Rena Owen is a gorgeous force of nature. She owns and relishes every experience of her life—good or bad—because of what it brought her, what she learned, what she gained—even in loss. She’s a student of life, a watcher of people, an artist who craves challenges and doesn’t repose on her laurels. She’s a woman, a warrior, who beat tremendous odds to have the career she has. She defied the stigma of women’s roles in the 70’s and fought to be seen as a woman of color.
Her breakout role was as Beth Heke in Once Were Warriors, a groundbreaking movie about a Maori family trying to rise above their circumstances and stay together. Her co-star, Temuera Morrison, once said of her, “It’s the inner emotion, it is the energy that makes those hairs on your neck prickle a little bit. It’s the heebie-jeebies crossed with a little bit of inner spirituality. Rena had that – in vast amounts.” To hear Rena speak is to understand exactly what Temuera meant.
Now, Rena is starring as Helen on Freeform’s Siren. Here she talks about the vital importance of tapping into that inner emotion, about her immense respect for her co-star, Eline Powell, about the visceral excitement of the show, about being one of five people to have worked for both Lucas and Spielberg and about her absolute, undying passion for acting.
To hear her speak is to learn, to grow and to want to be swept up into her world and wisdom. When asked what creature she would be, given the choice, she answered a femme-Yoda, a Yodette. I don’t think she realizes she already is one….
I watched the two hours premiere of Siren and I’m excited to see where it goes because there are so many mysteries involved.
Yes. I think that’s something as an actor I thought was one of its strong points, is that everything was always unpredictable, including for us actors, because we would never quite know what would be in the next script. We got to ask that question, the same question the audience asked—what’s going to happen next? It just kind of gave it an edginess and that unpredictability and that’s very much related to Ryn, the leading girl.
She is a totally unpredictable species. I think, I certainly know, and I would be surprised if not everyone else realizes, if that central character did not work the show wouldn’t work. Everything rests on Ryn and she’s such a stunning young woman and she’s kind and she’s incredibly disciplined and studious. She takes her craft very seriously.
I actually had the pleasure of speaking with Eline Powell, so it’s been fun getting to talk with the both of you.
We both come out of that kind of old-fashioned school of thought, about the value of training and craft and honing and refining your skills. The show rests on her shoulders. She is the central leading character and she almost is creating a template for the future mermaids that will come to new seasons. God be willing, we get to do multiple seasons. She’s stunning and she’s just lovely to work with. She’s so there and she’s so present and in charge of her craft. She’s a joy to work with and, as Helen, most of my scenes are with her so we forged quite a strong connection and relationship throughout the pilot and throughout the season.
Speaking of training, I noticed that you’re one of nine children and you started performing locally at a young age. I know a lot of performers who come from big families begin performing almost as a means to stand out. Is that kind of how you got started?
It’s a very timely question and particularly coming from a woman. I was born hypersensitive. I was born a typical creative or artist, whichever word you want to use. I had a vivid imagination. I had a flair for creativity and it started at a very young age. I mean, I was first published when I was eight years old. I entered a children’s poetry contest and I won it. I was always in the performing arts. At the time it was the Maori Culture Club and we would regularly entertain the tourists. You’ve just got to kind of think Hawaii. I grew up in the Bay of Islands, where basically tourists would come during summer and we’d entertain them at school.
As a result of being in that cultural club, I got into the high school musicals. I knew at a very young age that I had found my place in the world and it was very much in the arts and it was on the stage and it was performing. However, at the end of the 70’s, as a woman, my career choices were: I could be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. I had no role model. I mean, I’m a biracial girl. My dad’s Native New Zealander and my mum’s European. You know, we didn’t have brown faces on our screens, so it wasn’t something I grew up with going, “Well gosh, that’s an option for me.” I mean, 15-years-later, with the success of Once Were Warriors, that’s the thing that pleased me the most. It told brown kids that they could be actors and writers and directors and storytellers.
The answer to your original question is, no. I was the one in the middle that was the odd one out, but I wasn’t the odd one out because there was nine of us. I was the odd one out because I was the creative.
