One of the attendees to the panel is none other than Rena Owen, who plays the part of Helen on the series. She went on quite the journey in some 1, starting off as a somewhat-mysterious mermaid fanatic before it was eventually revealed that she had Siren blood herself. She was a valuable resource to Ryn and, moving into season 2, we imagine that this is going to be even more the case.
In our interview, Owen (whose recent credits also include Longmire and The Orville) opens up about some of her season 2 expectations, doing 16 episodes of a season for the first time in her career, Comic-Con, and also the gratitude that she feels towards a life well-lived and many lessons that she learned along the way. This is a fantastic, personal look at both Siren and Owen’s perspective as an actor, and it is one of our favorite interviews in quite some time.
CarterMatt – Do you like doing 16 episodes, a longer order, as opposed to just 10?
Rena Owen – I have never done 16 before. I’ve done a lot of TV shows as a series regular, but the max was always ten episodes, so it’s going to be interesting. It will be more of a challenge for the writers in how they are going to stretch it out for 16 and do it to a point where it had the same quality that made season 1 work — everything’s left on a cliffhanger every week, and you’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. It was the same for us as actors. We never knew what was going to happen in the next episode until we got the script.
I would like to see the show maintain that edge of unpredictability, if that makes sense. That’s something that we’re going to have to pull off.
We were at the Siren panel at WonderCon earlier this year and it was interesting in that there was enthusiasm there, but nobody had actually seen the show yet. Are you excited to experience a convention this summer [in San Diego Comic-Con] where the audience is familiar with the show, and you can feel some of that energy?
Absolutely. I’ve done Comic-Con a few times for Star Wars where I was taken down to the autograph booth with the actors. That was a memory that will always stick with me. I remember being in the booth at one point with Billy Dee [Williams] — there were so many people and it was so packed and so crowded. They rotated us out for a couple of hours.
The difference this year is that I’m going to get to be a part of a panel. This is as big as its gets — it’s the most important Comic-Con in the world with so much content. It’s a bit of a zoo but it’s a really fun zoo. My favorite part of these conventions is the artists’ alley and going seeing the artists. A lot of these artists I know from having done conventions back in the day. I love to go down and say ‘hi.’
I’m excited to see where things go in season 2 — I’m very curious. The only thing I feel has to happen, and this is just my opinion, is that new merpeople have to come to land in order to help sustain and carry the storyline. It’s like any show — new characters come into every season. That is something I feel has to happen in season 2.
Have the writers even told you anything about what’s coming?
No, and even if they did I couldn’t say a word. What happened before the start of season 1 was that I sat down with [co-creator] Eric Wald and Emily [Whitesell], who is our showrunner, and they ran storylines past me. They would tell ‘we can do this’ or ‘we can do that,’ but here’s the reality — when it came to doing season 1, some of the things we talked about happened and some of the things we talked about didn’t happen. Like any series, you can have a template, but it can go left, right, and center — all over the place.
Due to timing we haven’t had a chance to sit down with everybody, but we’ll definitely have a chance in Vancouver and then San Diego. I’ve heard a few things, but of course my lips are sealed (laughs).
One of the things that we’ve seen play out on the show so far is the strained relationship between Helen and Ben’s father. Are you interested in exploring some of the origins of that coming up, whether it be with him or with Ben?
I always felt like some of the characters, like Helen and Ben, have always had an interesting relationship, but now that he knows that we’re related by blood, I’m rather curious to see where that could lead. A lot of fans on social media were going ‘oh my god, if Helen comes from a merlady then that means Ben’s a merman,’ and I was like ‘no.’ Charles Pownall had an affair with a mermaid and I come from that line. As you know from the last episode, I say “I am one-eighth mermaid. You’re talking multiple generations!”
It is interesting to see where things will lead in terms of the revelation to Ben making things into an even stronger relationship. You saw during season 1 there was a little fiction because they were seeing Ryn as a species, and I’m trying to say no, she’s not a species. I am trying to get her back to the water because as long as she’s going to be on the land, it’s dangerous.
