As a child, Owen performed traditional Maori songs and dances for tourists. While earning a nursing degree, she continued to perform in theatrical productions including "South Pacific" and "Calamity Jane". In the early 1980s, Owen moved to London to pursue acting but got sidetracked in the party and drug scene. Arrested for possession of heroin, she served an eight-month sentence in a women's prison. Once released from jail, she concentrated her attention on her acting career, appearing in stage productions. Her first feature role was a small part in Kevin Reynolds' overblown "Rapa Nui" (1994). Her second feature was "Once Were Warriors" (1994; released in the US in 1995), a brutal look at the physical and emotional violence in the lives of working-class Maoris. As Beth, the moral center of the film, Owen delivered a nuanced performance as a woman caught between her traditional culture and her tumultuous marriage to the abusive Jake (Temuera Morrison). Reportedly, the film has become the most successful New Zealand production to date.