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The Natural

She may have won an Oscar at the age of 11, but Anna Paquin's priorities are those of any teenage kid: Jimi Hendrix, thrift shopping and that coveted college place. Interview by Katrina Onstad.

Katrina Onstad

THE world's fattest, shiniest, slowest cat wearily waddles towards the movie star and brushes against her leg.

'Oh!' exclaims Anna Paquin, squatting down in the crowded thrift store, arm extended to pet the cat. She looks up with a gap-toothed smile, her dark hair hanging down. 'He feels like a rabbit!' At this exact moment, Paquin is 17, very 17, but this is rare. Wading through the shopping crush in Toronto's Kensington Market (Canada's Camden) on a warm autumn Sunday, Paquin occasionally lets loose the inner 11-year-old who won an Oscar in 1993 for The Piano. Stroking the cat, that kid is there, the one who stood at the Academy Awards in front of a zillion people wearing a tilted blue hat, her mouth hanging open in awe, gasping for speech. She's there when Paquin gushes at a candy stand, 'Have you tried Pop Rocks? Aren't they scary?' or pulls a fluffy green dress off a rack and declares, 'I am definitely a girlie girl.'

Most of the time, however, Paquin belies her age. She answers questions thoughtfully, with a kind of weight-of-the-world reflectiveness that hits smart kids in the last year of high school, on the edge of university and adulthood. Though every article I've read about her describes her as a giggler, the clips are already outdated: she has a giggle fit only once during the afternoon (rightfully, when she sees a woman carrying a ridiculously small dog in a smaller handbag. After the giggles, she says, 'If you want a little pet, get a cat').

All curves and skinny legs in a turtleneck and miniskirt, Paquin's shape shifts, looking like a little girl one second, a grown woman the next. Skimming between the shoppers, latte in hand, she provokes the kind of glances that attractive people do. But of course, when people look at her - at least, people familiar with arty, off-beat films - they see something else besides a pretty teen, something like a star. She was Holly Hunter's precocious daughter in The Piano, the goose-loving kid of Fly Away Home. Then, suddenly, Paquin appeared as a drugged-up young thing rubbing against Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey in Hurlyburly. And in the newly released A Walk on the Moon, Paquin is a hippified Lolita in short shorts and a tank top, gyrating at Woodstock.

When a young couple walk by, clearly recognising Paquin - the girl clutches her boyfriend's arm like she's seen a ghost - I ask her if she's aware of being a movie star. She looks aghast (this is one of her more teen-like facial expressions, one she often uses as if to say, 'Oh-my-God, how embarrassing!'). 'I'm not a movie star,' she states, her New Zealand accent infused with the LA twang she's picked up living in Brentwood, California, with her mother for the past year. 'I don't think I'm that interesting, but I guess I understand why I have to do interviews. If people see you on a screen, they might want to know what you're like when you're not playing someone else.'

Perhaps the girl who once hated interviews has a new appreciation for the scrutiny, because when she is not playing someone else in front of the camera she is likely to be photographing someone from behind it. Paquin is an avid photographer, even writing her college application essays on the subject. She says she sees the world visually these days and bemoans leaving her Canon at home when she sees the dog in the bag. In fact, she would like to take more pictures of people but admits, with an actress's sensitivity, 'It seems so invasive, to just accost someone and take their photo as if you own them.'

Today is Halloween and the stores are filled with people scouring for costumes. Paquin wants to go out tonight, not to collect the candy that kids get knocking door to door, but to photograph the trick-or-treaters.

'I don't know who I can get to go with me,' she murmurs, almost to herself, petting a sexy white Marilyn-Monroe-singing-for-Kennedy type dress. 'I don't want to go alone.'

This is a problem because, she says, she spends most of her time with adults when she is working. But her real friends are her teen friends and they are across the continent in LA, near where she lives with her mother. The pair have moved to Toronto for a few months while she films X-Men, a big-budget adaptation of the Sixties superhero comic book. (Paquin plays Rogue, a genetic mutant who can't touch other people because she'll absorb their identities. Literally, her kiss can kill.) 'Sad idea, isn't it?' Paquin says wistfully.

Back in her real life, she is in advanced classes at high school in LA, her spare time taken up with Henry James and Joseph Conrad and the endless, very American pressure to 'get into a good school'. Her college applications are already in the post. She wants to major in psychology: 'I'm interested in the way people think, what motivates people to do really bad things.' I remind her that when she was rolled out for the talk-show circuit at 11, Oscar in hand, she told interviewers that she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up, leaving the superficial acting world behind. She groans a little at the memory.

'I think I'd just seen a cool movie with lawyers in it. I mean, I wanted to be an astronaut when I saw Apollo 13. Occupation of the week. I was 12.'

So she will do the Jodie Foster/Claire Danes/Natalie Portman thing and be an Ivy League actor, squeezing in movies on Christmas and summer breaks when other kids are bringing in money from waiting tables?

'I don't want to say which school I'm hoping to get into,' she says shyly. 'I don't want to jinx it. But definitely a big city - definitely East Coast, Boston or New York.' So Harvard, where her big brother goes, or Columbia?

'I don't want to jinx it!' she cries again, a favourite phrase of hers. X-Men is really Paquin's first non-art-house film, the first time more mainstream movie goers will get to see her, and the possibility of crossing over - or failing to cross over - must weigh on her.

'I can't let myself think about the possibility of X-Men becoming a huge hit. I don't want to jinx it,' she says, adding poetically, 'I don't know what will change my life.'

