Rena Owen as Helen in SIREN | ©2018 Freeform

Rena Owen as Helen in SIREN | ©2018 Freeform

As SIREN continues its third season, Thursdays on Freeform (followed by streaming on Freeform on Hulu), the mermaid clan led by Ryn (Eline Powell) is facing war with the mermaids led by newcomer Tia (Tiffany Lonsdale). Ryn’s baby has been born to a human surrogate after a difficult delivery, and locals are getting ever more suspicious about the strange deaths in Bristol Bay.

Rena Owen plays lifelong Bristol Bay resident Helen Hawkins, a gift shop owner who is secretly one-eighth mermaid. She endeavors to help Ryn and all of mer-kind while trying to figure out why she is being visited by the ghost of her late merman lover Sarge (Hugo Ateo).

Owen is a New Zealander who starred to great acclaim in the groundbreaking film about present-day Maori people, ONCE WERE WARRIORS. Other notable credits include A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES, STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER, SHORTLAND STREET, THE STRAITS, THE DEAD LANDS, THE RED ROAD, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, and THE ORVILLE. Additionally, Owen is an award-winning playwright and author.

Speaking by phone, Owen talks about SIREN, as well as working with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and more.

ASSIGNMENT X: First of all, and most importantly, are you well?

RENA OWEN: Yes, I am. I’m very well. Just staying safe, and staying indoors, and not going out much at all. This week, they sent an alert to only go out if you really, really need to, so I haven’t been out all week, but I will sneak out tomorrow to the grocery store, but with the gloves and the mask and washing my hands, and doing my due diligence, because I do not want to get sick, I can’t afford to get sick, I don’t have time to be sick. So I’m good, and I’m able to use this time at home to catch up on tedious backlogs and all those things we like to ignore [laughs], spring-cleaning the wardrobe. It’s not wasted time, and I’ve binge-watched a couple of TV shows. It’s somewhat of a holiday, really.

AX: What are you watching?

OWEN: I watched Season 3 of OZARK. Before that one, I watched MESSIAH, which unfortunately has been canceled. And that one was gripping, and I couldn’t stop watching that, and I couldn’t stop watching OZARK. It’s an excellent season. The ending was so powerful. I hope it will be back for a Season 4.

AX: Were you interested in mermaid mythology before you became involved with SIREN?

OWEN: Not specifically mermaid, no. I’ve always been very interested in the spirit realm, so to speak, and folklore, and dragons and leprechauns. I have always had a fascination with that realm, for sure, but not specifically one thing. I had a big thing for leprechauns in my twenties, living in London. In fact, I was hoping to see a leprechaun [when visiting] Ireland. Of course, it didn’t happen [laughs]. But I’ve always had an interest in that realm of mythical creatures, unicorns. I think we’re going to start to maybe get a few unicorn shows. So it fit – obviously, I knew about mermaids, but it wasn’t it wasn’t until I started to prep for the show that I found out that there were all of these mermaid cults around the world, and mermaid conventions, and extraordinary amounts of people who were passionate about mermaids, and who listen to mermaids, and people being mermaids and mermen. It just opened my eyes to, “There’s all this passion for mermaids and mermen. It’s fantastic.” And of course, a lot of them have become fans of our show.

Rena Owen as Helen and Eline Powell as Ryn in SIREN | ©2018 Freeform/Ed Herrera

Rena Owen as Helen and Eline Powell as Ryn in SIREN | ©2018 Freeform/Ed Herrera

AX: How did you become involved in SIREN?

OWEN: I auditioned. I got the call from my agent. “They’re only seeing a few people for each role, and they’re very interested in you for the role of Helen. So I’ll send you the pilot script, and let me know if you like it.” So I read the script, and I said, “Oh, God, this is exactly the kind of role I was hoping and looking for.” So I said, “Absolutely, I’m going in for the audition.” And it didn’t quite click, but when I went in for the audition, the casting person said to me, “Oh, my God, the bosses are very excited that you’re coming in to audition for this role.” “Oh, that’s good.”

