Rena Owen - Once Were Warriors & Star Wars Episode III
Once Were Warriors, a very powerful New Zealand film about domestic abuse and family heritage, has finally made an appearance on Region 1 DVD. I was lucky enough to sit down with one of the film's stars, Rena Owen, to discuss the film and how it effected her career. Owen, who has played roles in A.I. and the hit television series, Angel, was also kind enough to share some information about her roles in the Star Wars prequels and the sensational script of Episode III.
James W. Powell: It's been said that Once Were Warriors is the most successful film in New Zealand cinema history. What are your thoughts of being a part of such an important film?
Rena Owen: It's a blessing. And it's a gift as an actor to have a piece of work that you're really proud of and you can be proud of to the day you die. It's a privilege to be in the film-to be in a hit. I had done a lot of theater and a lot of television and I did Warriors in my eighth year as a professional actor but I had no idea how rare it is for a film to become a hit. I've gone on to work on a lot of other films, they just haven't necessarily been big hits like Warriors. So, it was a privilege. What I'll always say about Beth Heke is that she was my privilege, not my pleasure. How often do you get great dramatic lead roles like that? Very rare. I knew that going in. The film is such an achievement because it was shot in 34 days on a budget of $1 million, so it was a grueling, grueling schedule. But the knowledge that this was a very rare opportunity kept me going. I told myself, "Relish. Relish. Don't waste it. Relish it." But I was spoiled by Warriors. It kind of gave me no where to go. How do you get as good as that? How can you top it, let alone match it? Those kinds of films don't come along that often.
JWP: What was the greatest effect the film had on your career?
RO: It gave me visibility internationally. It gave me a name. The head of marketing of the New Zealand Film Commission, said at Cannes that I was one of the most recognizable New Zealand actors. So it got me out there. It made people aware of me, and that's what we need as actors. I ended up doing stuff like Star Wars and A.I. because of Warriors.
JWP: The film is finally coming out on DVD in America, which means it'll have an even bigger audience. Do you think that will effect your career at all?
RO: I'm not to sure because it's such a well known film, particularly because they play it on the Independent Film Channel regularly. I still get people who come up to me and say, "Oh, I saw you in that film last week." And this is a film that came out in 1995. I'm living here in LA now, and that's the movie that gets me into a room. My agent will say, "Rena Owen." And they'll go, "Who?" And she'll say, "The lead actress in Once Were Warriors." And they'll say, "Oh, yeah, yeah, we'd love to meet her." So if I could have another Warriors in my lifetime, I'd be a very happy lassie. But even if I didn't, at the end of the day, I can think, "I did it." It's an amazing privilege and blessing to be able to sit here and say, with absolute honesty, that if Warriors was the only film I was ever to do in my whole career, that it was a film that I'm definitely very proud of.
JWP: It's definitely a powerful movie.
RO: Oh, yeah, but now that I'm here in LA I feel there are new opportunities, with different kinds of films, out there for me. And I've actually been finding myself cast in a lot of sci-fi. Which makes sense. [laughs] I just came off Episode III. I just had a month in Australia and I was very flattered to be asked to come back as a totally different character from Episode II. And right before that I did a cameo role in Crow 4: Wicked Prayer. So that's adding to my sci-fi credits because I've been doing an ongoing character in WB's Angel series as well.
JWP: What was it like going from important and realistic roles to completely out of this world roles like Taun We in Episode II.
RO: Well, you've got to adjust. In fact, if you go into Star Wars thinking you're going to go on a Once Were Warriors journey you're going to be sorely disappointed and frustrated. Star Wars is such a specific genre. I mean, so much of Star Wars is about the effects and the CGI and the animation. It's so much about the computer. The lead characters get to go on a kind of emotional journey but really, when you're in the supporting role, it's not your character's story so you don't necessarily get to go on this great artistic acting journey.
JWP: So do you have to prepare differently for this type of film? Is it more fun with less pressure because of that style?
