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The life and times of Anna Paquin,
the 11-year-old New Zealander who beat out Winona Ryder for an Oscar

Jefferey Ressner
Los Angeles

All over America last week, the people who won their office Academy Awards pool were those who made the unlikely pick of Anna Paquin for Best Supporting Actress. Everyone guessed the obvious winners - Schindler's List for Best Picture, Tom Hanks for Best Actor - so a daring bet on Paquin, who played Holly Hunter's charming, willful child in The Piano, made all the difference. And whoever gambled that an 11-year-old New Zealander with no previous acting experience would beat out Emma Thompson, Holly Hunter, Winona Ryder and Rosie Perez deserved to collect the pot.

No one seemed more surprised at the outcome than the saucer-eyed Paquin herself. When she reached the podium to receive her Oscar she was literally speechless, gasping for air for half a minute before rattling off a list of people she wished to thank. Faced with an assault of reporters' questions backstage, she giggled and answered, "I wouldn't have a clue."

The youngest person to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress was Tatum O'Neal, who received the prize in 1974, at 10, for her performance in Paper Moon. O'Neal was all Hollywood; Paquin's story is different. Her parents are both teachers, and she was chosen from 5,000 girls for The Piano. In fact, she auditioned because her older sister was trying out for the part, and she just wanted to come along.

Although she was a complete novice, Paquin handled the work well. "She's a completely dignified person," says Jane Campion, The Piano's writer and director. "Before we started we heard there's always a crisis point with young actors where they lose it, about halfway or three-quarters of the way through. We kept waiting for that to happen, but it never did." In fact, Campion recalls the only time Paquin got "a bit teary" was the first day of shooting when her mom had to return home; an ice-cream break solved the problem, and filming proceeded as planned.

Paquin's parents have been extremely careful about guarding their family's privacy. "I'd love to have her do more publicity for the movie, but I respect parents who want to raise their kids the way they want to," says Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax Films, which distributed The Piano. "She's really a normal, smart little girl who wants to stay a normal, smart little girl."

Even before the Oscars, offers streamed in steadily, but so far, Paquin's only other appearance onscreen has been in a series of TV commercials for the U.S. long-distance phone company MCI. Paquin's parents are taking a "wait-and-see attitude," according to her agent, Gail Cowan. "If they're hounded as they are at the moment, they'll probably say no. It's not a case of wanting the fame or the money - that's not what's important to them. Anna is."

After attending the Academy Awards and taking a side trip to the Picasso exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Paquin returned home to New Zealand, where she's learning that even though you've just won an Oscar, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll spend your time lounging by the pool, reading the showbiz trades and chatting to Jack Nicholson on the cellular phone. No, this week Paquin goes back to school.

TIME, April 4, 1994