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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

The future looks bright for the Oscar-winning kid from Winnipeg

Melanie Verhaeghe

Submitted by Christine Evans

When four-year-old Anna Paquin finally mastered 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' on the viola, her audience broke down. "It was so moving, her mother and I were in tears," recalls Anna's former viola teacher, Joanne Martine of Winnipeg. "Now she's a little star."

Anna's portrayal of Flora, the mischievous daughter of a Scottish mute in the movie The Piano, has been described as "fearless, amazing, brilliant and sparkling." Bad reviews of this rising star are rare - and she's got the hardware to prove it.

On March 21, the world watched in awe as the 11-year-old in the grownup designer outfit ran on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony and accepted the Oscar for best performance by an actress in a supporting role. Anna gulped for air and stood speechless, staring into the adoring crowd for what seemed like hours before taking the microphone and making a brief, gracious thank-you speech. She also made tinseltown history as the second youngest actor to win an Oscar: only Tatum O'Neal was younger when she won an Oscar at 10 in the same category 20 years ago.

Family members in Winnipeg, gathered around the television at her uncle's home, shrieked with delight when her name was announced. In New Zealand, several hours into the next day, the screams of Anna's teacher rang through the halls when they heard that the girl from Lower Hutt school was coming home a winner. Backstage in glittery Los Angeles, the media instantly surrounded the fresh-faced, innocent unknown star. Anna's reaction to her win: "It's pretty cool."

Ironically, the youthful actor hasn't even seen her own movie in its entirety because of its nude scenes. Anna's grandmother from Winnipeg, Agnes Tuckwell - who's seen the film four times - says the crew used some tricks in the filming and editing to protect Anna's youthful sensibilities. One scene, for example, shows Anna peeking in on the movie's stars, Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, in bed. But in reality, Anna is looking in on nothing - the steamy scene was shot when she wasn't around.

Throughout the filming in 1992 until The Piano's release a year later, Anna's identity was kept a secret to protect her privacy. It wasn't until the movie became a fan favourite at the Annual Cannes Film Festival in 1993 that her family realized continuing to keep Anna under wraps was an impossibility. Says Anna's uncle Wayne Paquin, a Winnipeg radiologist, "I think that her parents thought it would be just this nice art film that would run in a theatre for a week or so... I don't think they had any idea it was going to be such a big deal."

Despite all the attention, Anna's parents, Brian Paquin and Mary Brophy, are adamant that their daughter will lead a normal life. Reaching in Wellington, New Zealand, her mother said that the family did one interview eight months ago with local media and don't plan to do any more - ever. "We've taken a stance that we're not giving interviews and we'd like to keep it that way," says Brophy.

So who is this little mystery girl with the milky complexion and wide eyes who catapulted into the spotlight overnight? If you ask anyone in Canada, she's the girl from Winnipeg who won an Oscar. But halfway across the world, her adoptive home claims bragging rights. Anna enjoys a legacy from both countries: her dad is Canadian, born in Winnipeg; her mom is from New Zealand. The pair met while vacationing in Europe and first settled in Winnipeg to work as schoolteachers. They had three children - Andrew, now 17, Katya, 15, and Anna.

When Anna was four, the family moved from Winnipeg to Welligton, a city of about 350,000. Tuckwell says that Anna leads the life of any typical schoolgirl. She excels in music, especially the piano - which helped snag the role - and singing. She's a budding athlete involved in gymnastics, swimming and downhill skiing. When she's at home, she spends her time with the family pets - two cats and a dog - and reading and knitting, a talent she acquired at eight.

A year later, when Anna was nine, she heard about the casting call for The Piano. Her sister and a friend answered a newspaper ad and made appointments for auditions. That's when Anna decided she wanted to try out too. She ended up beating out 5,000 other girls - including her sister - for the part.

Anna mesmerized the casting crew right from the beginning. "I just about fell of my chair when she began [the audition]," the film's writer and director Jane Campion said in an interview. "She just looked into the camera and never blinked... It's a remarkable experience to see someone so young that has such an instinct for performance." Anna was soon off to Auckland, New Zealand - an hour's flight from home - to start filming. Her mom stayed with her on the first day, then Anna went home every two weeks to visit her family until the filming was finished three months later.

There's no doubt that filming The Piano disrupted Anna's life, but her colleagues and family say that she handled it well. Campion recalls that Anna "got a bit teary" when her mom had to return home. Anna has said that the toughest part of preparing for her role was training with a dialect coach to acquire a Scottish accent. She says she's like the impish character she plays. "A wee bit. Actually, she tells more lies than I do."

Her family's going to find it tough to anchor this rising star, whose face has graced the covers of several publications, from People magazine to supermarket tabloids. She's even become fodder for American talk-show host Jay Leno. "You know," mused Leno during one of his monologues, "I feel sorry for her classmates trying to compete with her during Show and Tell. Imagine that. She's showing the class her Oscar and you're up next with your collection of Gummy Bears."

Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, The Piano's distributor, has said he'd like Anna to do more publicity for the movie. "But I respect parents who want to raise their kids the way they want to."

"I think it's a good decision," says Anna's grandmother. "Hollywood is no place for a child. It's not much of a life. You're in and out of suitcases. Her parents are both teachers and they just want to get on with their lives."

So far, Tuckwell says, her granddaughter hasn't been affected by fame in the least. During Anna's visit to Winnipeg over Christmas, they went to see the Royal Winnipeg ballet, went skating, tobogganing and to the IMAX theatre. Anna went shopping at Eaton's, and the only TV show she asked to watch was CBC's Road to Avonlea. Tuckwell says the family has turned down at least two movie offers but will let Anna shoot another commercial fir MCI, the American long-distance phone company (she's done eight so far).

Anna herself is on record saying that she has no plans to continue a career in acting, "not as a kid, anyway, because it interrupts everything else - school, being with my mom in Wellington, and being able to see my friends." As an adult then? "No! You have to dye your hair green or cut it really short..." But there are mixed signals about young Anna's future. The latest word: Anna has signed on with William Morris, probably the most prestigious show business agency in the world. An employee at the agency hints that the family will eventually bite at another offer. Besides, "If she wasn't going to continue, why would she have an agent?"

For her part, Agnes Tuckwell says she'd like to see her granddaughter in one more movie. "I'd like to see her in a comedy. She'd be great - just because of the way she says things." Anna does seem to have a knack for a droll quip, unusual in an 11-year-old. Chatting with a family friend last Christmas about the strictures imposed on her seeing The Piano, she said, "In another lifetime I'll be able to see the movie." Meanwhile, this life goes on as usual: after the award ceremony, Anna promptly returned to Wellington and went on a school camping trip.

Homemakers magazine, Summer 1994