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The XFactor

Anna Paquin has the talent to be more than just a child star, says Marcus Dunk

Anna Paquin glances downwards and continues to play with a strand of her long, brown hair. "I know it sounds a little stupid and no one believes me when I say it," begins the 18-year-old, very quietly, "but I'm actually incredibly camera shy. I'm just not the type of person who likes to be the centre of attention. I'd much rather be taking a photograph than in it."

For someone who looks like she does and who has been making a living out of acting since the age of 10, such a statement may seem like the typically immodest form of modesty that so many Hollywood stars indulge in. However, one thing that you quickly realise after meeting Anna Paquin is how refreshingly unlike most Hollywood stars she is.

Things could have turned out very differently. Anybody looking at Anna Paquin when she was first thrust into the limelight as the little girl in 1993's The Piano might well have had some concerns. Here was someone who had been plucked from obscurity as a New Zealand primary school student - having never acted before - to appear alongside Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill in a film that went on to become a worldwide critical and commercial success. If that wasn't enough, she then managed to pick up a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her efforts and, to the shock of many, beat favourite Winona Ryder to become one of the youngest ever Oscar recipients. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of child stars such as Macaulay Culkin or the cast of Diff'rent Strokes knows that such success so young hardly bodes well for a stable future.

However, instead of turning into a cautionary tale of what can happen when fame, power and money are bestowed too quick and too soon, Paquin has managed to join the likes of Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman in successfully making the transition from child star to adult actor.

"It's just been a really natural progression," she says. "I've always been someone who takes things as they come. I've never really had any particular expectations or plans when it comes to acting. So I'm just going to see what happens and keep on doing what I'm doing. So far it's going OK."

When you consider that in the seven years since The Piano, Paquin has managed to work alongside actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey, and been directed by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Franco Zeffirelli, Cameron Crowe and Gus Van Sant, "OK" seems a bit of an understatement. Now one of the stars of X-Men (and the inevitable sequels which will appear), the quiet but determined Paquin looks set for a long and interesting career.

Born in Canada in 1982, Paquin and her family moved to New Zealand when she was four. Her break into acting came by accident, when she tagged along with some friends to an open audition for The Piano. Marked out by her contradictory mix of extreme shyness and natural openness, she won the role, and went on in the film to steal scenes wholesale from Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill. It was at the Oscar ceremony, however, that her real star quality shone through. After collecting her award, she stood dumbstruck on the podium for nearly half a minute before launching into a sweetly rambling speech. "I didn't really understand what was happening," Paquin smiles.

For five years she remained in New Zealand, attending school and trying to maintain friendships and a normal life while appearing in films like Amistad, Fly Away Home and Jane Eyre. With the constant commuting becoming too much of a strain, in 1998, when she was 16, Anna moved with her mother to Los Angeles where she attended a small private school.

"I was so glad that I didn't have to get on and off airplanes every few weeks," sighs Paquin. "It was just too hard trying to have one life all the way on the other side of the world and another life on the other. I just wanted to make some normal school friends and have a bit more of a normal life."

Perhaps as part of this desire for normality, she's planning on joining other acting alumni such as Claire Danes and Natalie Portman by continuing her education. Next month she starts at Columbia University in New York, where she plans to study English lit.

"Yeah, I'm pretty excited about it, but it's yet another move," nods Paquin. "I moved from New Zealand to LA, and I'm moving to the East Coast for college. I'm not really sure where I'm from, and I'm not quite sure how to think of myself any more in terms of place. I guess New Zealand will always be my home because I grew up there, but I'm kind of from everywhere and nowhere."

It's this sense of placelessness that seems to make her such a natural and interesting actress to watch. You never get the sense watching her films that Anna Paquin the personality is overwhelming any of the characters she plays.

"Yeah, it may be an obvious thing to say, but I'm not being myself when I'm acting," she says. "I'm way less inhibited when I can totally be someone else. When you're doing that, whatever happens just happens and you're not being yourself so it doesn't matter. There's no self-consciousness."

Despite this, the character she plays in X-Men - Rogue, a shy and vulnerable teenager who discovers her touch can kill people - seems to have some similarities with the persona she presents in the interview (apart from the whole killing people thing). There's a palpable shyness about her, with her speech often trailing off and fading out, almost as if she loses confidence mid-sentence. It's mainly when she laughs (which is frequently) that you suddenly remember she's still a teenager.

Although she talks clearly about a variety of things, she obviously feels uncomfortable talking too much about herself or taking her success or self too seriously. And there's one subject on which she's often shown some reticence: her Oscar. In previous interviews she's spoken about keeping her Oscar hidden in a cupboard because "I wouldn't want to make anyone uncomfortable". Does she ever regret winning the award?

"How can you regret winning an Oscar?" she laughs. "No, that was pretty much the flukiest cool thing that's ever happened to me. I didn't know I liked acting, I didn't know about any of this stuff before, but now I've got all these wonderful opportunities to work with people who are the best in their field and the world and I get to play in this really cool playground. It's really a great thing. It's what I love doing."

X-Men is at cinemas now


Ringleted tip-tapping sensation Shirley Temple was the original child star.

By the age of six she was the biggest box-office name in the U.S. and received her own special Academy Award "in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934".

Judy Garland too got a special Oscar in 1939, after The Wizard Of Oz, though at 17 she was teen rather than tot.

Tatum O'Neal has the honour of being the youngest young person to receive a "proper" Oscar. She won Best Supporting Actress for 1973's Paper Moon - aged 10.

She played streetwise orphan Addie, who forms an unlikely working alliance with scam artist Moses Pray (played by her father Ryan) in the Depression-era Midwest.

The Piano (1993) made Anna Paquin the second youngest recipient of a statuette. She was 11.

Among the junior Oscar hopefuls, Justin Henry was a nominee for 1979 tug-of-love divorce story Kramer Vs Kramer. Drew Barrymore was up for ET (1982), aged seven, while Haley Joel Osment (11) was nominated this year for The Sixth Sense.

Caroline Harris

Daily Express, August 26, 2000