When Rena Owen weighs up whether to accept roles, her main goal is to portray characters who are not the same as or similar to those she’s played before.
That maxim has served the Kiwi actress well in a screen career which spans 30 years since her debut in the NZ police series Shark in the Park.
Currently she is in Hobart playing yet another unique individual – Grace, who runs a community drop-in centre for wayward kids – in The Gloaming, an eight-part drama commissioned by Stan and Disney’s ABC Studios International.
Owen was in Vancouver getting ready to shoot the final episode of the second season of mermaid drama Siren, which screens on Disney’s young-adult US cable network Freeform, when she was asked to audition for The Gloaming.
Her schedule was so hectic her initial response was that she had no time to do a self-test. Then she read the script by creator/showrunner Vicki Madden and was so impressed she did the self-test on a Sunday afternoon.
“I look for roles that are unique, characters I have not played before,” she tells IF. She describes Madden, who is producing with Fiona McConaghy and 2 Jons’ John Molloy and Jon Adgemis, as “close to a genius” in the way she created the characters and the narrative which draws on her Tasmanian heritage.
The actress is similarly bowled over by the performances of Emma Booth and Ewen Leslie as detectives and former lovers who investigate the brutal murder of an unidentified woman. Both imbue their characters with a rich inner life and Leslie has a magnetic quality, she says.
Her character Grace is descended from Gaelic convicts, upholds the old ways of life and is not what she seems. She is enjoying collaborating for the first time with directors Michael Rymer and Greg McLean and looks forward to working with Sian Davies, who will direct episodes five and six.
Showing her versatility, she played a cold, tough Major – her first role as an Army officer – in Storm Ashwood’s thriller Escape and Evasion, which stars Josh McConville as a soldier who suffers from PTSD after his men are killed in Burma. She attended the world premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival and was delighted with the audiences’ responses.
In Siren the LA-based Owen plays Helen Hawkins, an eccentric outsider, the the last living descendant of the human-mermaid hybrid daughter of Charles Pownall and his former mermaid lover, who runs a mermaid memorabilia store.
When she signed on to do the pilot the contract tied her to the show for six years, a standard Hollywood stipulation, which meant she had to knock back a role in James Cameron’s Avatar franchise. She was thrilled when Freeform renewed the series this week after the first half of the second season ranked as the network’s No. 1 show among adults 18-49 and women 18-49.
Before Siren she starred in the first series of The Orville, a science fiction comedy-drama created by and starring Seth MacFarlane for the Fox network, which screens here on SBS Viceland and SBS on Demand. She initially auditioned for the role of a doctor but acknowledges she wasn’t right for the part.
But bearing out her advice to young actors – never turn down the chance to audition – she was then offered the role of Heveena, the greatest writer in the history of the Moclan humanoid species who lives in seclusion in the mountains. MacFarlane re-introduced the character in Sanctuary, episode 12 of the second series.
Born to a Maori/Welsh father and a European mother, she did not set out to be an actress. In the 1970s in New Zealand, she recalls, women usually had three career choices: secretary, nurse or teacher.
‘Once Were Warriors.’
So she chose nursing, graduating as a general and obstetric nurse. She moved to London as a naïve 21-year-old, was bitten by the acting bug and trained at the Actors Institute of London.
After working in theatre in the UK and in NZ for eight years, she landed her breakthrough role in Lee Tamahori’s confronting 1994 drama Once Were Warriors, based on Alan Duff’s first novel which tells the story of an urban Māori family grappling with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence.
Owen and Temuera Morrison played the leads. The 34-day shoot was intense and gruelling, she recalls, a challenge she could not have mastered without that theatre experience.
Even today, she marvels at Morrison’s “extraordinary” transformation from a charming guy to a monster.
There were times in her career, she admits, when she contemplated quitting. However the last five years have been especially rewarding, which she attributes in part to the #OscarsSoWhite movement in protest at the under-representation of people of colour in the Academy Award nominations.
“The other factor that helped to shift my acting career forward was age,” she says. “When you are in your 40s you are too old to play the chickey babe but too young to play the grandmother or wise old sage.
“When an actress moves into her 50s, there’s a whole lot of new roles that an actress is suitable for if they have persevered, hung in there, and have not frozen their faces.”