Acting Dame Whina led Rena Owen back to Mass

Dame Whina Cooper (1895-1994) may no longer be with us but her spirit is still strong, as actress Rena Owen can attest.

Owen, who is portraying Te Whaea o Te Motu (mother of the Nation) in a new movie called simply Whina, says the role is her most challenging yet.

The way Owen tells it, it was as if in acting Cooper, the kuia lived again through her.

She says she often heard Cooper talk to her and she was able to channel her in her performance. But at a cost – she found it hard to divest herself of the role after work.

Like Cooper, Owen was baptised Catholic. In fact, that was one of the reasons Cooper’s family approved of her playing the role.

As Cooper openly practised her faith, Rena emulated her: she went back to Church to help prepare for the role.

“I went to confession and the priest asked me when was the last time I had done confession!”

She also gave up alcohol while filming as a way to honour Cooper’s beliefs.

“I gave up alcohol for Lent, then lockdown happened and my Lent went from 40 days to seven months. I could have drunk but I knew I wanted to have a clear channel.

“I prayed a lot during those seven months because it was so important to me to get it right.

“She had this sense of humour. It’s almost like she said, ‘I am not going to be number two on your list. I’m going all the way to the top and I’m gonna be your number one.’”

“We wanted to show her [Cooper] as a fully three-dimensional human being,” says one of the film’s co-directors, James Napier Robertson.

“Dame Whina is this towering figure, so it’s easy to forget the day-to-day struggles that she might have dealt with and the challenges she had to overcome to do the things that she did.”

“She had flaws, and we weren’t afraid to address them,” the film’s other co-director Paula Whetu Jones says.

“But we wanted to address them in a way that would allow the audience to feel compassion for the choices that she had to make.”

Owen says she struggled when she learnt things about Cooper she didn’t necessarily like.

She says Napier Robertson helped, saying: “Just remember Rena, you are portraying a very flawed person”.

“He’s right, we’re all flawed. And I think when we as a society give each other permission to be flawed, then we’ll have better lives.

“I call myself a recovering perfectionist because there’s the pressure to be perfect and to succeed and that can rob a lot of us of joy.

“What’s important to me is Whina’s message about kotahi tātou (we are one).

“Whina wasn’t about tearing people down or dividing them. She was always about coming together. It was for the love of the country. We are always stronger together than divided.”


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News category: New Zealand.

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