I did go into nursing. Then I left New Zealand at 21, going onto 22. I did have aspirations of going to med school to become a doctor, but the next seven years of my life took a very different course. I ended up in London. Instead of going to med school, I enrolled in a place called, The Actors Institute, in London in 1985, end of 1985. I’ve been doing it [acting] ever since and I continue to write. I went on to write stage plays. They got produced and published. As a person or as a creative, really, I’ve seen it as my medicine.
I knew that choosing the arts was going to be the harder career in terms of security, but the wonderful journey I’ve had with doing what I do is it is a path of self-discovery and I also think that the arts provides a whole lot of healing.
I would definitely agree with that. Now you mentioned your writing and I know you’ve written a lot of plays and you’ve done a lot of theater. How do those mediums differ for you creatively from say, doing film?
You know, it all feeds into everything. Firstly, I’ll say that the nuts and bolts of acting does not change. The job remains the same, to be real in imaginary circumstances. The difference for me, in a nutshell, is in theater you go out to your audience. You project out to your audience and obviously sometimes you’re in huge auditoriums.
With the camera, whether that’s for TV or for film, you let the camera come inside. That’s the biggest difference: Theater you go out to your audience. Camera, you let the camera come inside. So, you need to be open, you need to be available and that comes with a certain vulnerability. You have to figure out the inner life.
I try to teach young actors this: the camera does not see dialogue. It does not see words going across the screen, unless it’s a subtitled film. What the camera sees is human behavior. What the camera sees is what the actor is thinking and feeling. You have to get all of that in place first, in order to understand where the dialogue’s coming from.
As a writer, you have to know this. As an actor, that’s your job to figure it out. If you haven’t written the vehicle, figure out what the writer’s intention was. I’m quite a stickler, because I am a writer. I always aspire to honor the writer. I always ask permission, if I can adjust the odd word or if I’m kind of not quite getting their intention or where certain things are coming from. You’ve got to as an actor.
There are actors out there that don’t do homework, they just show up. Some get spoon-fed and that’s just the way it is. Myself and Eline, we have in common that we’re both hungry to learn. We both have a hunger for the human condition. We both have an enormous respect for craft. We’re always asking, we’re always searching, we’re always aspiring to be better. We’re always looking for those things that are going to force us to be better. Every creator, every true artist, is always looking for a magic moment and those magic moments are moments of pure spontaneity. In order to have those moments of pure spontaneity, you’ve got to be secure.
As Michael Caine always taught us, in order to be secure you have to do your homework. Know who your character is, know all your dialogue, know your circumstances and then when you get to set, you can let it go and it does itself and you have space for magic to happen. That would happen a lot with me and Eline, because we both kind of work in a very similar way, in terms of just being in the moment and having room to just go with the flow, so to speak, and see what comes up in the moment.
We had great directors, we had very good scripts. First and foremost, we had… You know I love Helen. I really do love this character. I finally, for the first time, have gotten a character that can be totally eccentric. I haven’t had this kind of… Yeah, I’ve played other kind of different nutty characters but they were nutty in a very different way. They were nutty in very dark ways, like in horror films.
Helen isn’t really, even though a character calls her the town nut job, she’s not. The only reason they think she’s a nut job is because she’s always going on and on and on and on and on and on about mermaids and the fact that they’re very real.
Finally, when they start coming to land, suddenly they go, “Oh, maybe she’s not so nutty after all.” She’s kind of had this alienated kind of life, in a lot of ways, because she is different. She is a little odd and she’s a little eccentric and she has this passion and purpose. She finally gets out of her shop, as episodes evolve, and you do see that she actually has a life within the community and this township of families that have been there for generations.
That was a part of Helen, and the entire series, that I could identify with, hands down, because I came from one of those small coastal inland communities where generations worked in the local industry. In Bristol Cove it’s the fishing industry. We also had the fishing industry out on the coastal town. In fact, in high school I would earn my pocket-money working at the tourist resorts, working in a shop like Helen’s, earning money for the school holidays. I think if I had never left my home town, maybe I’d be a lot like Helen now.