Anyway, I did a good audition, and a few days later, my agent called me. “I have to send you some new scenes. Get ready for your callback, because they want to see you again.” I said, “Okay.” So he emails me the scenes. The next day, he called, and I thought he was just calling to give me a time, and a day. And he said, “Look, they’re not going to worry about the callback. They want to send you a contract. They want you for the role. We need to have the contract locked down before five o’clock today.” So that’s how quick it went. But I actually say that it was a role twenty years in the making. Because after I signed that contract that Friday, I got an email from Eric Wald, who’s our writer and creator and executive producer. He said, “I’ve been a big fan of yours ever since I saw your work in ONCE WERE WARRIORS. And we all thought that you’d be perfect for Helen. And we loved your audition.” So I was someone they’d had their eye on, and in fact, it would be a couple of years after that, when we were shooting Season 3, Eric had written the episode. When their episode is being shot, they’ll come to set, and he actually went on to tell me, “We were actually really surprised we were bringing you in for the audition, because we had already told them we wanted you for the role.”

It came at a perfect time. When we did Season 1, I could understand that I had qualities like Helen – we are different, but I was unique, original, I was a strong woman – but it wasn’t ‘til Season 1 where we learned that the [merpeople] species was a matriarchy, and they were all warriors. The penny dropped then. The mermaids are a matriarchal warrior culture. You were going to ask something. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh. One and one equals two. Being a matriarch in a warrior culture was what ONCE WERE WARRIORS was all about.”

AX: It’s interesting that all three leads from ONCE WERE WARRIORS have gone on to have a number of mythical-type roles. You and Temuera Morrison were both in STAR WARS movies, and Cliff Curtis was a regular on to be in FEAR THE WALKING DEAD …

SIREN Key Art | ©2018 Freeform

SIREN Key Art | ©2018 Freeform

OWEN: Yes. George Lucas was a big fan of ONCE WERE WARRIORS, and he told his casting director at the time, Robin Gurland, “I want those two leads.” And so they got Temuera for Jango Fett. They wanted me initially for Captain Typho, who was Padme’s right-hand security person. I thought, “Great, fantastic role.” And then they got the call from the agent, saying that George had looked at the balance of all of those scenes, “And he’s a bit concerned that it’s all too woman-heavy, and they want to make that character a man.” So I thought, “Well, bummer.” “But there’s an alien called Taun We. Would you be interested in playing an alien?” I said, “Of course. I’d love to do whatever.” And when I saw the film, George was absolutely right. Jay Laga’aia, another Polynesian, booked the role of Captain Typho. He was wonderful. And you did need that one token male in all of those scenes, because Padme was constantly surrounded by all of her maidens, and you did need that one guy. So it made sense, and Taun We has become a very beloved alien. And I became part of the family, and they brought me back for a role for EPISODE III, to play Nee Alavar, one of Padme’s senators. But I knew it at the time when I read the script, I thought, “Those roles are going to be cut out,” and they did, because they weren’t intrinsic to the main plot, which was Anakin going to the Dark Side.

But it was a great experience, and I went into it like a big kid STAR WARS is not something I grew up with on the dairy farm, milking cows. For me, it was just another job, and I had a whole lot of fun on it. And George appreciated that I treated him very normal, very ordinary. I’ve found throughout my career that people like to be treated ordinary. It turns out that I’m actually the only actress in the whole world who’s worked with both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Because I did that back to back. I did ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and then I came back to L.A. and I did a cameo role in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. So I’m the only actress in the world to have worked with both, which is pretty extraordinary, really.

AX: What did you take away from working with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg?

