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Killer Instincts

Anna Paquin steps on stage for the first time--right into Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living.

Dan Bacalzo

Eight years ago, first-time film actress Anna Paquin netted the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Jane Campion's The Piano. She was 11 years old at the time. Since then, Paquin has played a wide range of parts, from the young Jane Eyre in Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's novel to the mutant superhero Rogue in X-Men.

Now, Paquin is making her stage debut in Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living under the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The young actress plays Lisa, an abused teenager whose older, ex-con husband initiates her into a world of sex and murder, and her performance has earned a great deal of praise. I spoke with Paquin during the first week of previews of the production, which officially opened on November 15 and has already had its run extended through December 22.


THEATERMANIA: What inspired you to make the changeover from film to stage?

ANNA PAQUIN: I've always wanted to do theater and had sort of been on the lookout for the right opportunity. This was it--a great director, incredible material, and a small theater. So it's not so scary.

TM: What specifically was it about the script that you liked?

AP: It's so rare to see roles for young women that are strong or complex, more than just surface. There's so much going on with my character that makes her who she is, which I probably haven't even begun to get to the bottom of.

TM: Lisa is both victim and villain. How do you reconcile those aspects in your portrayal?

AP: I don¡¯t think that the character sees herself as free from responsibility for what she's done. By the end of the play, she knows it's wrong; she knows she did have a choice. But that doesn't mean she necessarily knew that at the time she was in the abusive relationship. Throughout the play, you really see my character grow up. She starts to need and want to take responsibility for what¡¯s going on in her life and not just be a bystander.

TM: Before rehearsals began, had you read any of Rebecca Gilman's other works?

AP: No, but I'm now very intrigued to do so.

TM: I spoke with Gilman last year during the New York run of her play Spinning into Butter and she pointed out that, although everyone focuses on the dark aspects of her writing, there's much humor in it as well. Do you agree with that?

AP: Definitely. I think sometimes it takes a few reads in order to get¡¦not more comfortable, but perhaps less shocked by some of the unpleasant things that go on in the play. Then you can appreciate some of the really humorous moments.

TM: You and Philip Seymour Hoffman were both in Almost Famous, although you didn't have any scenes together. Did you meet him on the set?

AP: No, I never did. None of our workdays coincided. I met him in the auditions for this play.

TM: Have you enjoyed working together?

AP: I could not feel more lucky. I never took acting classes. Basically, what I've gotten here is an intensive acting lesson from an incredible director who is also an amazing actor.

TM: Do you regret not having formal training?

AP: I don¡¯t think I've ever really (a) had the time to do it, or (b) necessarily wanted to. I've been able to work with talented people in all different fields of movie making. I feel that I learn so much more by throwing myself in and saying, "Okay, I'm going to do the best I can do and realize that I'm only 19." I don't expect too, too much of myself. I say this...but I'm an utter perfectionist, so that's a big lie.

TM: You've already had an impressive career, beginning with the Oscar win. Did you feel pressure to top yourself?

AP: That happened, that was amazing, that gave me a career. I am eternally grateful. But when you¡¯re 11 and you live in New Zealand and you haven't watched a lot of movies or been exposed to that whole aspect of pop culture, you don't really know exactly what [an Oscar] means. That kind of took a lot of the pressure off. I think, if it happened now, I'd be completely freaked out and say, "Gosh, I have to do something amazing or everyone will think I'm a great big loser." I'm learning. Everything I'm doing is just a work in process.

TM: In addition to your acting career, you're also a student at Columbia. What are you studying?

AP: Right now I'm deferring. I'm still working through Columbia's very rigorous core curriculum--all the standard liberal arts classes that everyone has to take. So I haven't had much of an opportunity to focus on anything specifically. I will probably end up an English major. Or maybe French. I don't know.

TM: But not theater?

AP: No, probably not.

TM: How hard is it to coordinate your schedule with work and school?

AP: Last year, I worked twice during the year and I had to take a little bit of time off, be really nice to my teachers, and beg for forgiveness. Quite frankly, that is not something I want to do again. I'm going to either be at school or working; I'm not going to try and do both. You can do that in high school, but college is a whole other thing. You've got to be there.

TM: When do you go back?

AP: I'm hoping to go back next semester but I may have to go do the sequel to X-Men. I don't know--that's what they keep saying.

TM: Is there anything you can tell me about that film?

AP: I wish I could even tell you that I knew it was definitely going to start filming in the spring! That would make planning my life a little bit easier. But I know absolutely nothing.

TM: There's a bonus feature on the X-Men DVD featuring Hugh Jackman's audition. In it, you already seem to have your character completely down. How quickly do you develop a sense of each of your roles?

AP: For better or worse, I think you make some immediate assumptions about a character as soon as you read a script. At least, superficial things--which, in the case of some movies, you may or may not develop at all, depending on how much time is given to that aspect of the process. But in theater, you get to spend three weeks completely dissecting and then reconstructing the entire script and all the characters to get a firm understanding of who those people are.

TM: Then your process in The Glory of Living was much different than your film work?

AP: Absolutely and utterly different. Sometimes, you don't even get any rehearsal for film. You just show up and they're like: "Okay, go!" You just hope that you've got enough of a sense of who your character is that the work you do on day one is going to match up with the work you do in the last week. It comes down to trusting your director, to trust that you're going to be steered in the right direction.

TM: Is there more stage work in your future?

AP: I hope someone wants to hire me again, because I'm having a whole lot of fun.

TM: Do you have any backstage stories you'd like to share?

AP: I'm not really backstage a lot. I think I have all of four and a half minutes where I'm not on the stage, which I spend sitting right behind the set, waiting to go on. So I can't fill you in on any juicy gossip.

TM: What's it like to act in a front of a live audience for the first time?

AP: It's a huge challenge and a huge responsibility, but it's also kind of exciting. I get to do my thing all night, every night. It's great to be on stage and to hear every single gasp and laugh from the audience. I've never felt anything like that before in my life. It's amazing.

Theater, November 19, 2001