Well she’s definitely very enigmatic and she has this air of mystery around her. I didn’t consider her nutty, so much as secretive. She seems to hold everything very tightly to herself. Obviously, while she’s told tales and stories to the kids of Bristol Cove, we can tell she’s holding on to a lot of knowledge and she’s not sharing. What is it that she’s fearful of and what does Ryn’s sudden appearance mean for her?
That’s good, actually, and you chose a very good word and I must start using that word more often. She’s an enigma. She is holding secrets and she holds a lot of knowledge and Ryn coming to land is both her dream come true and her worst nightmare. Unlike the ordinary folks of the town, I know that they are top-level predators and they will cut your head off.
The younger, and that’s what I’m pretty much doing in those first episodes is, I’m telling Ben and Maddie that they don’t know what they’re dealing with. They have no concept of what they’re up against. They don’t realize how lethal Ryn is. They want to look at her as a scientific experiment and, like a lot of the town folks, they think of mermaids as the Disney version of a mermaid.
These are highly intelligent, top-level predators and I think that’s another ingredient that makes our show unique. To a certain degree, I would often think of it as a True Blood but with mermaids, not vampires. Not as bloody and gory as True Blood but in that kind of realm of Grimm, where you’ve got these creatures.
I just think I’m going to keep bringing it back to Eline, because if she didn’t make it work it would never work for any of us I think what happens with Eline and her performance and the combination of myself or my character is, we get to humanize her. You know, she’s humanized throughout the course of the story and, of course, I can’t give away scene spoilers right now, but if people hang in there for every episode, every episode, more is revealed.
By the end of the season, the audience is going to know a lot more of what Helen knows.
I have a working theory that, if she’s not a mermaid herself, I think she could potentially be a paranormal creature. I realize it’s not something you can tell me, so I’m just going to ask Rena: if you could be any kind of paranormal creature, what would you be?
Oh, well my all-time favorite will forever be Yoda. A little femme- I would love to be Yoda’s sidekick. A little female Yodette. That forever is my favorite character of all time, Yoda. And then after Yoda is E.T. I mean, I’ll never forget watching E.T. I was living in London at the time and we went to see the movie in Leicester Square and I’ll never forget that moment, where I just started to cry.
You know and those are the movies that you remember, those movies that really touch you in your heart and you having an emotional reaction, you never forget those moments. Yes, I would want to be Yodette, a little female Yoda.
Speaking of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, you’re one of six people—ever—who have worked with the both of them.
That’s right. I’m the only female. And it was amazing. First and foremost, George Lucas had seen Once Were Warriors, the New Zealand film that launched me internationally. He wanted me as a leading guy in Star Wars.
Temuera Morrison [also from Once Were Warriors] plays Jango Fett in episode two and three and I played… I was originally meant to play Capt. Typho but that role got changed to a male. That was Padme’s security guard, who wears the eye patch, very cool role, played well by Jay Laga’aia. They said, “George still really wants you in this movie and there’s this alien. Would you play an alien?”
When I did Star Wars: Episode 2, I really went in with a naivete, which was great because it was just another job. I was just a creative big kid and I had a fantastic time. George really appreciates people who just treat him ordinary. And I have found this to be true of most people who have been blessed or gifted with talent — that people who do extraordinary things, have a need to be ordinary.
I just finished doing that job and then I came to LA and Steven Spielberg was doing A.I. in Long Beach. My agent rang me and said, “Steven needs an actor, a really good actor, who can be part of this big flesh scene. We can’t tell you what you’re going to be doing, we don’t know what you’re going to be doing, but he’s just finding that, using extras, he’s not getting what he needs.”
