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ANNA PAQUIN: FROM HOLLY HUNTER’S TOT TO SEAN PENN’S TOOTSIE

When I interviewed her in 1998 for Indie Magazine, Anna Paquin struck me as a bright, refreshingly un-neurotic young woman with a strong talent for playing neurotics. She still strikes me that way, and I have a feeling that she will one day walk off with another Oscar. --Guy Flatley


Kids! What’s the matter with kids today? Nothing, if they’re like Anna Paquin, the precocious New Zealander who swapped her Teddy Bear for an Oscar when she played Holly Hunter’s tot in "The Piano" five years ago and now, at the ripe age of 16, jolts us with her performance as a street waif shacking up with Sean Penn in "Hurlyburly." It’s a small role in this film of David Rabe’s play, co-written by Rabe and director Anthony Drazan. But it doesn’t come off small. Thanks to the maturity of Paquin’s talent, layers of suffering and resilience are visible beneath the calm surface of the teenager who is offered as a sexual gift by a sleazy producer (Garry Shandling) to his durggy Hollywood pals, played by Penn, Kevin Spacey and Chazz Palminteri.

"I’ve never known anyone like Donna, and I’ve certainly never been in a situation like that," says Paquin in a lilting down-under accent (of which there is nary a trace in "Hurlyburly"). "But you don’t have to experience something to know what it’s like to go through it. All I did was try to imagine how I’d feel if this happened to me. Donna hasn’t had an easy life. Most teenagers are still living at home, not roaming the streets, sleeping in elevators, hitchhiking across the country. What’s remarkable is that she still sees the good in people and doesn’t judge them by what they say or how they look--maybe because she’s been judged so often on the basis of her appearance. Donna’s patient with people and willing to get to know who they really are."

She certainly gets to know who these tinseltown low-lifes are. "I think what David Rabe is saying about these guys is that they are not the nicest guys you’re ever going to meet," says Paquin (shown at right with Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn). "Yet they are human beings, and they are deeply affected by the sad things that happen in their lives. Like human beings everywhere, they’re going to have to sort things out--by talking about them or whatever. Even if they’re not nice guys."

Donna the drifter represents a bold departure for Paquin from her typical post-"Piano" roles, such as the girl who loves geese in Carroll Ballard’s uplifting "Fly Away Home." Her recollection of how she got the part is that she was shown the script by her agent, Brian Gersh, and immediately said yes.

With a Rashomonesque twist, director Anthony Drazan--also a Gersh client--tells the story another way. "Anna walked into Brian’s office one day when he was down the hall," Drazan recently said to me. "She saw the script on a table, picked it up and started reading it. When Brian returned, she insisted that she get to meet me. Months later, when I did finally meet her, she immediately said Donna was a part she wanted to play. And I believed her."

Still, the prospect of discussing the intricacies of Donna’s erotic adventuring with the adolescent actress must have caused Drazan a tremor or two. "When Anna came into town for the read-through, we spent part of an evening together," the director recalls. "At first, I was very inept and clumsy--I didn’t know what to do with a 15-year-old girl. But because of the way Anna is, it turned out all right. She’s not as sexually knowing as Donna, certainly--but, wow, how can I characterize what it is that makes Anna Anna? She’s extremely self-sufficient and fiercely independent. So I didn’t have to say too much about Donna’s motivation before I knew I should shut up. Anna let me know."

Just as she let Sean Penn know they were virtually born to act together. "When Sean and Anna did their first read-through, they locked in instantly, and it was really something to see the pleasure they took in their discovery," says Drazan. "I was so impressed with Anna’s focus and joy in what she was doing. She loves acting--you get that about her right away. Thanks to Anna, we were able to excise most of the text from the final scene in the movie, knowing that her expression, her simple and provocative way of communicating ideas, was all we needed to make our point.

"Anna also had a lot of fun on the set. She enjoyed seeing the guys--myself included--acting like lunatics as we tried to make sense of the waterfall of text David Rabe had written. On more than one occasion, she turned to me and said, ‘You know, you guys are crazy!' She was having fun hanging out with men."

Fun was also had on the set of "A Walk on the Moon," the new film in which Anna co-stars with Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen and Liev Schreiber under the direction of Tony Goldwyn. Once again, however, there are not too many laughs up there on the screen. Set in New York’s Catskill Mountains (though shot just outside Montreal), the drama is downright intense.

"My character is pretty much your normal teenager doing normal teenage stuff," says Anna. "She hates her parents and wants to be her own person, but she’s finding it hard to do because she’s only 14 and therefore not allowed to do the stuff she wants to do. And her family is going through a little bit of a crisis, you might say. Her mother is having an affair, so everything starts going haywire."

Domestic tension is something Anna knows firsthand. Shortly after the totally untrained actress triumphed in "The Piano"--playing a part she won at an open audition--her parents’ marriage began to unravel, and they eventually divorced. Her two older sisters now attend college, while she and her mother divide their time between New Zealand and California, where Anna attends regular classes when not being tutored on the set. "I don’t think anyone likes it when their parents get divorced," she says softly. "I mean, who wants that ?"

Not that Anna, a budding beauty with dark hair, soulful eyes and a lovely figure, has soured on romance. "I don’t currently, at this very minute, have a boyfriend," she says with a telltale giggle. "But, of course, I have boyfriends. Don’t most 16-year-old girls have boyfriends?"

These days, most 16-year-old girls have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. How about Anna? "Not really. I don’t get crushes on people I haven’t met." (Once again, Anthony Drazan tells a slightly different story. "Oh, listen, I think we teased Anna a little bit about Leonardo DiCaprio on the set," he told me, laughing. "One day, Sean Penn said he was going to get Leo on the phone, and Anna sort of ran from the room.")

"I might have an actor for a boyfriend, but it would probably be someone I met while working," says Anna, who recently completed "She’s All That" with Freddie Prinze Jr., Matthew Lillard, Kieran Culkin and Elden Henson. And her idea of the perfect date movie is "The Wedding Singer," the hit romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. "That was a completely sweet, happily-ever-after story. You really wanted everything to work out for the characters at the end of the movie."

It’s been widely noted that Drew Barrymore--and many a child performer before her--harbors resentment over having been deprived of a normal childhood. "I don’t know what thoses people’s lives were like," Anna says, "but--hey--I’m still a kid. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything in terms of being a child, because I’m still doing silly kid stuff with my friends. I enjoy acting, so I don’t want to stop doing it. But I wouldn’t want to do it every single second of every day. I’m 16 and I like my friends and I want to spend time with them."

Few actresses win an Academy Award before reaching puberty. Even former child star Jodie Foster had to wait a decade or so before receiving the first of her two Oscars. Does Anna dream of a return trip to the podium--if not for "Hurlyburly," then maybe for "All the Rage," a sizzly indie in which she’s set to play a Lolita-like vamp with the hots for David Schwimmer?

"Before I got nominated for 'The Piano,' I didn’t really know what an Oscar was," she says. "So it wasn’t some huge thing I was aiming for. It just sort of happened. And if it happens again, that will be really good. Who wouldn’t want it to happen again? But it’s not like I’m dying for it to happen. I think I was very lucky that it happened even once. I mean, I was so young."