RO: I have to be honest, I probably had more fun playing the alien in Episode II than I did playing the human in Episode III. Taun We was such an interesting character to play. I had a ball playing her. Playing a human being was kind of boring in comparison. [laughs] So you do make certain adjustments. You've got to be very clear about what's expected of you and go in with realistic expectations for yourself. So much of Star Wars is like a chess board for actors. It's about where you stand and which way you look because what goes around you is CGI characters or CGI sets.
JWP: Ewan McGregor has made it clear that he doesn't like working in front of the blue screen. What do you think about it?
RO: It's very challenging. Of course, Leeam Neesan is equally vocal about his distaste and sheer dislike about that whole process. Fortunately for me, because I was playing the alien in front of the blue screen, it didn't effect me so much because it didn't really matter so much for my alien character. But I can relate to Ewan. If I had to do it everyday and kind of work off nothing, it would be very, very challenging.
JWP: Sounds like more of a strain than anything.
RO: Yeah, because actors are used to standing face to face, eyeballing each other. It's all about giving and receiving. You can't do that with a blue screen. [laughs] Even with me, as the alien, who's going to be six inches taller. We had to put a cardboard cutout on top of this blue helmet to give Ewan a proper eyeline because he naturally would want to look at my eyes. And George would say, "No, remember she's going to be that much taller." So we put on that cardboard cutout, which you can see in behind the scenes Puppets to Pixels on the Episode II DVD. It's actually hilarious. I kept forgetting I had this cardboard thing on my head and I kept walking into the lighting. It was really funny. I had no idea they were filming me. Then at one point I slumped against the wall, chewing gum like a dang cow. [laughs]
JWP: So that must've messed with the interaction you were talking about. Could you get in a groove with Ewan with that thing on your head?
RO: You definitely get an exchange of energy and an exchange of vibration, but it's not like what we're used to as actors as being able to have eye contact. Eye contact in drama is incredibly important to the actor. You need the other actor. You need their eyes because that's what you're communicating with.
JWP: So you're not Taun We again in Episode III?
RO: No, I come back as a senator; a human being. So you actually get to see my face in the next one.
JWP: [laughing] So did you get to do any fighting?
RO: [laughing] I didn't get to do any fighting, no. But there's a lot of fighting in the film. I'm a senator, so we're diplomatic. We're politicians. So in that way, it's much more juicy, much more fun as an actor if you're playing an alien or if you're getting to do fight scenes. But you know, being a diplomatic politician doesn't give you much leeway to do anything outrageous or radical.
JWP: Did Lucas give you the whole script or did he tell you just your parts?
RO: I had privilege of the script, yes. And I think it's a sensational script.
JWP: Were you a Star Wars fan before you joined the cast?
RO: Listen, I'll be honest with you. They cast me in Episode II and at the same time Temuera Morrison because George saw Once Were Warriors and he said he wanted both of us in the film. Of course, Tem played Jango Fett, which is a big jump from Jake the Muck. [laughs] But I thought, "Dang, I better watch Episode I." I wasn't a Star Wars fan. Sure, I saw the first few when they first came out, but I watched Episode I as part of my research for Episode II and I have to say it was pretty dang bad. Episode II got better, but I really feel that Episode III is the redeemer. It's a sensational script with a sensational cast. Even though I personally don't get to do much in it, I am really honored that they wanted me back.
JWP: In Episode II, how much of Taun We was you, and how much was the computer? For example, her walk was really cool.
RO: That's all me swaying. That was all my hips swaying there. They came up with that whole Gollum debate at the Oscars last year and I think it's a very valid debate. How much is the actor and how much is the computer? Basically, they shot me doing all the scenes. First [George Lucas] told me about the character and the essence of the character, and how he wanted her to move and sound. So they shot me doing all of that. Then they went away and did the CGI to the character. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of myself I could still see in her. Dare I say it, I think Taun We is incredibly sexy. A computer can not do that.
JWP: She did have a walk that was very subtle and fluid.