My agent said, “The CD (Casting Director) asked if you would consider doing this, going in there, and really you might just be a little featured background artist or whatever.” I said, “I don’t care. It’s Steven Spielberg, of course I will do it.” Listen, I’m going to tell you this and this is a reflection of Steven Spielberg—I go down to Long Beach. I go on set. He comes up to me, he shakes my hand. He says, “I am a huge fan of Once Were Warriors. [Director] Lee Tamahori did a fantastic job.” I was so impressed that he knew Lee’s name and pronounced it well and knew his full name. I mean, I was so impressed by that, because this is a man who I thought wouldn’t know this little film. But it’s why they were interested in me. Then the DOP was looking at me sideways and then he goes, “Oh my God, I knew you were familiar. That’s where I know you from, Once Were Warriors.”
Spielberg nudged him and said to him, “Yeah, she’s doing me a favor.” That’s classic. I’ll never forget it. From Steven’s perspective, I was doing them a favor. The role I ended up doing was being the ticket taker that stops that robotic bear from trying to sneak into the flesh fair. There you have it, I was back to back with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Having said that, I would love to be considered for the new Star Wars, to actually play a role where people could see me.
Is home for you in New Zealand or LA or both?
It’s both. It’s an occupational hazard for me. I have a home in New Zealand. I go there and I come here and now we go to Canada a lot to shoot. I am kind of getting of an age now, where I would like to spend more time in New Zealand and I’d like to have a garden again and a dog and a cat. I’ve really been traveling since I left home. For 30 years I’ve been on the road. It’s been a long time. What’s nice about when you do a series, a TV series, you’re in one place for a substantial amount of time, you can actually get a routine. I’m very blessed here in LA and I think it’s one of the things I like about myself, no matter where I am I’m the same person. I think my background has really helped in that regard. It’s just kind of the way I am really.
You’ve done so much. What is something that you haven’t yet done in acting that you would just love to do?
Oh, I’d love to do a Marvel comic book franchise. I think as our darling Dame Judy Dench has said herself, she’s slowly but truly going to eventually retire. I think it’s an interesting time to have a strong ethnically diverse woman in a similar kind of role. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I did this independent film in Australia recently, Escape and Evasion, because I so admired my friend, who contacted me last year, and he said, “Look, I’m doing this movie. The character, the Major, is a man, but there’s no reason this role can’t be a woman. I read it and I said, “Yes, yes, yes.” I’d never done that kind of character, Major Pennyshaw, and her tagline was literally: poker face. To play that kind of character that doesn’t give anything away was a new kind of character for me and just quite the control freak, without being the control freak.
I’d love to play more of those kinds of authoritarian roles. Lady M, or that kind of role, would be just fantastic right now and, of course, I’m a big fan of the Marvel comic book franchises. There’s just so many good ones and I think with Black Panther and films like that, they’re just getting better and better. If I look at all the best supporting actresses in the Oscars this year, they were all women in my age group. All of them, every single one of them.
I think it’s a great time for us. I really do, so I want to relish it. I want to make the most of it and just keep myself in that position where I’m ready for those kinds of opportunities. I feel very blessed, because before I got cast in Siren I was at a point in my life going, “Okay, you’re getting a little too old for this game of never knowing where my next job is.”
Owning the fact that I still had this desire to work as an actor in America and then—boom! Within two weeks, I had booked this job and I had specifically put that out there: “I just want a character that I’m right for the way I am, with my own idiosyncrasies and my own enigmatic aspects.”
It’s always perfect timing and one thing leads to another and it’s great. My mum said this to me, because every decade I’ve wanted to throw in the towel. Because it’s challenging, it really is challenging, and it takes a lot of faith to hang in here, but there’s one thing I know–that if you persevere, talent always prevails. Talent will prevail as long as you persevere. My mother always said that to me when I’d get disillusioned and [she’d] say, “Just remember, Dame Judy Dench and Dame Helen Mirren, did not get their Hollywood breaks, till they were well into their 50s.”
Is she amazing or what? You can follow Rena on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and be sure catch her on Siren, Thursday’s at 8/7c on Freeform. Now who else thinks she should be cast in an upcoming Star Wars? And don’t forget to check out her co-star Eline Powell’s interview.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length. To read the raw, unedited transcript in its entirety, click here.