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Paquin's in Tune for Stage Debut

Blake Green

'Piano' star tackles a different kind of role.

She likes this place, a French- bistro-y joint on Manhattan's Upper West Side, "because it stays open all night." Even in the afternoon's brilliant sunshine, Anna Paquin has ordered coffee - "I drink it like water" - because every jolt of caffeine helps. Playing a pitiful lowlife is "emotionally draining," the actress says of Lisa, her character in The Glory of Living at Off-Broadway's MCC Theater.

"Sometimes when I come home after a rehearsal and sit down, I'm, like, so not ready for dinner right now," Paquin says in the patois indigenous to her generation.

Flora, that adorably irritating little free spirit in The Piano, has grown up to be, in her stage debut, the teenage pawn of a sadistic pervert, a stringy- haired sad sack who's the bait luring even more pathetic girls to a seedy motel room. Playwright Rebecca Gilman based The Glory of Living on the exploits of a real-life Alabama couple.

It's been seven years since Paquin, a New Zealand schoolgirl, was a surprise best supporting actress Oscar winner for the first acting job of her short life - she was 9 when the film was made, 11 when it was released - and, by now a film veteran, she's since moved in a lot of directions, literally and figuratively.

For a couple of years after her film career took off, the actress and her mother lived in Los Angeles, thereby eliminating "that brutal 14- to 22-hour commute" from Wellington and because, says Paquin, "there my career wasn't so uncommon; it was less of a big deal."

Now she lives alone, up near Columbia University, where she'll be a sophomore once she returns from a work break that also includes filming X-Men 2, in which she reprises her role as the mutant Rogue.

That character had an action figure doll molded in her image. Now that, reports Paquin, "was kinda cool" - more so than taking home the Oscar, which, she says, "is somewhere in my apartment, I'm just not sure where."

Other roles have also come with a glamorous patina: Franco Zeffirelli cast her as the young Jane Eyre (1996); Stephen Spielberg made her the queen of Spain (1997's Amistad). In Hurlyburly (1998), she went to bed with Sean Penn, and last year she was also in Almost Famous and Finding Forrester.

Lisa, however, comes with bruises, dirty hair, low self-esteem and an even lower production budget. "This one is mine," Paquin points nonchalantly toward a small black-and-blue spot on her forearm. "I've got a couple more real ones on my legs - I bruise easily and they're from before I learned to properly fall. But the big ones get painted on."

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also moves between films and plays, is directing, and Paquin says his presence is a big reason she wanted to do this production. Having never formally studied acting, she says, "being guided through this difficult, incredibly moving material by Phil is possibly the best acting class I could ever have."

In Hoffman's praise of Paquin, he explains that casting actors in the 15 to 19 age range can be difficult. Some "are just too studied; we wanted someone a little bit green."

"This is definitely the most challenging role I've had," Paquin says, "both because there's a lot for me to do and because I'm old enough that I'm aware of the acting process. When I was younger, I wasn't that conscious of it." Of her career, she says, "I think it's kinda cool I've gotten to watch up close some of the most talented people. There's no better way to learn than seeing how seriously they take it."

As the Cinderella story has been often repeated, Paquin, the daughter of high school teachers, went to an open audition for The Piano on a lark - "like I got to miss a half-day of school" - and won the role over 5,000 would-be Floras.

"If I hadn't, I'd probably be somewhere in college, like I sorta am here, but probably not New York," she says - "although I'm sure I would have eventually ventured out of New Zealand."

If she's the envy of aspiring young actors who haven't enjoyed her success and the uninterrupted flow of film offers (also upcoming are Darkness, a thriller in which "the action follows me around, which is kinda cool," and Buffalo Soldiers), Paquin professes ignorance. "I've never met a lot of people my age in this business. I'm usually much younger than anyone."

Refreshingly, she seems unimpressed by her professional surroundings: "I was never very aware of that world and didn't know who these people are. Now when I hear I'm going to be working with someone, I go out and rent some of their movies. But it's never really fazed me. People ask if I'm intimidated and I say, 'No, should I be?'"

WHERE&WHEN The Glory of Living"

opens tonight at MCC Theater, 120 W. 28th St., Manhattan. For ticket information and performance times, call 212-206-1515.

Newsday, November 15, 2001