Berlin: Rena Owen on Why Playing a Maori Icon in 'Whina' Was the "Most Demanding Role of My Career"

Rena Owen in 'Whina'
Jen Raoult

Rena Owen in 'Whina'

The veteran New Zealand actor plays the 80-year-old Maori matriarch Whina Cooper, who in 1975 led a land march of over 600 miles for indigenous rights.

For Rena Owen, it was the role of a lifetime.

Since rocketing to international prominence in 1994 in Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors, in which she played an abused wife in a family descended from Maori warriors, the New Zealand actor has had a steady career of film and TV roles, including parts in Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2002), alongside Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood in The Last Witch Hunter (2015), and in recurring roles in Freeform fantasy series Sirens, and Seth MacFarlane's The Orville.

But none of that prepared Owen for the demands — both physical and emotional — of playing Maori matriarch and political activist Whina (pronounced "Fee-na") Cooper in Whina.

The period biopic casts the 50-something Owen as a nearly-80-year-old Whina who, after a lifetime of activism and defying racism and sexism in her fight for justice and indigenous rights, decides to lead the first Maori Land March, walking more than 620 miles from one end of New Zealand to the other. The march marked a new era of protest and reform in New Zealand, and Cooper became nationally revered as the "Mother of the Nation."

Whina was shot last year and is currently in post-production. Cornerstone is shopping the film to buyers at this year's European Film Market. From her home in New Zealand — where she's been stuck since heading down under to shoot the film — Owen spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of Whina Cooper to the Maori community, the challenges of playing the "flawed human" behind the legend, and why she gave up drinking for the role (and started up again right after).

You shot this entire film during the coronavirus pandemic. What was that like?

Well, the plan was, like a lot of independent movies, to do a 30- or 40-day shoot — you go in and out and you're done. But this one, because of corona, became a five-and-a-half-month shoot. I went down [to New Zealand] July 20th, did my two weeks quarantine, then we went into rehearsals and pre-production. On day five, we got locked down for a month. It pretty much went like that for five and a half months. We were in and out of different levels of lockdown. I take my hat off to our producers who juggled the whole thing. We didn't stop shooting until mid-November.

With the situation so dire in L.A., I've stayed on and I took on a stage play, which has been nice. It is a beautiful summer in New Zealand, and I haven't done theater in 10 years. I also thought it would be good for New Zealanders who haven't seen me for a long time. Because the next time they're going to see me, I'm going to be an 80-year-old lady. I wanted the Kiwis to know I don't look 80-years-old yet. If everything works out, I'll go back to L.A. in April.

How did you get cast in Whina?

For me, Whina is a dream role, the role of a lifetime for me as an actress. She's a New Zealand legend. I knew that [producer] Matthew Metcalfe had been developing the film for 10 years and I always said I wanted to play Whina. Her family approved of me because I grew up in the north of the North Island and Whina Cooper was from the north of the North Island. There were a few other things we had in common. My grandmother was one year older than Whina, she was that same generation of Maori woman. And, very importantly, we both grew up Catholic. As a young girl. I used to go to the Catholic conferences in the north and Whina was always there. The Land March went through our hometown, and my aunty actually went on the march. Whina Cooper is kind of a Shakespearean character for me, because of her life and what she had achieved and also because of her personal foibles and personal failures. It was the kind of role an actress dreams of.

In hindsight, I didn't quite comprehend how challenging that role was going to be. It was a heavy, heavy role. The most challenging role I've ever had to play in my thirty-five-year career. She was a heavy, demanding character, and playing her came with an enormous amount of responsibility because she was and is a very beloved and revered New Zealander. So I had this enormous pressure to do the role as much justice as possible. I mean: I had family members in the front row of the march.

I come to this quite ignorant of her story. Can you give me an idea of her importance to New Zealand history?

People were saying about this movie, before we even made it, that it will be a seminal film for New Zealand. Because Whina Cooper is studied in schools here. She's an iconic figure.

But as an actor, I wasn't interested in just playing one dimension of this person's life. I had to dig deep into her personal life too. And not all was well in her personal life. I found some things about her in my research that I was a little disturbed by, by some of the choices she made. These aren't secrets, it's all the public record if you want to look for it. Like when she buried her first husband she was seven months pregnant with another man's child. At one point I remember telling the directors [James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones]: "You know, I don't know if I like Whina." But they said: "Remember, you're playing a flawed human being." It was a great note for an actor because you can become consumed with playing the revered, beloved icon and miss the cracks and the flaws in their character. I think you'll agree there's not one pioneering legend out there that doesn't have some kind of mistakes, some cracks or flaws in character in their personal or professional life.

