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Fast Forward Anna Paquin Has Quickly Made The Move From Tot to Tart in Her Movie Roles

Jane Wollman Rusoff

It would be Anna Paquin's first screen kiss. And though she had won an Academy Award four years before, this was a brand-new acting assignment.

Surely she and Joseph Perrino, playing her first date in A Walk on the Moon, would shoot a few scenes together before gearing up for the big smooch. Or so the then-15-year-old Paquin figured. What a shock for her to learn that the kissing scene would be their first.

"It was funny: 'Hi, nice to meet you! Let's kiss!' " the actress, now 16, says with a giggle. Making out on-camera, she discovered, is "completely unnatural. You've got 30 guys standing around watching you, for one thing. And it's not so romantic being told right down to the last millimeter (by director Tony Goldwyn) where your head has to be."

But such nuisances are all part of this talented young star's transition from tot to young-adult roles. In A Walk on the Moon, a romantic comedy, she's a Brooklyn adolescent vacationing in a Catskills bungalow during the summer of 1969.

Paquin first drew attention at age 9 playing Holly Hunter's daughter in 1993's The Piano, her first film. She snagged an Oscar. Three years later, she adopted a flock of geese in Fly Away Home. She portrayed the young Jane in Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre and was tomboy Frankie in a cable TV version of The Member of the Wedding.

This season has seen the Winnipeg, Canada, native filling more grown-up parts. As the tarted-up runaway, Donna, in Hurlyburly, she is a wayward teen who casually beds down with a drugged-out Sean Penn. In She's All That, she plays Freddie Prinze Jr.'s sister, a teen miracle-worker with a makeup kit who turns a klutzy geek into a prom queen.

In the Dustin Hoffman-produced A Walk on the Moon, Paquin is Diane Lane and Liev Schreiber's rebellious teenage daughter, Alison, soon to experience her first real kiss. It's the sultry summer of Neil Armstrong's historic moon walk and the Woodstock festival, and Paquin's unfulfilled homemaker mom (Lane) is introduced to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll via a devil-may-care blouse salesman (Viggo Mortensen).

Meanwhile, Alison, 14, crosses into womanhood with the arrival of her first period. Grandma (Tovah Feldshuh), observing Jewish custom, smacks her across the face, supposedly to restore blood to it. The graphic scene, with a close-up of Alison's underwear, is humorous but dramatically powerful.

"I could so easily have been Alison," Paquin says. "That stage in her life was something I could relate to at the time -- 'first everything' kind of thing. You know what I mean? I was 15, but being 14 was still fresh enough in my memory."

Paquin speaks quickly, in a high-pitched voice and with a delightful New Zealand accent, having lived in Wellington before moving recently to Los Angeles.

In both Hurlyburly and A Walk on the Moon Paquin pulls off a flawless American accent -- matter of fact, two entirely different ones. A coach helped her, but, she says, in her offhand way, "It's not at all hard." The high school junior is at home on this day, preparing to study for five midterms in as many days. "I don't actually dislike any of my subjects, but exams aren't exactly fun."

More than anything, Paquin wants to be seen as a "normal" girl. None of her private-school chums is an actor. "People are pretty good about just letting me be kind of normal and sit in and not hassle me about stuff," she says. "I wouldn't want them to treat me differently because I've done some acting. It doesn't really mean I'm different as a person."

But how many sweet 16s employ personal managers, star in major movies and have picked up an Oscar? Well, none of it seems to have gone to Paquin's head. She doesn't even keep her gold statuette on display. It's in a closet. "I don't want to look at it every day. I don't want my bedroom to be a shrine to the Oscar. It's kind of irrelevant," she says.

Acting-wise, Paquin's intention is to avoid being typecast. In A Walk on the Moon, her never-been-kissed Alison is 180 degrees from the been-there, done-that sexually precocious Donna of Hurlyburly. About the latter, the young actress says analytically: "Donna was a bubble brain on the surface but not quite as dumb as everyone thought. The way she dressed and talked were something people noticed, but she really had more going on in her head than anyone gave her credit for."

She has just completed a new film, All the Rage, with Joan Allen and Gary Sinise. Her Annabelle, she explains, is "tough and independent. She's kind of a street person and quite manipulative -- a lot of fun to play."

As for Paquin's real-life self, the actress can be less revealing. Asked if there's a boyfriend in the midst, she grows uneasy. "Um, at the moment, actually no," she replies, suddenly in a huge rush to hit those chemistry texts. "I'm studying for midterms with pretty much every single bit of my free time, which is what I'm about to go do very, very soon -- because I have a lot of work to do!"

Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1999