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No Growing Pains Here

Anna Paquin works overtime in Spike Lee's 25th Hour.

Sean Daly

Anna Paquin could have ended up like many former child stars: unemployed, penniless or worse yet, in jail. She could have squandered her paychecks from movies like X-Men, Finding Forrester, and A Walk On the Moon. And she could have been forced to hawk the Oscar she won at age 11 for The Piano to support an alcohol or drug habit. Luckily, none of that happened.

Today, at 20, the girl who once dreamed of becoming Prime Minister of New Zealand is a sophomore at Columbia University and a true-life Hollywood success story — one of the rare few who has successfully bridged the gap from childhood phenom to sought-after adult actress.

In an industry notorious for seducing its youth with the lure of bright lights and easy money, Paquin has managed to keep her nose clean thanks to what she calls “a really supportive and protective family.” Her father, Brian, is a high school physical education instructor; Mom, Mary, is an English teacher. “They realized how important it was to make sure I still had a childhood as well as getting to do something I really wanted to do. That way I wasn’t missing out on something that I can never get back,” says the Canadian-born actress, who plans to spend the Christmas holidays with her father’s side of the family in Winnepeg. That’s where she lived with brother Andrew (a Harvard grad, now 25) and sister, Katya, 22, until 1986. It’s her first trip back in nearly seven years. “I have no idea what one does in Winnepeg,” she admits with a laugh. “I just remember it’s really cold. Every childhood photo of mine is in a snowsuit!”

Today the fresh-faced Kiwi is safe and warm, sipping a cup of fresh brewed coffee inside her 16th floor suite at the Essex House in New York City. She is wearing faded gray denim jeans and a tight black long-sleeved lycra shirt, and sporting conspicuous pink streaks in her naturally straight brown hair. “There’s not a whole lot you can do with brittle, broken, damaged, cracked up hair,” she reveals, “so I dye it a different color to divert attention.”

Cosmetic challenges not withstanding, 2002 was a banner year for Paquin, who briefly put her studies on hold to appear in next May’s X-Men 2, the London stage production of This Is Our Youth, and director Spike Lee’s new drama, 25th Hour. “I’m going back next semester,” she assures, with a smile.

25th Hour is the fictional story of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a convicted drug dealer, who has 24 hours to spend connecting with family and friends before beginning a seven year jail term. Paquin stars Mary D’Annuzio, a seductive and free-spirited 17-year-old who becomes the obsession of Brogan’s much older friend (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). “She’s got the tattoo and the bellybutton ring… she’s sexy — all the things that he never was and never will be,” Hoffman explains. Paquin took over the role at the last moment when Brittany Murphy suddenly dropped out.

In between projects, Paquin recently began studying ballet. With six or seven classes a week, it’s one of the few non-work-related activities she admits to doing well. But, Paquin adds, “I can tell you a billion things I do badly.”

Basketball, for one. “I am probably the worst player you will ever meet,” she reveals, blushing from embarrassment. But don’t dismiss the slender 5’ 5” actress as a non-athlete. In her free time, Paquin enjoys rugby, swimming, gymnastics and downhill skiing. She may not be Michael Jordan, but she does have at least one good hoops story. Paquin begins to laugh and her thick New Zealand accent becomes more pronounced as she recalls the night talk show host David Letterman invited her to attempt a foul shot for a prize of $10,000. And guess what? She made it!

“So as a joke, he handed me the $10,000,” Paquin recalls, making clear that she never really expected to keep the prize money. “There was absolutely no misunderstanding on my part, but when people heard the next day that little Anna didn’t get the money, some (of them) thought that I was having $10,000 taken away from me, which really wasn’t the situation whatsoever.” To set the record straight, Paquin returned to the program the following evening and along with Letterman, donated all of the cash to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Such a story might seem even more special, had the young actress not already stolen moviegoers hearts on Oscar night in 1993, when she was the surprise (and surprised) winner of the coveted gold statue for Best Supporting Actress. The honor was granted for her portrayal of Holly Hunter’s angry young daughter, Flora, in Jane Campion’s The Piano. She remains the second-youngest winner in the history of the Academy Awards — and the first ever from New Zealand. “I had no career until I made The Piano,” she explains. “That was the first acting experience I ever had.” (Unless, of course, you count her role as a skunk in her elementary school play in Lower Hut, a suburb of Wellington).

Paquin doesn’t like to talk that much about her big win anymore, mostly out of modesty. She claims to keep her trophy in storage because “there are no mantelpieces at Columbia.” But the truth is she doesn’t want to show off. Nor does Paquin seem to care for the movie star treatment. Although reports have said she arrived to her first day at college in a limousine, the actress insists she rides the subway almost everyday. “(At school) I don’t really feel like a celebrity,” she says. “I think by now the novelty has kind of worn off that I was something different. Besides, I’m definitely not the only somewhat recognizable face at school.”

She’s right. In recent years, there have been more young stars in class at Columbia than on the set of Dawson’s Creek. The ivy-clad buildings have been a home away from home to Julia Stiles (Save the Last Dance), Rider Strong (Boy Meets World) and Joseph Gordon Leavitt (Ten Things I Hate About You), among others.

But why with a successful film career and millions of dollars in the bank, would Paquin feel the need to attend school at all? “I really wanted an education,” she insists. “I want to be knowledgeable about a lot of different things, not just acting.” Perhaps therein lies the secret to Paquin’s remarkable coming of age.

Entertainment Today, December 27, 2002