RO: Absolutely. I really exaggerated my walk because George wanted her free flowing. But you have to have the actor, because the minute a computer can recreate the energy and the whole spirit of a human being, we're out of a job. But the computer can't do that. If he didn't use actors, all of those characters would be very flat and you wouldn't be able to feel them. That's why you like them and warm to them because essentially there's a human energy and spirit still in the middle of them.
JWP: Did they modify your voice at all, because, let's be honest, the voice is kind of sexy.
RO: No, no, but thank you. I don't think they messed with the voice other than giving it a sort of echo quality, but the voice was essentially mine. What they did was record me on set, then a year later they took me up to the ranch to tidy it up a bit more. I just wanted to give her a non-locatable voice. One that could be from anywhere. I didn't want to make it specifically British, or specifially American. It's kind of a whole mix. You can't really locate the sound. We were really surprised, actually, from what came out. I remember that day in the studio. I just let go really, to see what comes out. The first few lines I did, we all sort of looked sideways, wondering, "Where did that come from?" But George said, "I like it. I like it. That's great." So we just went with the flow.
JWP: I'm sure you're inundated with fan mail now that you're in the Star Wars films.
RO: Oh, yeah, tell me about it. I was kind of blown away by it. I had fun doing Episode II but I started getting all this fan mail as soon as they put my name on the Web site. I thought, "This is ridiculous. I'm an alien. By the time they finish me in the computer, you won't even see my face. What do you want my autograph for?" Then the film came out and I was taken to my first sci-fi convention, and I was blown away. I was like, "Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?" I mean, it's this whole different world out there. I've actually learned a lot about the Star Wars saga from fans. I've been fascinated by it. And I continue to get fan mail, and most of it's Star Wars.
JWP: You've obviously done some powerful films. What's it like to suddenly get this attention from a "fun" movie?
RO: It's neat. It's all part of the privilege. It's a privilege because there are a million actors who would die to be a part of Star Wars. You always adjust yourself, anyway. I like to do a wide variety of acting, so it's good for me to do sci-fi, then do something meaningful, or go off and do a bit of comedy. I like to diversify, so it's good to have a mix of drama and sci-fi. As I said, you come to relish the opportunity because you know it's a part of history. I did not fully appreciate that until I went to the premiere at the Chinese Mann Theater here in LA. At the end of it, I said to my husband, "This is a bit of a big deal, isn't it?" It doesn't get any bigger. And lil' ol' me is a part of it. And to all those fans, you're a part of something they love. And contrary to popular belief, they aren't all geeks and nerds. I've met some fascinating, highly intelligent people at the few conventions I've attended. And I tip my hats to some of them because I know nothing about all this computer stuff.
JWP: Seems like everyone between the ages of 30 and 40 is a huge Star Wars fan because they all grew up on those movies.
RO: Definitely, and I'm lucky to be a part of the very last one. But this one is so well written. It really resolves and ties up every single story. It's done very cleverly. It's going to be the best.
JWP: So you're a senator with some screen time. Does your character have a name?
RO: Yes, I do, but I can't divulge that unfortunately. I'm not even allowed to put the character name on my résumé. Something they keep incredibly strict about is the costumes and character names.
JWP: So, are you on the good side or evil?
RO: I'm not giving away anything by saying I'm a "goodie." I don't think that will get me into trouble. [laughs] The confidentiality surrounding this project is the most extreme I've ever come across. But it has to be. Even the script pages you're given have to be returned. Every page has heavy security. And I understand why. Unfortunately, there are fans out there who have given other fans bad names. And that's a shame. I mean, I could spoil it for everyone and make a fortune selling the story line. But it's not in my professional interest. Do I want to work again? [laughs] It's just not worth it. Being a professional, if you sign something, you honor it. But I must admit, it's not always easy to zip your lips up. Sometimes I'm so tempted to go yada yada yada because it's so exciting.
JWP: And it doesn't come out for two years, so you're going to have to keep your mouth zipped for a long time. But how much does your husband know? You're allowed to tell him things, right?
