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A Young Star is Born in the Piano

Novice Anna Paquin, 11, who has received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress, retraces the fairy-tale road she has traveled.

Elaine Dutka
Times Staff Writer

Hollywood's A-list actors and directors generally place a high premium on awards. But to 11-year-old New Zealander Anna Paquin whose first screen performance as Holly Hunter's daughter in Jane Campion's The Piano earned her a Golden Globe best supporting actress nomination and a shared prize from the L.A. Film Critics, the honors are just another curve in the fairy-tale road she's traveled since landing the role.

When pressed as to whether the experience has made a marked difference in her life, she throws up her hands. "If you could give me my life without it, I would tell you," she observes philosophically in her first and only press interview. "But, that's not the case."

In Los Angeles to shoot a series of MCI commercials, Paquin is alternately shy and forthcoming, childlike and precocious, depending on the subject at hand.

Ask about her dramatic technique, her co-stars Hunter, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill, or her opinion of the highly acclaimed film -- the story of a mute Scottish woman involved in a highly charged love triangle in 19th-Century New Zealand -- and Paquin merely shrugs. But when it comes to delineating the chain of events that led her to the project, she rambles on nonstop.

"Two years ago, my sister ran into a friend who had seen a story in the paper announcing auditions for the part," says Paquin who, despite the California sunshine, is sporting a green turtleneck, red sweater and floral hat in an effort to fight off the flu. "Though I never acted before, when I heard both of them were trying out, I wanted to go, too. My father said if I was interested I'd have to ring up myself. 'Come to blah, blah, blah at such-and-such a place,' they told me. They needed to find girls who looked the right way. 'Too tall, too this, too that' . . . You had to be able to pass -- or, at least, be short enough -- to be Holly Hunter's daughter."

Five thousand girls showed up for the session. Paquin, as one of three finalists, was instructed to return in two days to read a passage. Memorizing posed no problems, she asserts, and the taping went without a hitch. A few weeks later, she was called back for a workshop/audition in Auckland.

"We found out later that she already had the part," recalls the 44-year-old Brian Paquin, a tall, down-to-earth physical education teacher who insisted on monitoring the interview. "After viewing her tape, they knew they had their person -- she read the speech almost as well as in the movie, I was told. Anna wanted it and really went for it. The workshop was scheduled only to see if she could handle the stress of a workday."

Anna Paquin recalls being "a bit excited, though not terribly nervous" at the prospect of tackling the role and "probably more naive than most." The part called on her not only to deliver her own lines but, frequently, to serve as her mother's interpreter in the speaking world. During rehearsals, the young actress took up sign language and had to master a Scottish accent. Dialogue coach Edward Campbell came to her house every week or so, Scottish soap operas in hand.

If the Miramax production notes call the accent "the hardest thing about becoming Flora," the actress begs to differ. "That's not true," she protests vehemently. "They (Miramax) never asked me!" Still, when the reporter asks for a sample, the youngster immediately clams up. "Waitresses in restaurants, people all over have been asking Anna to perform," interjects her father, whose mission, as he sees it, is to keep life for Anna, his wife, Mary, and their two other children as normal as possible. "We're trying to avoid the trained seal syndrome, the dog jumping through the hoop."

Her colleagues have called her "fearless," a concept to which she doesn't relate. More to the point, says her father, who joined her on the set, she's "an intelligent child who picks up intuitively what's going on. Anna takes direction, but fills in the gaps quite nicely by herself."

For the movie to work, the relationship between mother and daughter -- strangers in a strange land -- had to be inordinately close. Hanging out with Hunter off-camera helped Paquin to cement the bond.

"Before I went to New Zealand, I had a lot of anxiety about who would be playing my daughter," allows Hunter, who still exchanges letters with her young charge. "If we didn't have a connection, I didn't know if I could handle the extra workload. You may or may not like an adult actor, but, with certain choices and a learned professionalism, you can usually pull together a chemistry on-screen. With children, though, it's impossible to lie. Their priorities are less formulated and the responses uncensored. This was a gamble but, as it happened, a magical one."

If Paquin is taking her newfound success in stride, she's not above reveling in the fact that a certain ballet teacher who once dismissed her has now changed her tune.

"She played favorites," she explains. "If you weren't going to be a prima ballerina, she wouldn't pay you any attention. I was always a back dancer. I played a skunk in one performance in which my brother was Prince Charming. The teacher now conducts a weekly session in my gymnastics class and she treats me slightly differently. She even tells me if my toes aren't pointed."

Father and daughter will not discuss the future -- or whether acting will figure into it. No offers have come their way, he says, so no decisions have to be made. Their focus, they insist, is fixed on the present.

Big deal or not, the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 22 are of more than passing interest since "they sort of lead up to the Oscars -- which I highly doubt I'll win," she maintains. As for the Oscars, "I just want to get nominated. At the very worst, get nominated." In February she'll be starting sixth grade at a new school in Wellington ("the capital city of the north isle") -- a prospect Paquin finds more daunting than plunging into The Piano.

"I didn't know anything about making movies before," the young actress says. "It's not as glamorous as it seems -- especially when you have to do something many, many times. My favorite scene, playing football with a cabbage in the mud, never got in. For that matter, neither did my least favorite one: sitting in a freezing cold stream. And it's difficult to judge the film based on what I've been allowed to see of it."

When Anna was initially cast, father and child had no premonition it would become a major motion picture. Campion had a fine reputation, the elder Paquin acknowledges. But, who would imagine she'd walk off with best director trophies from the L.A. and New York film critics, that the The Piano would win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival or that Hunter would pull off a best actress sweep?

"Jane's work has been primarily art-house stuff rather than mass appeal," he says. "When I saw the rushes for this movie, I thought it was primarily for the European market with some interest in Australia because of the content. I told my mother in Winnipeg, Canada, that, if we're lucky, it might come to her local theater in a few years.

"Suddenly, we're dealing with 'Jurassic Piano,' " he says, flashing a smile. "Fortunately for us who are trying to keep Anna a kid a while longer, New Zealand is pretty removed from it all."

Los Angeles Times January 11, 1994