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The Oscars

Grounded, more ways than one

At 13, Keisha Castle-Hughes has a best actress Oscar nod and a vigilant, even-keeled mum.

February 22, 2004|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Keisha Castle-Hughes is wincing.

It's not even 9 a.m. and a stranger is plucking her eyebrows.

Here in Los Angeles things get weird during Oscar season. People who have spent their adult lives in front of a camera get nominated for something or other and suddenly they're on a regimen of lemon juice and colonics for four weeks, most of which are spent in dress fittings, photo shoots and awards shows. Tension runs high.

So imagine you're a 13-year-old girl from New Zealand who, until two years ago, thought going to the movies was a pretty big deal. Now you're the youngest best actress nominee ever, flown in from Auckland to L.A. for five days from which your Hollywood handlers are determined to squeeze every drop of publicity, even if it means waking you up at 7:30 at the Mosaic in Beverly Hills so the makeup artist can start plucking your eyebrows before 9.

Today, a couple of weeks before the Oscars, the winsome star of "Whale Rider" -- the story of a young Maori girl determined to show her patriarchal grandfather that girls too can be leaders -- is booked on AMC's "Sunday Morning Shootout," hosted by Hollywood producer Peter Guber and Variety editor Peter Bart. Then it's on to the Ivy for lunch, then to Burbank for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

It's almost enough to go to a girl's head -- were it not for Desrae.

Desrae Castle-Hughes is Keisha's mom, a no-nonsense New Zealander of Maori descent (and single mother of four) who is not particularly impressed with Hollywood and its pre-Oscar excesses. She shops at Old Navy. She seldom speaks -- particularly when with strangers.

Desrae has her hair up in a loose ponytail and is wearing jeans and a plain gray sweater blouse. No lipstick, no makeup.

Then there is Graham Dunster, Keisha's New Zealand agent. No Armani here. Looking more like a middle-aged surfer, Dunster comes into the hotel room sporting jeans, a faded brown shirt, an earring, a gold tooth cap on his incisor and tousled curly hair.

"G'day, Graham," Keisha salutes from her makeup chair.

"G'day, Keisha," he responds cheerfully.

A call comes announcing the arrival of the limousine. Downstairs, the New Zealand clan -- as well as the studio's publicist, a reporter and a photographer -- crawls in. Five adults, all riveted by one child's every move, every mood, every expression.

In the car, Keisha turns on the television.

"Oh, it's Clifford!" she coos as the cartoon "Clifford the Big Red Dog" jumps across the screen.

"Clifford" is really not Keisha's favorite show, Dunster offers quickly.

"It's 'The Strip,' " Keisha says -- a Kiwi comedic drama about a woman who runs a male strip joint.

Suddenly, she sighs, "I need to be home."

Dunster looks over and says, "She may seem as cool as a cucumber, but she flares out."

Fame can be painful

Plucked from a schoolwide audition by casting agent Dianna Rowan, Keisha had no experience in acting, much less publicity. In fact, the stress of getting nominated has caused Keisha's elbow to erupt into a pus-filled eczema rash. She starts picking at the sore red scab. Desrae tells her to stop touching it and put medication on it.

At Raleigh Studios, where "Shootout" is shot, Keisha's hair is curled with a curling iron. She asks for a cup of coffee and a bagel. An eager assistant brings her a heart-shaped bagel with cream cheese (for Valentine's Day) and a large coffee that Keisha fills with four packets of sugar.

Outside the makeup trailer, Desrae is smoking, a recent habit she has taken up to relax. She sees Keisha's nomination as a "good thing." She says she is worried "only as much as any parent would be."

Does she want her daughter to become an actress?

"It's up to her. I'll support her whatever she wants to do. She's got this thing now that she wants to work at McDonald's and that's fine with me," she says, exhaling the smoke.

The important thing is that she goes back to school.

"She needs to catch up with her mates to keep her honest," says Dunster, standing with Desrae outside.

"Keep it real," adds Desrae, nodding her head.

Keisha is informed by a fast-talking producer of the show that Peter and Peter are ready for her.

"I wish I had a twin sister and then I'd send her over here," she yawns as she gets up from the makeup chair. "My day doesn't start until 4 p.m."

At the entrance to the set, Peter Guber appears, wearing a thick, beige paste of makeup on his face, a black velvet dinner jacket with silk lapels, jeans and a white striped shirt.

"Hiiiiiiii, how are you?" he exclaims, grabbing Keisha's hand. He pulls forward. "I loved your film. I saw it in Hawaii, where I live, where there is a large native population. They were blown away."

Keisha smiles politely.

She is not Hawaiian. Her mother is not Hawaiian. They are from New Zealand. But whatever.Wearing a long silk spaghetti-strap top and jeans, Keisha makes herself at home in the phony cafe setting where the show is taped. She downs another giant cup of coffee in a "Shootout" mug.

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