Rena Owen Discusses How Race and Gender Impacted Her Career, “Siren” & More

Rena Owen photographed by Caren Davis for NZ Woman's Weekly


Kiwi actress Rena Owen garnered critics’ love for her role in Once Were Warriors, a modern cinema classic that is deemed to be the best New Zealand-produced movie in history. BELLA sat down with the talented star to discuss her path to acting, being a biracial woman in the industry, and her newest role in Siren.

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How did you get into acting?
Firstly, I was born creative. I had a very vivid imagination, and I was hypersensitive. I used to perform in a local Māori group, singing, and dancing. I was also published when I was eight years old; I entered a poetry contest and won a whole five bucks, which was a lot of money in the ’60s. Then, going into high school, I continued to perform in the Māori Culture Club and worked on musical theater. My first stage play was when I was 16. Then I did a few community plays. As a teenager, I was very clear about theater being where I belonged, what I loved, and where my place in the world was. At the end of the ’70s, your career options as a woman were very much limited to being a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. As a biracial woman, I really had no role models. Being in the creative field was not an option I was ever handed down. So I trained as a nurse, which was not bad at all because at the end of the day nursing is about the human condition. During those years while I was practicing nursery, this creativity and passion for music and acting came out and found me. Then I moved to London at age 22. I was supposed to go to medical school and become a doctor, but my youth and creativity took over, and I did what young people did. It basically led me to drama school instead of the medical school in London. I enrolled in 1985 and in between studying part-time at drama school, I waited tables and then started working at theaters. In fact, I worked in theater in London for many years. I wrote my first play in London, and that got produced and later published in New Zealand.

How did you get involved with Once Were Warriors? Were you in London at the time?
When my father passed away, I went back to New Zealand, but I continued working in theater and commercials and TV roles. Then Once Were Warriors came along in my ninth year as a professional. I couldn’t have done what I did with that role without my foundational training; I could have never pulled off that role. All those years in theater, learning and honing my skills positioned for me to be able to attract that role and be ready for it. The film was a huge global success in the mid-’90s, allowing me to work around the world. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a long career and be still working as an actor. Many people think I started out in Once Were Warriors, but that came after all those years of training and practice. You don’t become an engineer overnight, and the process is not any different in acting.

Did you know Once Were Warriors would become the classic film it now is?
I knew Once Were Warriors was an opportunity of a lifetime. It was a short, quick turnaround because we only had 1.2 million dollars to work with in our budget, and we shot the whole film in about a month, working hard. You know, the thing that kept me going was knowing that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s more different now, but back then, women did not get prominent, dramatic roles. So I was blessed to be playing the lead in the movie. And that led to traveling around the world, to festivals, and essentially changed my life.

For the 20th anniversary of the movie, a reunion documentary titled Once Were Warriors: Where Are They Now? was released. How did that come about? How was being in the same room with your co-stars again?
It was fun. It was great. It was like a family reunion. We don’t see each other that often, because I live in Los Angeles and I’m in Vancouver most of the time right now for Siren. But it was really awesome to see everybody. The documentary was really well done too, and I think people really enjoyed it. It was on Māori Television. It was directed by Julian Arahanga, who played Nig Heke in Once Were Warriors and is directing and producing documentaries now and doing great stuff. You can still watch it on Māori Television’s website even.

Tell us about Siren a little bit. How is working on that show?
I love Siren. I love playing Helen; she is a fantastic character. We’re doing 16 episodes this season, up from 10 episodes we had for Season 1. We’ve been filming in Vancouver for eight months; we’re on the home run now. We start shooting episode 14 next week, with only got three episodes remaining to film. This season is all about what happens with the two new mermaids that come to land, how we hide them, how we protect them, and there’s a whole lot of issues still going on with the environment, pollution of the sea, the triangle… there’s a lot going on. It’s a very dynamic season, and I don’t want to spoil any of it, so you’re going to need to watch it and find out. It’s very innovative. We have a great, talented, hard-working crew up here in Vancouver, and while the weather is not always like Los Angeles, it’s a great gig, we love our job. Everyone’s working doing their best work, so we hopefully can get a third season.

Season 2 of Siren airs on Freeform every Thursday at 8/7c.

We can only imagine how much time and effort you put into Siren. Do you have any new projects you’re pursuing on the side?
There were a couple of opportunities that came my way last year, but I could not commit to any of them because of my contract with Siren. We don’t know yet whether there’s going to be a new season after this one or not, but we need to be ready and available if the show is renewed for another season.

At BELLA, our philosophy is that beauty is defined by each individual. How do you define your beauty?
I feel most beautiful when I’m loving and accepting myself. If you constantly criticize and judge yourself, that does not make you feel good about yourself. We are all flawed human beings, and too many of us, especially when we’re younger, have a lot of insecurities, so we tend to be hard on ourselves. There’s no point in trying to compete with anybody and comparing yourself to others. If you know there is only one of you; there is no one like you, has never been, and will never be anyone like you, that’s beautiful. Be the best you, because you’re unique and original and that’s amazing. It took me a long time to understand this, but it is the truth. When you love and respect yourself, that’s when you’re most beautiful.

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