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She's having a whale of a time

Anna Paquin won an Oscar at 11. Now she's a star -- and not screwed up at all

Kevin Mayer

The preteen pregnant pause. That's how most people remember Anna Paquin. There she was, up on stage, 11 years old, the co-star of The Piano, clutching her Best Supporting Oscar, staring widely, grinning like a maniac, breathing heavily and saying absolutely nothing. After 20 increasingly comical seconds, with Gene Hackman, having presented her with the award, hovering uncomfortably in the background, Paquin, the second youngest Best Supporting Actress (Tatum O'Neal's on the top spot), quickly says her thank you's and giddily skips off the stage.

Enough already with the Oscar shtick, groans the 23-year-old Paquin today. "Obviously that whole Oscar thing has allowed me to have the opportunities that I've had. But you know what? It's not the only thing I've done."

Which is a modest way of underselling an impeccably navigated career path that has bounced Paquin from the lens of Franco Zeffirelli (Jane Eyre) to Spike Lee (The 25th Hour) via the blockbusting X-Men movies and right into this month's critically adored multiple-award winning New York dramedy The Squid and the Whale.

That movie, directed by the rising tyro Noah Baumbach (the writer of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), is a witty and biting analysis of a Brooklyn family on the brink of breakdown. It co-stars Paquin as Lili, a quirky college siren who seduces both her English professor (Jeff Daniels) and his son (Jesse Eisenberg) without guilt or hesitation. "These are unusually mature, complex characters," says Paquin, explaining the movie's empathetic allure. "They do bad things for their own reasons, but that doesn't make them morally bad. In fact your heart breaks for these people."

Lili is pure Paquin. She's emblematic of a character type that the actress has honed and played to unswerving perfection in recent years. Sexually precocious, outwardly flirtatious, but somehow held and grounded by a moribund undertow and a fey, otherworldly sadness.

It's there in her best work, in Hurlyburly, in Buffalo Soldiers, and even in her turn as Rogue, the angst-ridden and literally "untouchable" outcast in X-Men. So what does it say about her? "I like it when people perceive different things going on under the surface of a performance," she says cautiously.

The child of a Canadian father and a New Zealander mother, Paquin grew up between continents. She attended the audition in Wellington for The Piano on a whim -- she had just moved school and was in need of a distraction. After her surprise Oscar success she began to spend more time in North America. Her parents split up during the filming of Carroll Ballard's 1996 bird epic Fly Away Home, and Paquin moved to LA with her mother.

The teen years were kind to her, as she avoided the dreaded Adolescent Actor Meltdown. She credits her mother's loving guidance for this, and her attendance at LA's strictly academic Windward School. She was lucky, too. Her hormones were kind to her and unlike, say, Shirley Temple or Haley Joel Osment, her winning childhood cuteness wasn't steamrolled into brutal anonymity by the physical vagaries of puberty.

"You mean, in other words, I didn't get ugly?" Er, yes.

"Well, thank you very much. I'm glad you think I didn't get ugly. Although I think it's a little weird to talk about my appearance. I look the way I look. But I suppose that, yes, I got through puberty somewhat unscathed."

Unscathed or not, unconscious or not, Paquin parlayed a promising teen career into fully fledged stardom. She is currently regarded by a sizeable part of her fan-base, especially the male X-Men devotees, as a sex symbol. The online comic book discussion boards in particular are alight with descriptive analyses of Paquin's leather-clad rear on the movie posters.

She regards the X-Men phenomenon with something approaching affectionate tolerance. She says that she gets recognised a lot, especially around her new home in New York's East Village.

At the moment she's battening down the hatches for the summer onslaught by X-Men: The Last Stand. But really, that whole blockbuster movie thing is not her. "Besides X-Men, most of my movies have been smaller films," she says.

Her next film is small, too. It's the new one from the playwright/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). It's called Margaret and it's about a girl (Paquin) who causes a bus crash.

"There's some pretty heavy stuff in there," she says, gleefully. "But it's also an acknowledgement that you can have light moments even when your life is falling to s***."

The Squid and the Whale is released on April 7

The Times, March 30, 2006