OWEN: I took away what I know to be true, which is, they just relish what they do, and they’ve just got so much passion and energy for what they do, and I guess I can call them people who are in that kind of genius realm – Seth MacFarlane’s another one [Owen worked with him on THE ORVILLE] – they’ve visionary, and they’re doing what they were put on the planet to do. And they’re unique, they’re trailblazers, and they have originality, and it’s a joy. The only real difference between Spielberg and George is, Steven’s a lot more social. He’s a bit more of a talker. George is kind of the shy, quiet type. Both of them are genius visionaries, and they’re both very good friends [with one another]. Any given day on set, they both had lunch with their families. George would take his kids, and walk off the Fox lot, and go across to the pub, to the bar, and have fish and chips with his children. And I’d often see Steven Spielberg sitting on one of those [studio golf] carts with his wife and his son. And so I always believe that people who do extraordinary things have a real need to be ordinary, and just have those things that anchor them to their real lives and to the real world.  A person can get quite caught up in an imaginary, creative world.

Rena Owen as Helen in SIREN | ©2018 Freeform

Rena Owen as Helen in SIREN | ©2018 Freeform

AX: Your character Helen is part mermaid, and we actually see you swimming underwater. How did you do those scenes? Are you a swimmer in real life? Did they put you in a tank?

OWEN: Oh, yeah. I did a little compilation that I shared on Instagram TV. For these scenes, you have to do training, and you have to do it with certified people. They don’t just let you go into a tank without training. And so I had quite a few sessions first, going into a place where we were wearing the regulator. You learn how to use that, and that’s done in a swimming pool that’s not on set, and then you actually go into the tank, and have an afternoon of rehearsal. And that’s for the actors, for costume, and the director. [The regular crew] is not normally shooting these things on set, so you’re there in the tank to get comfortable with the tank and the [underwater] crew. And then comes the day when you actually shoot it. So there are a lot of moving parts to doing the tank work.

I just take my hat off to Eline. The level of skill that she’s got, her and the other [people playing] mermaids, the level of skill is just extraordinary. Eline and Alex [Roe, who plays Ben Pownall] can hold their breath two, three, four minutes. It’s just stunning. For me, the good thing was that growing up in New Zealand, swimming was very much part of our childhood growing up. Swimming was compulsory at school, at little people’s school, at high school. In this day and age, it’s no longer compulsory. People are drowning, because they haven’t learned how to swim. I grew up in the Bay of Islands [in New Zealand], which was a tourist resort like Bristol Cove. And so there was a lot of swimming in the sea, there was a lot of swimming in our rivers. It was a big part of our [lives]. Granted, I had not done a lot of swimming during my years living in London or L.A., but I felt comfortable being in the water, and I really enjoyed it, and it was fun. And I really missed having the fins [unlike full mermaids, Helen does not grow a tail when underwater]. I realized the amount of work our mermaids do underwater, and the extraordinary team that we have, with the camera crew, and our stunts team in the ocean. There’s a whole team – you don’t see that team in Helen’s apartment or the store, because they’re the specialists. Those guys are the top guns underwater, the camerawork that’s done underwater, and it’s all about safety.

Also, for every scene that has a challenge to it, or there’s an element of danger, they’re always going to have a stunt person. It’s just the rule. Even if that stunt double is not used, they have to have one on set. If an actor is doing something that is deemed risky, potentially dangerous, they always have a backup stunt person. They use the stunt people when they can, and they use the actors for the close-ups. We have a fantastic stunt coordinator, and a great team of stunt people who’ve worked with us now for three seasons. And you’re going to start seeing some of our stunt people, actually, as part of the underwater tribe wars. You’re going to start seeing more of them. These are people with high-level skills, highly trained. They’ve been stunt people all their lives, and they make us look good.

AX: When Helen is submerged, is she meant to be holding her breath, or is she meant to be able to breathe underwater?

OWEN: Well, that wasn’t either discussed or discerned.

AX: So the audience doesn’t know either …

OWEN: Yeah. We don’t know that. I think it’s safe to say we do know she gets some superpowers, like that extra physical strength that we saw when she rescued Sarge before. And we may see that skill again in Season 3. So I think her ability not to have to breathe underwater is probably one of those extra skills that she has. In fact, I remember talking about this weeks ago with our show runner, if she has some extra mermaid skills, and I think breath-hold would probably be one of them at the time. But it wasn’t necessarily commented on ever, because it wasn’t needed to be commented on to tell the story of that scene.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with actress Rena Owen on SIREN – Season 3 – Part 1


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