And the fact is, Whina Cooper led an extraordinary life. When she was 79, going on 80, when she'd already gone into retirement, these young Maori radicals approached her and asked her to lead them [on the march]. She said: "I've been fighting all my life. I'm retired." And they said: "No one will listen to us, Whina, but they'll listen to you." There was something special about her, something special about her voice. Her father did her a great service by making sure she was educated. He sent her to a private school. This was back in 1910. But he knew she was intelligent and clever and ambitious. I spent a lot of time listening to her speech patterns. She had this unique voice — a bit of old English mixed with country bumpkin.

Do you see a link between Whina and the fictional character you played, Beth Heke in Once Were Warriors?

That's a very fair question. The thing is, there's a huge difference between them. When we meet Beth, she's a victim. Whina was never a victim, never. She'd eat people for breakfast. She was always the one that wore the pants. She was the decision-maker. She was the woman that dared to speak in places that women were not allowed to speak. She was that pioneering female. There's something about women in New Zealand. This was the first country where women got the vote [in 1893] — and yes we have a female prime minister right now, but we've had actually three of them in the past 20 years. It's not a unique thing. What they all have in common is that fighting spirit. That warrior spirit. I think it's something intrinsic to the culture. When I think about my grandmother, who as I said was a year older than Whina, these were farmers, these were tough women. They worked in the fields with a baby on their backs. They were workhorses. I think these women existed all around the world, and exist all over the world, in the rural communities.

How big a challenge was it to play Whina as an old woman?

I was really concerned about this, actually. Because we used prosthetics. And if you've seen New Zealand films, you'll know we have incredibly harsh light down here. But prosthetics are so evolved now, it's incredible what makeup can do. It was a two-hour process doing the whole face and then the wig. But it looks pretty damn believable.

I did pay a price in my body, though. You know the original Yoda? All humped over on his walking stick? I was like that for five months. It's almost like I got a repetitive strain injury. Even today I have to remind myself to straighten up. Because it was 12 hours hunched over, holding that posture. I'd be thinking: "Please, just call cut!" And then I'd slowly unfurl. As an actor, having something physical that sums up the character, is very helpful. But it's hard on the body.

Once Were Warriors was the start, at least internationally, of a recognition of a cinema about Maori culture and the Maori experience. I wonder how far you think that cinema has come and where Whina fits in? That's a great question and a timely question. We made Once Were Warriors in 34 days on a budget of $1.2 million American dollars. It premiered in Cannes in 1994. It would be another ten years before you'd have another Maori story that would make waves. That was Whale Rider (2002), which was done on a $10 million budget. Then you had Taika Waititi with Boy (2010), which was a seminal film for New Zealand. Whale Rider director Niki Caro just did Mulan and Taika Waititi of course has become this big Hollywood studio director and won an Oscar last year [for best-adapted screenplay] for Jojo Rabbit.With Whina I think we've come full circle. The issues raised and covered in this film are very timely — in terms of the marches for human rights, just think of the marches last year for black lives — but for me, Whina's most powerful messages, the one that resonates today more than ever, is Kotahi Tatou. Which means "One People." We are one people. Our blood all runs red. We all have the same innate need to love and be loved. I'd like to think that some great things can come out of this project, out of Whina Cooper's life and her legacy.

How did your perspective of Whina Cooper change through your research and playing her in this film?

You know, I actually have more admiration for her in a lot of ways. As a young person, we knew her as this legend, this New Zealand icon. But you don't often realize what these people have gone through in their own lives. I admire her tremendously.

But playing her was exhausting. You know, we were planning to shoot the movie in April, so I thought the perfect preparation for me to get into character would be to do Lent — because Whina was Catholic and I was raised Catholic. So at the start of Lent, which was February 26 I believe, I began to go back to church, to go through the rituals of Catholicism, because Whina was very big into all those rituals.

And I gave up wine. I like to have some nice good wine. But I thought: "OK, I'll give up wine for 40 days. I'll go to church." I even went to confession. And when the priest asked when my last confession was, I said: "Probably when I was a teenager!" But then, right in the middle of Lent, L.A. locked down. My neighbors invited me to come over and have some wine and dinner in their "bubble." But I couldn't because I hadn't started the movie yet! I was committed to staying sober until we were done. I made that commitment to Whina, because she was a devout Catholic and a teetotaler as well.

But then the months went by. We started the movie but then we had to stop. We re-started and stopped again. It got to the point of like, we still haven't f***ing finished this movie! I ended up being nine months sober. But you know what? I'm actually glad I did it. It was such a privilege to play her. A character of this magnitude warranted some kind of sacrifice.

It's pretty late down there now, I hope you're imbibing again.

Oh yes. I've got a very nice glass of wine next to me now. At the wrap party, the director offered me a drink but I didn't want my first one back to be some cheap thing from a can. I'm back to enjoying the good stuff.

Interview edited for length and clarity.