Owen: Hollywood’s not the end of the world.

Rena Owen claims she’s not surprised
by the box office success of Once Were Warriors. New Zealand’s
latest film export is an unflinching account of domestic violence
in an urban Maori family and has become the highest-grossing movie
in that country’s history. “I knew it would do well in New Zealand.
It was already a best-selling novel, and it was the first all-Maori
cast. I knew we had a project that was going to be abundant in
emotion and spirit. Audiences are craving for more realism. They’re
less tolerant of the fantasy.”

There’s not a whole lot of fantasy in the brutal Once
Were Warriors
. The Maori people, who in America are largely
known for running around half-naked in The Piano, don’t
live like that at all, it turns out. Citydwelling Maoris in 1995
are burdened with the gamut of human blights poverty brings.
If Holly Hunter showed up in this film she’d have to carry her
own damn piano.

Owen plays Beth Heke, a woman struggling to keep
one son out of juvenile hall and another from joining a gang. Sound
a little bit like South Central L.A.? It gets better. Her husband
Jake (Temuera Morrison) is “on the dole”, a cushier version of
unemployment. He and his mates spend all day at the bar drinking
24-ounce bottles of beer that they buy in huge wooden crates. Closing
time? No problem, come on over to “Jake the Mus’s” place afterhours.
In his spare time Jake works off those extra calories by beating
his wife. This puts a damper on the party, to say the least.

Jake and Beth’s relationship makes Ike and Tina
Turner’s look positively healthy. The scenes of Morrison clubbing
his defiant wife with his fists are absolutely horrifying, some
of the most disturbing violence on screen in recent memory. In
the midst of this dysfunctional melange is Beth’s daughter, the
aptly named Grace, who tries to stay above the fray and around
whom the film’s climax develops.

If you’re not an avid fan of the wifebeating genre,
consider seeing the movie anyway, if only for the stunning cinematography
of Stuart Dryburgh, whom Jane Campion used on both An Angel
at my Table
and The Piano.

Rena Owen had been promoting Once Were Warriors,
which opens in mid-March in American theaters, for three weeks
when I spoke with her in the lobby of the Sorrento hotel. A striking
woman whose past includes an eight month stint in British prison
on drug charges in the early eighties, Owen was a savvy interview,
thoroughly practiced at times, at others quite off guard. Of her
past she said, “The Premiere article in which that information
appeared really pisses me off. I spent four hours with the writer,
and all that came out was two paragraphs that had to do with drugs
and prison.”

Rena Owen is actually from the small town of Moerewa,
the daughter of a Maori father and a pakeha (white) mother. “It’s
got about 12 shops. It’s a country town, predominately Maori. It’s
got a freezing works, which is where they kill the cows, the sheep,
the lambs, to make New Zealand lamb and steaks. It’s where they
skin them, cut them up, bone them, all the rest.”

After starting out on the stage, where she has both
written and performed, Owen landed the role of Beth in Once
Were Warriors
through her association with director Lee Tamahori
and screenwriter Riwia Brown, with whom she had collaborated on
several projects including Owen’s play Daddy’s Girl which
Brown directed. “[Lee Tamahori] told me it was always my role even
if I hadn’t auditioned. I did audition, and like 500 other women
in New Zealand I sweated, bit my nails, and said my prayers every
night and hoped I’d get the part. But he said it was always my
role because, well basically, there’s a lot of Maori talent in
New Zealand, but a lot of it’s not refined, and I’ve been at it
for 12 years, so I know my craft. So he knew I was technically
brilliant, and he knew I had the strength to carry it emotionally.”

Of her newfound fame in her native country, the
Kiwi actress protests, “I’m an artist and I’ve always strived to
be a good actor. All I care about is doing the work. Fame is very
superficial. It’s a byproduct of our business, but I never set
out to be famous. I don’t like to always be in the center of the
limelight. I can play the star, but it’s not my full way of being.
I love to be normal. I don’t consider myself any better than a
milkman. A milkman is good at delivering milk, I’m good at acting,
but we’re all people at the end of the day.”

But Owen, who won Best Actress at the 1994 Montreal
Film Festival, may find Hollywood beckoning a couple months from
now if Once Were Warriors affects American audiences as
strongly as it has those in New Zealand, Australia, and Italy already. “It
[Hollywood] does interest me. But Hollywood isn’t the end of the
world. I’d go to Hollywood for a good script. But I don’t think
it serves any actor to do a bad script.” Her next project, as soon
as she finishes doing publicity for Warriors, is written by three
New Zealanders.

“In New Zealand, we’ve been making movies
since the 1930’s, and we’ve put out a helluva lot of films.” She
names such Kiwi exports as Sam Neill and Roger Donaldson and
goes on to say, “So we’ve had the talent that put out product.
I think what’s different now is that New Zealand has grown up
in the last ten to twenty years. We used to copy the Americans
or the Brits. Now we’re more secure in our own identity.”

“I’ve had the sort of break every actor wants.
To be in a film that has done so well at the box office, but
has also picked up 18 awards around the world, two of those I
picked up, you couldn’t ask for more. Every film after this will
be a bit of a downer.”

When asked if this prospect frightened her, Owen
replied with a smile, “That’s the risk you take.”