Three decades as Actress, Writer, and Director
Rena Owen is the international award-winning actor and she is one of only 6 actors in the World to have worked with both, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg during her illustrious career that spans 3 decades. She played beloved Taun We in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, followed by a cameo role in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Whilst developing two screenplays, she played a reoccurring role in WB’s Angel. Lucas cast her again as Nee Alavar in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Rena went on to play supporting and cameo roles in multiple international films. Highlights include; Lions Gate’s NZ/Canadian co-production Nemesis Game, Vincent Ward’s acclaimed Rain Of The Children, NZ TV film A Piece Of My Heart, and USA thriller, Alyce Kills.
Theatre credits throughout the past 15 years include leading roles in the classic NZ plays; Haruru Mai and The Pohutukawa Tree, and in the USA; multiple Stage Readings for Native Voices at the Autry in LA and La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Charity Stage Readings for the City of West Hollywood, and a leading role in a Hawaiian play called Fine Dancing. Rena adapted and directed Toa Fraser’s play, Bare for the Asian American Theatre Company (AATC) in San Francisco.
In 2014, Once Were Warriors was voted the number one film of all time in New Zealand. Rena played a pivotal role in a documentary celebrating the film’s 20th Anniversary, Where Are They Now? Her last USA independent feature film, The Well premiered at the LA Film Festival and she was cast in reoccurring roles for A&E’s TV Series, Longmire and Sundance’s TV Series, The Red Road. Her last NZ film, The Dead Lands enjoyed a Special Presentation Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, garnered rave reviews, and sold to multiple territories. To close out 2014, Rena played the supporting role of Glaeser in The Last Witch Hunter directed by Breck Eisner, starring Vin Diesel.
THIS IS THE Q&A
How it’s like to be Rena Owen?
It has been a long career, I am doing this since 1985, that’s 35 years, so it’s a good point of my career because of the maturity. When we are in our 20’s and 30’s, a lot of us are full of insecurities as either we need to please people, either we’re not comfortable in our own skin. So I am loving this decade on my career in my 50’s because I think, in your 40’s you are too old to be the young chicky babe but you are too young to be the wise grandma. I’m having the best decade of my career as I am getting a lot of great work and a lot because when you get to your 50’s you are just more confident in your skin, you are more conformable with who you are and you are not interested in what people think about you.
Do you have any regrets?
I do have regrets. There are things in my life, that if I had a chance to undo them I would, but you can’t. And that’s part of maturing and growing up, you simply have to accept that you made mistakes and you can’t go back in time to undo those mistakes. You can only learn from them. Everybody makes mistakes, it is part of growing, is part of growing up. So there are regrets but I don’t live in my regrets because you can’t change them. You just take the good and you learn the lesson and you move on. The only thing we can do is in the present moment is in now, because we can’t change the past and we can’t control the future. This is another great thing about getting older, you learn that all you live is now. You never know when is the next earthquake or a volcano blow or this coronavirus. You relish the moment. Could you just be here now? This is all we got. Be grateful. An attitude of gratitude goes a very long way. And you know… I am very blessed, it’s a God’s given talent that I have and I do believe in God, and I do believe that I could not have survived or thrived as much if it was not for my faith. It’s a job for me, whether I am in New Zealand, whether I am in Los Angeles or Europe, or whether I am doing a theater play, or tv, or a film job, I am the same person.
It is really important, and you know, I really love my background for the foundation. I grew up on a dairy farm, in a very big family, so we didn’t grow up with material wealth, we grew up with the wealth of nature, the wealth of a large extended family, very Italian like, our Maori families, because you’ve got the large extended families… the uncle, the auntie, the grandmother, the grandfather… I am one of 9 children… we were Catholics, and it was all about you planted and you harvested and you fed the family. It was a very beautiful life because I didn’t grow up in a city, I grew up rural. And I am very grateful for that because I learned from a young age what was important. The sun comes up and the sun goes down. The plants you have are so you can feed the family and these lessons will be with me for life because I am the same person and I will always be.
How did a girl who grew in a big family become a nurse, and later on, after moving to London, started acting?
I was born creative… I was born highly creative, I was hypersensitive, I was overly emotional and I was incredibly dramatic so I was definitely born an actress. All my brothers and sisters can confirm. So creativity came in a different form…we weren’t like the children today, we weren’t sent in front of a tv or computer, we had to create our own games at the farm so we were very creative, and being in school, I was in the Maori Culture Club, performing traditional Maori singing and dancing and I knew from a very young age that I love performing and I was first published when I was 8 years old. I entered this poetry contest, with children under 10, and I won and my poem got published. So that was when I was 8 years old. And then in high school as a result of being in the Maori Culture Club, I got into the high school musical because the principal of that high school saw that I have a talent in performing so he had me audition for that year’s musical and my first stage role was Bloody Mary in South Pacific and I did such a good job, they promoted me to the lead role for the next year which was Calamity Jane in Calamity Jane. I also did a few communities plays and plays for the church but when it came to graduating and leaving college at the age of 18 at the end of the ’70s, going into the ’80s.