But, they kind of team up for the good of the merpeople until the final episode, and I really love working with Alex [Roe], Eline [Powell], and Fola [Evans-Akingbola]. It’s a really strong, ongoing storyline. I will miss Donna (played by Sibongile Mlambo), who was a joy to work with and a total sweetheart, but it means with her gone, there is room for a new merperson or merpeople. I have no idea if they would bring back the two that were established in Katrina and Levi. I think it’s in there interest to bring back a merman; you have to bring back a merman!
I’m also curious to see how I help Ryn to transition into a more human life and what happens with her romance with the [love triangle]. That’s all left in the air, and nobody knows whether they are going to patch things together or move on in their own separate ways.
The other thing that I have a feeling will happen is when Maddie picks up the phone and goes ‘mom.’ Does that mean that her mother is coming back? That could happen. There are a lot of questions, like what happens with Xander and his crew. My character wasn’t all that proactive with him — with his father getting killed, does that mean that they are going to bring his mother back again? Who knows? Would Chris come back, or has Chris gone and done what Decker did to himself? He also got Sirened too.
At the moment, I have no idea but I’m just glad I’m going back (laughs). I love playing this character — she’s a very cool character to play. I remember before auditioning for the pilot that I just wanted a character who was right for the way that I am. I’m eccentric and a little odd and a little left field and I was perfect for the role! Eric knew my prior work, but I still didn’t know that I was right for the role until certain things happened in various episodes … I’d love to see her get some more juicy stuff to do. I’d love to see her kick some butt!
We’ve talked about this here — the idea that she, despite being only one-eighth, could actually find a way to turn into a Siren. Is that something you’ve considered?
It’s certainly possible. We spoke to the writers and creators about that even for season 1! I knew in the pilot and figured out ‘okay, she’s mermaid, isn’t she?’ — I needed to know because it affected how I would play her. It was because of that moment with Ryn saying ‘it takes one to know one.’ Then, there’s the fact that my whole life has been about the obsession with mermaids.
We talked about certain skills that Helen might have because of her mermaid DNA, and I certainly hope to explore these skills — superpower isn’t the right word, but there are some skills that I hope we get to see. There was that moment when Levi, the merman, shoved her up against the wall, and I know a lot of fans felt like she should be able to kick some butt. But, I know that Helen is very cautious and protective of who she reveals herself to. Back during season 1, she reveals herself only to Ryn and Donna — she doesn’t reveal herself until the others until the final scene at the burial ground. She’s not about to announce it and put it in the newspapers at Bristol Cove. She’d probably be the same with her special skills.
What was it that appealed to you about potentially playing this character who has feet in different worlds between human and mermaid? How do you tap into that?
I had a lot of personal experience to draw on. I grew up in the north of the north island [of New Zealand], in a place called the Bay of Islands. It’s exactly that — a bay full of islands! It’s like Bristol Cove. I actually feel like I could’ve become Helen had I never left my hometown.
Basically, I used to earn pocket money working in the takeaway — fast food joints, selling burgers and fries in the tourist resorts. Bristol Cove is immediate for me — I understand what it is like after growing up in these small communities. You pretty much know everyone because you go to school with them or you’re next door neighbors or you’re related to them. All families depended on the tourist season! It was the summer and they would book up the hotels and spend money on merchandise. When we started the first episode with the Mermaid Days and the parade, I thought that it was just like the Bay of Islands, so that was a big plus. I didn’t have to look very far. We were quite a small town, and there’s a certain character that comes with a small town. It’s like my mother — she was a highly intelligent woman, but she was always going to be a small-town woman, if you know what I mean.
The other thing that I was able to bring to Helen is that my dad is Native New Zealander and my mom is Caucasian. She is second-generation New Zealand descending from English and European blood. I’m one of nine, and many of my siblings were born in the late fifties where mixed marriages were not condoned. We were the only family in our town who was — well, the politically correct word now is biracial.
As a kid growing up biracial when there weren’t many biracial children, it was very confusing because like you said with Helen, you don’t belong with either world. For a long time, it kind of interfered with work when I first came to America. I’d work with my agent and people would be like ‘she’s a really good actress, but what is she?’ because at the time, Hollywood was still about boxes and labels. You’d have your one black character there and one Asian character here and I’d walk in and I’m neither of any of them. It was pretty challenging growing up like that and I got picked on a lot. I was a creative little kid and a lot of creative people are hyper-sensitive and we’re easy targets because we’re kind of vulnerable.