Paquin's life so far has already been something of a surprise. Her school-teacher parents had three children, Anna being the baby. Her father is Canadian and she was born in Winnipeg, living there until she turned four. Paquin's parents packed up to move back to her mother's native New Zealand and she spent her childhood in Wellington. 'Stable, loving, secure,' she says of her kid years, which - it's easy to forget - she is technically still in. At nine, Paquin saw an ad in a newspaper. Asked why she went out for the casting call for The Piano, she demurs, 'People I knew were going.' Asked why she got the part over 5,000 other girls, she demurs again, 'I was the right height.' When pressed: 'I was in the right place at the right time.'

Paquin is almost pathologically self-deprecating. I offer a proposition: doesn't her remarkable success, and the emotional confidence she exudes on film, her incredible lightness and almost liquid ease, have anything to do with, say, talent? She gives me that 'Oh-my-God' look again: 'Oh, I can't say that. . . I don't know. . . I just can't say that.'

Of course, the Academy said that, rewarding her with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, making her the second-youngest Oscar winner ever (10-year-old Tatum O'Neal earned that distinction by a hair's breadth). 'Do we have to talk about the Oscar?' moans Paquin. Do you still keep it in the wardrobe?



'Because it would make my friends feel strange.'

What does it mean to you?

'That happened to the person I was back then. . . What does it mean? I have no idea.'

Paquin has never taken an acting lesson, though she is not opposed to the notion. 'I just don't know when I would have the time,' she says. On her own method for getting into character, she says, 'I try to imagine what it would be like to be that person. If I cannot see myself being that person, I know it's not a part I can do.'

In A Walk on the Moon she plays a rebellious 14-year-old in the seminal American summer of '69. Her mother, played by Diane Lane, gets caught up in the carefree spirit of the age and has an affair with a younger man. Paquin's character has her first kiss, then watches her world fall apart as her parents clash. She plays the role like a walking wince, embodying the contradiction of 14 - the best and worst age. She talks about the part as if it were a long-lost little sister.

'She was so real,' says Paquin. 'She was at an age where she couldn't cover up the things she was feeling. Her family was in a mess and she wasn't old or mature enough to put on a serene face.' The character is just a bit older than Anna was when her own parents divorced. 'I could relate to it. You feel like you're old enough to be in control, but you're really not. She wasn't ready to make decisions for her own life.'

In her life, Paquin makes the decisions. It was she who decided a year ago it was time to move to LA and to stay in the States for university.

'I don't think I miss New Zealand but I miss my family and friends there,' she says, fiddling with the edge of her empty latte cup as we walk. 'When I'm older that may be the place for me, but I'm not at an age where I need to be there. I don't have any nostalgia for it yet. Did you know there are only three million people in New Zealand? No zip codes. My LA address has two!'

With an LA zip code comes the LA scene. Picture a pretty young teen there and you think of drugs, sex, the Drew Barrymore kiddie-disco-till-dawn phenomenon. The prospect of such a Hollywood life makes Paquin laugh.

'Obviously some people are more like that,' she says. 'But I'm in high school. I like being the age I am. I like the fact that every experience is something new. I mean, I have such a normal life. I just hang out with normal people.' Then she adds, rather cryptically, 'Whatever normal is.'

Paquin appears to have a little contempt for the normal. She is a fairly bohemian teen. A vegetarian, a thrift-store connoisseur who is more likely to drop authors and artists into the conversation than pop culture or even film references (she is not a movie aficionado yet. Discussing Heart of Darkness, I ask if she's seen Apocalypse Now. 'No, no, I really should, shouldn't I?'). When I suggest taking a taxi to the market, she said she prefers the subway, so we go by streetcar.

Her most bohemian moment comes when she describes in detail, her voice slightly dreamy, a photography project she did for school where she took a dressmaker's mannequin, dressed it in her clothes and put it on a Malibu beach.

'It was so eerie,' she says. 'The dummy was all yellowing and old and there was fog. People would walk by and ask what we were doing.' Which was? 'Just having fun. I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to say I was making great art.'

We walk past a stall of bootleg tapes blasting the Backstreet Boys and she says politely, as if not to offend, 'That's not really my kind of music.' These days she is listening to Jimi Hendrix, Jane's Addiction, Led Zeppelin. 'I really wanted to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert, but most bands only play on school nights,' she says.

This interest in rock is a slight leftover from a summer gig working on writer/director Cameron Crowe's new untitled movie about Seventies musicians. Paquin plays a groupie. In the film, her lust object is portrayed by indie actor Jason Lee, of Chasing Amy fame. I ask if Lee's as cute in real life as on screen. Paquin nearly knocks over a rack of jackets and turns bright red: 'What? Oh my God! Nooooo! He's just nice. He's really, really nice!'

Excepting this lapse, Paquin is mature, if a bit reticent, on the subject of boys. 'I don't have a boyfriend right now,' she says simply.

But on film her roles have become more explicit. That 11-year-old is fading fast, and to see Paquin in a revealing prom dress as the worldly, lascivious little sister in the teen comedy She's All That seems like risky stuff to everyone but her: 'I wouldn't do anything I'm not comfortable with.'

Paquin needs to get back to her mom and her tutor. We stop outside one last thrift store and dangling from an old tree are some wedding dresses. Paquin looks up, wishing aloud that she had her camera. She is quiet for a moment, then says, 'You look at those dresses and think, who were the people who owned them? Were they happy? When they put those dresses on, what did they think would happen? I'm sure they never imagined something like this.'

A Walk on the Moon is on general release

Daily Telegraph, November 27, 1999