As a woman, my only career choices were, I could be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse… cuz’ being an actor was not an option for a little brown girl, back then….
Therefore, I applied for nursing and I got accepted, and I ended up moving to the city to go nursing and I trained and qualified as a general and obstetric nurse. It was a great learning foundation for acting because nursing is all about the human condition and the arts are about the human condition, acting is all about the human condition, writing is about the human condition, music is usually about the human condition so I qualified in the human condition.
And at 21 going on to 22 I went to London because for us, in my generation, we were influenced by Europe, all our music, and fashion, came out of Europe and London. It didn’t come from `America. My nieces and nephews now are growing up under the influence of the American culture. But our influences were just British and Europe.
I went to London in the ’80s and this is at the end of the punk rock era, and I had aspirations to go to medical school to become a doctor but I got caught up in the entertainment industry in London, so long story short that was the end of my medical career. I did what young people do, I went to night clubs and I do not recommend this, but going to night clubs was fine, going to a musical concert was fine… all that art stuff is fine. But playing with drugs I do not recommend.
The good thing about me, playing with drugs was that in my mind I thought because I have a college education because I am a qualified nurse I can play with drugs, and my message for young people, is that nobody can play with drugs.
But the thing about me going through that experience was that it led me back to what I wanted to do because I really wanted to be an actress. So instead of going to medical school in 1985, I went to drama school part-time and had a part-time job to pay my bills.
I used to be a waitress at the Groucho Club in Soho, and I worked a lot in theater, while I was also training at the Actor’s Institute.
Then… my father died in the late 80’s so that is what took me back to New Zealand and then I got a lot of work in New Zealand in theater and tv which eventually led me to the film that launched me in the 90’s.
You are the only actress in the world who worked with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. What is the greatest lesson you learn from people like them?
lt’s what every great artist has in common. Is that they are connected to their inner child and they are big children in a big playground. Even on the indy films with a little budget they all big kids in the playground. It just that George’s and Spielberg’s are a much bigger playground on a bigger budget but the lesson is the most important thing If you are going to be creative you have to stay connected with your inner child. Because your inner child is the source of your creativity. And everyone has an inner child. And then we have critical and judgmental mind and the imagination and the imaginary world, and when you look at children, they have this gift, they are happy and their imagination is beyond limits, they have no conflicts, or failure or anything like that because they are still in childhood. But even if you are an old man and an old lady, or in your 50’s like me or in your 20’s, you still need your inner child and it is very important to stay connected to the inner child and nurture and to nourish that inner child because when I’m going to work as an actress, when I sit there preparing, in a makeup chair or the hair chair, I’m mentally getting myself out of the way, getting my mind out of the way, so that I become that channel that God can flow through and I’m in touch with my emotional world and with my inner child. And when I worked with Lucas and Spielberg they were just like every other creative. They were just big kids, having a lot of fun.
Did you get any advice from them?
No, not really because you’re shooting very big production and they have a lot to look after and I never really need, I guess I was kind of naive at the time.
If I was doing that now then I would be picking their brain but at the time… you know…I was naive, I was sort of at the beginning of my film career and I know directors are very busy because they have got 1000 things on their mind to look at… they’re looking at the whole process, you know, wardrobe, actors… etc.
Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing to go back full circle and work with Spielberg again or Lucas. That will be just awesome, and then I will ask each of them, what is the best piece of advice you could ever give to a filmmaker because you know you’re an actor or a writer or producer, you’re all part of the film making process. I’m older now and I have the confidence to say, hey George what’s the best advice you would give me?
Now, moving forward to these days, can you please tell us about your experience with this new tv series called Siren?
Ohhh, listen, the character, Helen Hawkins is an absolute gem. She’s a joy to play, and she was just exactly the kind of role that I wanted.
Do you find yourself in the character?
