when she was cast as the lead, Beth Heke in the award-winning film “Once Were Warriors” and its release transformed her life. At the time she was living in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. She had trained as a nurse and taken classes at the Actors of Institute of London. She had written herself into several plays including ‘Voices from Prison’ for the Royal Shakespeare Company; acted in a television series and the film, “Rapa Nui.” Then she played the battered wife and ensuing hero Heke is portrayed to be and she couldn’t walk down the street without being approached, or chased.
“There was nothing in my history that prepared me for the limelight,” she tells me in a trained, stage voice relaxed by the kiwi twang. “I grew up in rural New Zealand milking cows.”
It is generally assumed artists seek recognition. Perhaps because Owen is the fifth child of nine or because she grew up in a small, predominantly Maori town protected from the affront of marginalisation, and then became aware of it; she felt exposed by the attention. Owen is part-Maori. She wasn’t versed in superficiality or self-promotion. She didn’t know how to temper her champagne consumption and she couldn’t walk in high heels. “I said to my mother, ‘If I can’t work out how to be in this industry without feeling deeply self-conscious, I’ve got to get out.’” She didn’t. Instead she enrolled in the type of classes one might take at Swiss finishing school: etiquette, make-up application and the like. They helped, but it took her longer to harness the inhibitions that lay beyond image.
“A quality that comes with creativity is hopeless sensitivity,” Owen tells me definitively. This is not far off the speculation that anguish is linked to artistry or that childhood adversity correlates to a more intense experience of the creative process as a study by California State University has found. An extension of this idea, at least as it circulates in artistic forums, is an actor’s emotional range is indicative of their life experience. “One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star,” to quote the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche. If this is true, then Owen has known pleasure and sorrow.
“Rena is tough,” says Stewart, who met her while she was nurse training in the early eighties. “It’s a big deal she made her way to Auckland let alone Hollywood. They wouldn’t have known where to fit her in.”
Moerewa, Owen’s hometown, is a sparsely populated village at the top of New Zealand, most famous for its freezing works. Like many antipodeans, her mother is of sundry European background. A grammar schoolgirl. Her father descends from the Maori chief, Te Rui Kawiti, whom helped fight the British in the Flagstaff War. He worked as a foreman at the abattoir until he died in 1988. In a congenital story of racism that has become family lore, Owen’s grandparents disowned her mother for marrying a Maori man. In the face of their disparagement, they went onto have nine children. They are a barrister, retired Maori Affairs representative, mother of nine children, foreman like his father, two builders and a teacher’s aid today.
Owen is the single artist in her extensive family. She suspects this is because she’s the middle child. “Actors are often the middle child,” she tells me. It’s something to do with vying for attention and not fitting in; traits the Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler recognised in his birth order theory. “You’re not part of the older group and you’re not part of the younger group.”
In line with Alfred’s model, Owen has often felt outlined, but she has also been outlined. As a schoolgirl, she was highly creative and expressed herself through performance - musicals, plays and the ferocious war dances of Kapa Haka - and dress. “I was the first kid in my hometown to have multiple piercings in my ears,” she says. She dyed her hair the colour of fire. “I went from blonde to orange to pink… My Dad didn’t mind the pink, but he was repulsed by the orange.” Was this why she found herself on the receiving end of that ominous youthful criticism, ‘you’re different?’ Then she moved to Auckland, Sydney and Los Angeles and she began to see how “black and white,” these cities could be.
Owen mimics a Hollywood casting director: “She’s really good, but what is she? Is she Asian? Is she Latina?”
“It’s not like that now, thank God.”
“Every film has to fill their ethnic quota… So, I’m finally just getting to play characters.”
As an actress, Owen’s scope is vast. In “Once Were Warriors,” the film she is most recognised for, she plays Heke, an abused mother of six in an impoverished Maori family. As she wavers between forgiving her husband and holding him accountable, loving him and saving her children, we the audience vacillate with her. We grieve with her. In “The Gloaming,” an Australian crime series streaming on Stan, she is Grace Cochran, a duplicitous proprietor of a youth drop-in centre; and in “Siren,” which also airs on Stan, she morphs into Helen Hawkins, the last incarnation of a human mermaid. Cochran has what Owen calls ‘an edge of darkness’ while Hawkins is outcast by her mysterious mermaid lineage: “She has had to keep a secret which means she had to sacrifice friendship and intimacy.” Owen makes their fluctuating sentiment and mixed motives look natural, as if she isn’t acting at all.
“Rena’s performances are always focused and heartfelt. She’s always there. Right there,” says Anthony Phelan, her co-star on “The Gloaming,” and “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”
She is present. When Owen and I speak, it is the height of coronavirus restrictions and cinemas are closed, screenings are off and there are definitely no glamorous parties in Hollywood. She doesn’t seem to mind. She is catching up on the administrative side of acting. Watching a series on Hulu. Cooking. “I’m so well prepared for these Covid days because nothing has changed in my life,” she says. The arts are by their nature mercurial. Actors rarely know what their next job will be or where their next pay will come from and she’s practised at stretching her income without sacrificing the splendour of existence. She has learned to rest in the unknown. “You have to get real-good at living one day a time.” she tells me. “I’m real-good at it.”
She also tells me it’s a great way to live.