RO: I guess I could, but I haven't. I've just told him about how great the script is. Besides, you never know what will end up on the cutting room floor. It's a very long film at the moment, so it'll have to be condensed.
JWP: Well, there's always the deleted scenes on the DVD.
JWP: So back to Once Were Warriors, you received critical acclaim for the role. But as far as the fans go, were you an inspiration for women who have been abused? Did you in any way become a spokesperson against domestic abuse?
RO: Very much so. That's what makes the privilege so wonderful is that it made a difference. It changed a lot of people's lives. It doesn't get any better than that for me as an actor. I'm going to San Francisco in a month to do an evening around Once Were Warriors. These problems exist around the world and it's not going to go away anytime soon. So I'm always very happy to give to that. Last year I went to Seattle to help them generate publicity for their shelters for women. But I'm really happy about it. It's a great way to give back.
JWP: Some of the scenes were brutal and violent. Did you have to do anything special to prepare for those scenes?
RO: Fortunately, I've had a very athletic life, so I'm really good at using my body. At the time, I was playing lots of team sports, so I'm really good at throwing myself against the wall. [laughs] I just needed to make sure I stretched and that I wasn't holding too much tension. Sure, I got a couple of bruises on my back but that's about as bad as it got. But I must admit that I was absolutely exhausted the next day.
JWP: I noticed some of your interview clips were featured on the Canadian release of the DVD. Were you approached to do anything for this American release? Like a commentary perhaps?
RO: Someone did contact my agent about it , but I've been busy. Now I'm regretting that it didn't happen.
JWP: The commentary by Lee Tamahorion, but I think it would've been nice to have others on there to interact with the director.
RO: I've heard Lee's commentary, and there's only one thing that peeves me off a little. At one point he says that I hadn't done a lot before Warriors. Yes, it was my first film, but I had done eight years of theater and television work. It kind of annoys me that the film industry doesn't give theater it's due credit it deserves. Some of the greatest actors in the world came out of theater. That's where we get to be good. I would never have been able to do what I did with Beth without those eight years in the theater. So that's the only problem with Lee's commentary. That he gives no credit to the theater.
JWP: So would you consider going back to theater.
RO: Oh, I do. I actually try to do a theater production every couple of years. It keeps you on your toes. And there's the exchange with the live audience, which is nice. I'm hoping to do a play here in LA next year because I love doing stage. Sure, I'm more interested in film now, but I still want to do a stage production too. And I direct theater as well.
JWP: You've mentioned that you're in LA now. Was there any culture shock going from New Zealand to Hollywood?
RO: No, because I was born and grew up in New Zealand, but I lived and trained in London for eight years of my life and then went back to New Zealand. There I did some theater and television and Warriors, but I haven't really lived there since the mid-90s. I worked in Australia for awhile. I've been a kind of globetrotter for some time now. And LA is just another city. The only thing I find that differs when you globetrot a lot is the food and the accent. Essentially, a shopping mall is a shopping mall. But I love LA. It's exactly where I'm meant to be at this point in my life.
JWP: It seems that New Zealand films are getting more popular, with films like Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors. Is all the newfound popularity having any effect on the arts in New Zealand.
RO: It is, yes. It obviously keeps lots of our technicians employed. The government recently announced tax breaks for foreign and local films as long as they exceed $15 million, so there's tax incentives now. Tom Cruise just had an amazing experience down there doing Last Samurai, which comes out in November. A lot of studios are lined up to shoot there in the next five years. It is an idyllic and perfect film making country because of its diverse landscape. You don't have to fly to get to different locations; you can drive just around the corner. You can go from tropical beaches to snow mountains to deserts in the course of a hour if you have to.
JWP: Can we expect more local films by New Zealand directors and actors?
RO: I hope so. Certainly, there will be a lot of foreign films shot down there, but I hope we'll continue to produce good local New Zealand films. But it's hard to gauge since the local industry can suffer some when the big productions come in. But I think there is room enough for both.
- James Powell