These are all things I used for Helen because, to a certain degree, she was a bit ostracized — I don’t know if that’s too strong a word, but in the early episodes it comes up when it’s said ‘oh, we’re going to see the town nutjob.’ Poor Helen! She’s not a nutjob, but they all think she’s a nutjob because she’s a believer in mermaids! It’s not until real mermaids come to land when they realize that what she’s been talking about all this time with mermaids is not nutty. She then becomes a team player with them for the good of Ryn and the good of other merpeople.
This is why I said earlier that I was praying for a role that I was just perfect for just the way I am. Helen popped up, and I was like ‘this is it.’ I didn’t have to research or shop or go outside of myself to find this eccentric, enigmatic woman whose whole life has been in this small community.
What I did have to research is mermaids, and what I was so overwhelmed with is how much stuff is out there. I watched mermaid conventions, and I looked at a lot of scientific material. It was just a fascinating world and I’m very blessed. I’m really happy because this is a young adult show, and I grew up on young adult shows! The fans seem to really love Helen — they like the old girl on the block! I’m really pleased about that.
Do you think that Helen is a role that you could see yourself sticking with for a long time?
As long as they keep her active, absolutely. Like season 1, I want to be involved in the storylines. I could certainly do this two, three, four times, because she is a gift of a character. I’m in Hollywood, and it’s one of those things that isn’t always easy for me personally, but I’ve hung on to my character and I don’t even color my hair! Helen’s got some gray hairs and that’s a gift.
I remember when I first came here and I would sit in rooms with perfect, flawless creatures. You could just see that they’ve had a whole lot of work, and I wondered if that was what I needed to do in order to work. For that first year, I was forced to really think it through. I thought that if Hollywood was the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life, then maybe it would be worth it. But, I came out of theater for ten years and the priority with that was to just be a good actor. Ultimately, it’s what is on the inside that really speaks for an actor onscreen. I started to realize that if I started doing things to my face, how on earth would I be able to play native or indigenous or character actors? It’s just not going to work, and that’s what I am — I’m a character actor. There are days where it’s challenging as a female, because there are certainly days where I just want to get a neck tuck already (laughs). Then I see people like Frances MacDormand winning Oscars this year and I realize I made the right choice.
There were roles I was going in for the past couple of years, and I would say to the casting directors ‘I’m not right for this role’ and they’re like ‘yeah, we kind of know, but you’re good to look at.’ They were having a hard time finding actresses whose faces still moved and looked like grandmothers and aunties. Don’t get me wrong — I take good care of myself, that’s my job. But, I look like I’ve always looked. I just look older now.
That’s also something I became aware of when shooting season 1 — I’m the old girl on the block. When did that happen!? How did that happen? But, for a lot of actresses and actors out there, there’s not a lot of work in their fifties. I’m blessed. If I get to play Helen for three, four, five, or six seasons, I have to be down with that. It’s a blessing and we’re lucky that the show has done well enough for season 2. None of us, including yourself, would have a job if we didn’t have fans. I’m incredibly grateful to the people who watch and enjoy our show. That’s been a whole new job for me this year in engaging in social media, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
I’m excited to see where season 2 goes! Maybe Helen will get a boyfriend — there was talk about it in season 1, but maybe it will happen in season 2. Maybe she will reveal herself to other people in the town! That’s another possible storyline that was set up in season 1, that the town could become divided. I always kind of saw this as a sort of True Blood, but with Sirens, where you’ve got people, you’ve got mermaids, and then you’ve got hybrids like Helen.
A lot of it is reflective of what is going on in our world without being too in-your-face politically, and I’m always going to say this — the whole story is based on a real-life environmental issue where sea beds have been stripped, which is forcing deep-sea creatures to swim closer to the top in order to find food. Then, one of them gets caught in a net. The whole series is based on that, and I have a feeling that this whole environmental issue will be explored more.
A very special thanks to Rena for her time and being so candid with us about her journey to becoming Helen.
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