KOHALA COAST, Hawaii — Nine-year-old Tina Majorino tucks one leg under the other and leans back nonchalantly in her wicker chair. Ready for her interview, she blows her nose with a honk.
The spirited young actress, featured in three films opening within three months of each other, seems completely unfazed by her newfound celebrity status. Despite the glare of TV cameras at the posh Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, she comes across as natural and unaffected as the quintessential girl next door.
In fact, she says, she is often mistaken for just that.
"People know they have seen me somewhere, but they don't know where. They think I'm their next-door neighbor," she says, looking the part in faded overall shorts and a white top. "I don't tell them. I don't need them to know who I am."
People will find out soon enough. The four-foot actress won raves for her performance as the older daughter of an alcoholic mother in "When a Man Loves a Woman" this spring, and is likely to capture moviegoers' hearts starring with Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta in New Line's current comedy "Corrina, Corrina." She also stars in Paramount Pictures' "Andre," which opens Wednesday and is based on a true story about a seal that adopted a Maine family.
And she is now filming her fourth movie, Universal's epic adventure, "Waterworld," opposite none other than Kevin Costner, on the island of Hawaii.
"Tina's a major talent, no doubt about it," says Keith Carradine, who plays her father in "Andre." "There's a certain focus she has that belies her age. She's a very centered, very focused little girl. It's amazing to me that someone who's nine can be so sure of what she wants to do."
Majorino says she has wanted to be an actress "since I was 2 or 3." Her mother lined up singing and dancing lessons, and Majorino appeared in her first TV commercial at age 3 1/2. She also took part in neighborhood plays, but it took some persuasion before Sarah Majorino allowed her daughter to pursue professional acting.
"I begged and begged and begged her," Majorino explains, her clear blue eyes widening. "I just think it's fun. Being able to do what you don't get to do at your own house, being somebody else."
She landed the role of Sophie in the ABC series "Camp Wilder" in 1992. Since then, it's been a feature-film whirlwind for Majorino, who won't even turn 10 until February.
"We met Tina and we didn't even have her read for us; we knew she was it," says Annette Handley, "Andre's" producer. "There's nothing self-conscious about her. . . . She has the wisdom of a much older person."
Majorino says she was inspired watching "The Wizard of Oz" over and over as a youngster, and acting became a passion. "It's work, but it's work that I love," she says. "I really feel like I'm going to be an actress for the rest of my life."
When not filming, she attends school in the San Fernando Valley, playing roller hockey in the neighborhood with her brother Kevin, 14, and looking after her dog, Angus. On location, the fourth-grader must keep up with her schoolwork as well as her lines, but her colleagues say she is always well prepared.
"She's a real pro, in the best sense of the word," Carradine says. "Some child actors are pros in the worst sense of the world. Suddenly life is consumed with 'Where do I get my next job?' and 'Call my agent.' It doesn't seem to have changed Tina. . . . She seems to be well-rounded. Her folks should take a lot of credit for that."
Majorino's family does strive mightily to keep her life in balance. "It's a big challenge," acknowledges her mother, who accompanies her on all sets. Her father, Bob, owns a real estate company.
"I've met a lot of stage mothers and a lot of child actors," says Handley, the producer. "This was Tina's dream, not Sarah's." Her mother is "very present, very protective, yet not overbearing."
Each of Majorino's roles this year has been demanding. She is slapped and is forced to parent her alcoholic mother in "When a Man Loves a Woman." In "Corrina, Corrina," her mother in the movie has died, and Majorino must display a vast range of emotions. Asked if her tears are real, Majorino seems almost insulted.
"I really do cry, of course," she says. "I don't think of what I'm thinking; I think of what my character's thinking."
But she acknowledges that the scenes she finds easiest are "the laughing and silly ones," like when she dances with Andre, the sea lion, on a boardwalk, or bounces high on a bed in "Corrina, Corrina."
After her interview, Majorino leaps into her mother's arms, wrapping her legs around her waist, to be carried away for a break. Surrounded by the luxury of the Mauna Lani resort, her tastes remain simple. Her choice of dessert when the options seem limitless? "A dish of vanilla ice cream," she says simply, "with nothing on it."