Growing up in Christchurch, and later moving to his father’s farm in North Canterbury, Owen played rugby and worked nights in his father’s and stepmother’s restaurant. His only experience with drama at this point had been backstage as a child while his mother sewed costumes at a small theatre, soaking up the musty smell of the aging building and being frightened of the witches in the play. He remembers watching one of Christchurch’s most iconic actors, Mark Hadlow, in the early 1990s in a play called Snag and being entranced. Never, though, had Owen ever considered acting as a path for his own life.
Spending long car rides home together from the restaurant in Christchurch, it was Owen’s Japanese stepmother, Kumiko, who first suggested the idea. ‘I had this hour or so in the car with Kumiko, and she just got me chatting, you know, opening up a bit,’ Owen says. ‘We started having these great conversations about people when I was just a teenager. And that’s when she said, “You should be an actor. You know, you’ve got a pretty good understanding of people,” as opposed to the usual, “Be an actor because you’re extroverted and you love showing off in front people,” and it’s the opposite. You’ve got to really love people.’
Before pursuing a career in acting, Owen embarked on the ceremonious Kiwi OE, spending two years in Japan at Kumiko’s suggestion, staying with her mother. Kumiko’s mother spoke no English, and Owen spoke no Japanese, but they made it work, and she found him a job at a kiwifruit farm. Owen spent time at the ski fields, and eventually got work expressing his creative side by designing posters at a sports shop. All the while Owen considered the idea of acting, with his appearance often sparking interest and drawing attention on the streets of Japan, and forcing Owen from his natural introversion. ‘I was a novelty over there. It’s a place where there were practically no foreigners, so I couldn’t help but be in front of people, and have people look at me and talk to me. And you start to play up, being quite boisterous and stuff, you know. Just purely because to them, I look like Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise, like I should have been in the movies, you know,’ Owen laughs.
Returning to Christchurch, Owen, by now in his mid-twenties, finally decided to try his hand at acting. He auditioned and successfully landed roles at what was then the Repertory Theatre. Looking to escape Christchurch, Owen then moved to Auckland, with the intention of working in an animation studio. Finding it didn’t satisfy his creative bent due to its repetitive work flow, he then attended a vocal course where he met an acting tutor who encouraged him to study at Unitec. Owen studied at the School of Performing and Screen Arts for three years, graduating in 1998, cementing his official identity as an actor.
With an agent, a strong natural talent and a good work ethic, it didn’t take long for work to flow in. Even before he finished his study, Owen earned what would be his first major role in the Hercules television series. He went on to act in an abundance of roles including movies, plays, television series and commercials. It was his part as the villainous Ethan Pierce on Shortland Street in 2009 that gave Owen his first taste of fame, and set him up as one of New Zealand’s most well-known and memorable actors. Even though his stint on Shortland Street was short (around four months), its impact was huge. This was largely due to the writers giving the character of Ethan Pierce more and more deplorable storylines, and Owen still managing to play the role in a way that the audience still found Ethan alluring despite his evil nature.
Dealing with the new-found fame took some adjusting, and Owen would often (and still does) get approached on the street by fans of the show. Most of these interactions were positive, but for the more challenging ones, Owen looked to his father’s friend and ex All Black Alex Wyllie as inspiration. ‘Having people getting in your face when you just want to chill, it was pretty weird. And people can be rude, but mostly it’s that whole ownership thing. But I remember being at the pub with Dad and Alex Wyllie, and it was the same thing with Alex, you know? People would say, “Alex! Grizz! You remember me? We played in the Under 13 squad such and such time, we used to play together.” This would be back 50 or 60 years. And he always gave them the time of day. He was such a pro, you know. I wanted to take that with me when I was on Shortland Street, just treat people genuinely and give them the time of day, even if you don’t feel like it. You try and be open to people, because it means a lot to them.’
After Shortland Street, Owen was feeling frustrated with some of the roles he had been auditioning for, and was looking for a fresh challenge. ‘You have these dreams of being in the movies. Especially when I was younger and just never getting seen for lead roles because I’ve got a look that’s not “Kiwi bloke” enough to get the sort of standard Kiwi bloke roles. But Americans find me as ethnic. So I get cast as Greek and Italian because I’ve got the kind of slightly darker skin, you know. I’m getting seen for things now. But when I was younger I didn’t get seen for roles and I thought, well I just want to do something. I want to be in a movie and I want to do some work and be the leader.’
And so, Netherwood was created, a modern New Zealand western which Owen produced and also starred in, playing the lead role of Stanley Harris. The movie was filmed around Waipara, made on a shoestring budget, with a lot of Kiwi ingenuity and local involvement. Shot over four weeks, the film is a gritty country thriller that showcases stunning North Canterbury scenery, and features other notable actors including Will Hall, Miriama Smith and Peter McCauley. The film was successful, being well-received in New Zealand, and was nominated for best feature film at the Nevada Film Awards, and was also where Owen met his wife, Aleisha, with whom he has two boys.
Owen’s latest work is back on the stage alongside Mark Hadlow at the Court Theatre in The Father, a tale of a man’s struggles with dementia and the effect it has on his family. ‘It’s not just dementia, it’s about getting old and people, it’s about the effect on the family. People have to deal with it, you know? Sometimes its not easy watching, but it’s balanced with good humour. That’s what makes it such a good play. You can’t really address those topics without humour. Otherwise it’s just too much,’ Owen says. ‘It’s a good way to bring that into conversation. Through art. That’s one of the points of art, isn’t it? That it opens things up for people to talk about, or expresses things that we can’t really express in other ways. Especially plays, because they are stories, and stories are how we learn.’
Words & Images Claire Inkson