Oh, absolutely. I wanted a character that I was just right for, at my age, and just right for the way I was, in eccentric. There was a lot of myself that I could bring to Helen in terms of being unique and original. She’s not like everybody else. She’s different. She’s mixed blood and I am mixed blood, not a mermaid but I’m also biracial I’m European and Polynesian and French and Welsh. So… I grew up in the Bay of Islands, I understood very well those coastal communities. Because in the summertime I used to go out to the beaches and earn my pocket money working at the tourist resort. So, Helen Hawkins grew up in the coastal resort in Bristol Cove. So yes, there was a lot of myself and my background that I could bring to Helen but, yes, I’ve learned a lot from her. She is a great character, and she is a lot of fun. You know, probably one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from it, to not take myself so seriously.
Will the audience see a season four of the Siren tv series?
Well, we will find out. Now, season three went on air April 2nd. And we will find out in May if we’re going to go to season four. I hope so!
Can you tell us a bit about the new series coming?
I think the really exciting thing about season three is there is so much going on, in terms of storyline and we know from the trailer and from the end of season two that one of the hybrids was implanted with Ryn’s embryo, and so the baby is born and that becomes a big part of the storyline is what happens with the baby. We also know from the trailer that there is a new badass mermaid. There’s gonna be a lot, a lot of stuff going on season three and I got great moments. And I just really do hope we get to come back for season four.
Do you play theater in between the series?
Last year I did a mini-series for the Gloaming and that’s a supernatural horror-thriller mini-series, that was made in Tasmania, Australia.
What success, are you most proud of, to date?
Personally, I stopped smoking cigarettes. I was a light smoker, I only smoked about 4 a day but I did it for 30 years and that was the hardest thing I ever did, giving up cigarettes. But I did it! I was such a light smoker that most people didn’t even knew I smoked, I only smoked like 2 packets a week, American Spirits. And I had a lot of failed attempts but I just knew if I was not going to be mentally committed, I would never stop. And so I thought, okay, you have to set yourself up to succeed, and so I thought okay let’s start mentally preparing and breaking associations, so no alcohol because if I drank alcohol, I’d always want to smoke, and most smokers are the same if you drink alcohol you want to smoke a cigarette. So I go, no alcohol, don’t go to smokey places and because I was a light smoker, really didn’t t cut down but I mentally prepared myself to let it go. And you do have to kinda go through an emotional process of letting go what can be your oldest friend and I kept setting different dates like keep going, okay, I am gonna stop on these dates and later I’m gonna stop on this date. Like about three months had gone past I’m thinking Gosh if you are not gonna stop smoking cigarettes then have a glass of wine. But I tell you what it took. It wasn’t until the day, my sister in law, who just turned 50 was a chain smoker and full of cancer and when she died on that day, I thought okay girl, no more excuses. Don’t procrastinate, you can’t make excuses. Just do it! I had one cigarette left in my packet, It was April 17, 2016 and that was my last cigarette, so that was a really big motivation for me but I was already in the process of preparing to let it go. That’s why I think nicotine, giving up cigarettes is not easy. And that is the thing I’m most proud of because it is the hardest thing I did in my life.
Professionally, the thing I’m most proud of, is that I am the only actress in the world who have worked with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Photo by Monique Lively
What advice would you give to young people interested to follow your career?
Probably everything that I’ve been saying up until now! You know…
- Follow your heart.
- Dream Big
- Don’t give up.
- Tenacity is one of the biggest things.
- Be comfortable in your skin.
- Believe in yourself
- Stay connected to your inner child.
- Be creative.
- Dare to dream
- Don’t give up.
- Just keep believing
- Have your eye on the plan, on the goal.
- Be very good at whatever you do.
- Be a hard working actor
Just relish what’s in front of you… you know… the grass is always going to be greener, so be grateful for where you’re at. As Russell Crowe said this to me, many years ago when I came to Hollywood, he said: “It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon”. It took him 5 years of auditioning when he came to LA before he got his first break. Therefore, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. So keep showing up, just show up, show up, show up and be the best you!
Can we attribute all these to your success?
Yes, if I wouldn’t done all the above mentions, I wouldn’t still be acting. I think the other important lesson is to be true to who you are. Don’t try to be an actor if it’s not your calling in life. I am not talented to be an engineer, because I’m not talented to be an engineer. I’m talented to be an actor I’m talented to be a writer. Everyone has a talent. Find your talent, and pursue that talent and just do it because the more you do, the better you get.
What would you want to accomplish that you have not yet?
Professionally, I’d like to be in a big studio franchise. I’d like to be in a franchise, like a Marvel comic film, or a James Bond film.
Personally, I’d like to be successful In love. I’d like to be in a healthy relationship. I don’t want to be on my own for the rest of my life.
Dear Rena, we are honored! This was such an inspiring interview and you are a magic lady! We look forward to see the new series of Siren!
Thank you British THOUGHTS! It was my pleasure and I hope this will inspire and motivate the young generation as well!