Rena Owen returns to rural roots

Rena Owen in a scene from Rain Of The Children.
Rena Owen in a scene from Rain Of The Children.
Vincent Ward's latest film, Rain Of The Children, required Rena Owen to return to her rural roots. It wasn't difficult. The New Zealand actor may live in Los Angeles, but her soul remains in the sticks, she tells Shane Gilchrist.

It may be a typically busy day in the life of Rena Owen, but she's not about to let that get in the way of a good chat, particularly when it means she can get a decent dose of Kiwi accent, a taste of home via the telephone.

It is 4pm on a "stinking hot" Los Angeles day and Owen has been running around doing a lot of errands before she heads to Las Vegas for a Samoan friend's family reunion the following day.

She also has to squeeze in an audition on the way to the airport, but if she's at all flustered she hides it well.

In fact, she'd rather talk about sport.

"I'm very disappointed in the Olympics. There is no Kiwi coverage here. The biggest disappointment is sitting through the opening ceremony and they finally get to the end of the line and I hear them say, 'and here come the Kiwis'. Then they cut to a commercial break. Oh, I was so peeved off."

However, the phone call is not about The Games; rather it's about the film game and, in particular, Owen's latest role as an accursed Maori woman, Puhi, in New Zealand director Vincent Ward's film, Rain Of The Children.

In Rain Of The Children, Ward weaves drama and documentary to tell the story of Puhi, a Tuhoe woman who welcomed the young film-maker into her home in the Ureweras in 1978.

As a result of his stay, Ward made an observational film, In Spring One Plants Alone, about the day-to-day life of Puhi.

Then almost 80, she was obsessively caring for her schizophrenic adult son, Niki, whose violent fits terrified her.

In the introduction to the film, Ward explains he'd always wanted to return to the project and delve a little deeper into Puhi's life.

Using his relationship with her as a framework for further exploration, Ward pieces together the story of a long-suffering woman.

At the age of 12 she was chosen by the Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana as a suitable wife for his son, Whatu; at 14 she had her first baby while hiding in the bush, having escaped the 1916 police raid of Rua's community at Maungapohatu, where she witnessed the arrest of Rua and Whatu and the killing of Rua's other son, Toko, believed to be her lover.

Puhi eventually had 13 children, but when Ward made his initial documentary 30 years ago, there was little evidence of what had become of them.

By talking to tribal elders and others, Ward discovers six of the children died; the remainder, with the exception of Niki, were taken from her.

Rain Of The Children is thus an attempt to make sense of all this suffering.

Ward takes a film-maker's licence and suggests such bad luck was the result of a curse.

Certainly, the documentary footage of Puhi shows a woman haunted by her past.

Owen believes the film is an important work.

Though it follows the life and trials of Puhi, it also provides a history lesson on the Rua Kenana Christian movement of the early 20th century while dealing with the difficulties faced by many women of the time.

"It is a heavy, painful story," she says.

"You're not going to sit in the cinema and laugh your head off."

It was another heavy, painful story, Once Were Warriors, that brought Owen to cinematic prominence in 1994.

She has previously described her performance as Beth Heke as the role she had always been waiting for, a distillation of a craft she first began honing as a child growing up in the Bay of Islands.

As an ageing Puhi, Owen draws on her own family life.

"One of my main inspirations was my own grandmother. Puhi was the same age as my nanny and, also, we grew up in rural New Zealand, so I could strongly identify with that rural life. My nanny had 15 children - she lost seven of them, through stillbirths, typhoid, the diseases that were around in the early 20th century.

"We had a big dairy farm. It was all my grandmother's land and sections of it got left to her children. My dad's one brother remained and lived with my nanny and ran the farm. There was this similar situation with Niki. Granted, my uncle didn't have schizophrenia, but he was a really quiet guy, never said much. I can't even tell you if he had ever had a girlfriend.

"And these women . . . Puhi had to walk miles carrying bags on her back. It was the same for my nanny; she'd have all these babies, perhaps one in her stomach, one on her back and she'd be digging kumara. We're very spoiled by comparison. It's not just a Maori phenomenon. I think anybody in those pioneering years worked hard."

Owen could also see how much the story meant to Ward.

Like Puhi being haunted by her past, the film-maker was similarly haunted by Puhi.

"It occurred to me that this was the first thing he ever did out of art school. It represented a very special time in his life as a filmmaker. There was an innocence and naivety, because he was so young. There was an emotional bond between him and Puhi and the son and it never left him. I could almost see him trying to recapture the magic of that time of his life . . . This is as much about Vincent as about Puhi."

Owen has been working on her own film project in recent years.

Based on Heretaunga Pat Baker's historical novel, Behind The Tattooed Face, which explores the lives of pre-European Maori, she says it is her "big baby".

"We've basically finished the screenplay. It took a couple of years to develop because it was a very hard book."

Owen moved to Los Angeles in 2000.

She hated her first year there, in particular the pollution and traffic, but has grown to accept the city.

For an actor and writer, the location has some obvious advantages.

"It is an exceptional learning centre. Every day you can go out and watch a free film and listen to the film-makers talk about how they made it; every day there is a workshop. You're spoilt for choice. I've learnt so many skills."

One of nine children to a Pakeha mother and a Maori father of Ngati Hine descent, Owen says her solid rural upbringing has helped keep her grounded in an industry in which hype, celebration and mutual back-patting run rife.

"My background has enabled me to do what I've done and travel the world. Who I am and where I come from is so strong within me. My family would be the first to kick me if I got up on a pedestal."

Yet there have been times when Owen has lost her way.

In the 1980s, while living in London, she became addicted to heroin.

A drug bust landed her in jail for seven months, though Owen used the incarceration wisely: she got herself clean and, importantly, dealt with the underlying reasons for her addiction. On her release from prison she embarked on an acting career.

"To a certain degree, when I set out as a young actor in London, I wanted to do theatre, television and, ultimately, I wanted to be the lead in a feature film. I worked and worked then, boom, I got it," she says in reference to her successful audition for the role of Beth Heke in director Lee Tamihore's Once Were Warriors.

"That was the cherry on top of the cake for nine years of hard work.

"People thought they just got a real-life Beth Heke off the street and put her in the movie. Well, no. I'd worked in Wellington, London and Auckland learning my craft and honing my skills. I couldn't have done what I did with Beth without all that experience.

"I remember the first day we finished Once Were Warriors, I thought, `that's it - I can retire now', because I'd had the ultimate lead role. I've never had the same drive in terms of the actor in me. It's not going to get any better than Beth."

Owen says nothing prepared her for the attention that followed the film's release.

"You're suddenly thrust into the limelight and everyone wants a piece of you. Everyone is looking at you, judging you. I lost that ability to be ordinary after Warriors. I couldn't go to the store in my Swandri and gumboots," she laughs.

"There have been certain times in my life where I have self-sabotaged . . . definitely in my youth and then again with fame. That intense pressure accumulated with me lashing out with the pool cue," she says in reference to a 1994 incident in a Northland pub that received much media coverage.

"It was the most unfortunate event and it never should have happened. The only thing I can say is we are all human and we all have breaking points.

"I remember saying to my mum at the end of that year, 'if I can't find ways of being in the public eye without being scared, without feeling intimidated, without feeling like I have to drink some alcohol just to feel confident, then I've just got to get out of the industry'.

"You can't blame people for just wanting to talk to you. Unfortunately, not everyone is nice to you. There are going to be those people who come up to you and say, 'who do you think you are?'."

Owen says she is in a good space nowadays.

She admits she's made plenty of mistakes, but has done a lot of growing up and stopped making excuses for errant behaviour.

She was married but has been single for "a couple of years now".

"I had to give myself a period where I just got over the marriage and found myself again. Even though we're really good friends, it's not an easy thing to end a marriage.

"You have this sense of failure. You think, 'oh God, am I making the right decision here?'. You need at least a year to get yourself right again before you're fit and healthy to start another relationship.

"I guess I've learnt to be more accepting of the fact I'm not perfect; that I'm a very flawed human being just like everybody else.

"I've got to say I really do like maturity. It has taken me a long time to grow up. There will always be a big kid inside of me."

The subject of age prompts a game of cat and mouse.

For such a talkative type, Owen suddenly goes a little quiet . . .

"What do you think?"

48? "That's a little high."

50? "No, mate. Come on, now you've really gone too far," she laughs.

"Let's just say I'm in my mid-40s. One day you'll find out the truth."


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