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The age of discovery

For Q'orianka Kilcher, it began with busking at 6 and led to being cast in a major motion picture at 14. At 15, she enters 'The New World.'

November 06, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Q'ORIANKA KILCHER looks slightly out of place with the lunch crowd at the Four Seasons. Kilcher, who stars as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's historical epic "The New World," is decades younger than most of the other diners, and with her long, dark hair and faux suede coat trimmed in fake-fur fringe, she could be a hippie from the '60s.

Her mother and agent, who've accompanied the 15-year-old here, have stepped away, and wrapped in the coat, she nibbles on cheese crackers from the bread basket, unimpressed when Larry Flynt wheels by the table followed by an entourage. "I don't know who that is," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm not involved in Hollywood."

That was generally true, until, at age 14 -- "I was just a baby" -- she was chosen over a host of much older and more established performers to star in "New World." She hadn't a clue who Malick was before she got the film and just recently saw his last movie, 1998's "The Thin Red Line." She hadn't heard of Colin Farrell, either. (He plays opposite her as Capt. John Smith in the Jamestown saga.)

Still, she chats her way through lunch with the confidence of a person who got her start busking at age 6 and has a ninth-grader's "everything is possible" ambition. A budding dress designer, she makes her own clothes, including the long, dark-gold skirt and peasant top hidden beneath her coat. She's excited by the prospect of creating several gowns for the various premieres of "The New World" (which opens Dec. 25) and mentions she'd also like to own a record company and help the native cultures in South America; she's part Quecha/Huachipa Indian. A ferret, she says when the conversation turns to pets, would be another dream come true.

Kilcher, whose cousin is the singer Jewel, knew a bit about Pocahontas before she got the role, "but not too much. But I have learned so much about her now. I have been doing a lot of studying on her, and they gave me lots of books to do research."

The real Pocahontas, who was 11 when she met explorer Smith in 17th century Virginia, had short, close-cropped hair. Kilcher's long, thick brown locks cascade beyond her waist. "They asked me if I would mind cutting my hair," she says, "but I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I was hoping they would change their minds."

They did. But after filming was completed, she cut off a few inches. "I don't know why," Kilcher says. "I just cut it."

Kilcher's biography spills out quickly as she works her way through her salmon lunch. The actress, who's Alaskan/Swiss on her mother's side, was born in Schweigmatt, Germany. "My mother left home when she was 16 and started traveling around the world and met my dad in South America, had me in Germany and went traveling around the world," she says.

The family settled in Honolulu shortly after her first brother was born. "We had a beach house, and we would go surfing. We used to sing around the campfire. I used to sing off-key, so my mom sent me to voice lessons. I just so fell in love with singing."

When she was 6, she started singing on the sidewalks in Waikiki. "In 15 minutes, I would make $300," she explains with a smile. "I just had background tracks. I sang 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' 10 times in a row. It was really silly. I used to do little dances. I won singing contests."

With the promise of getting to record her own CD from a performer on whose disc she'd sung, the family set out for Oklahoma, where the man had moved. "But our motor home broke down and we got stuck in L.A.," she says.

The family decided to remain in L.A., and Kilcher began performing on the Promenade in Santa Monica. "I would make up to $2,000 a night," she says. "I was still singing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and 'My Boy Lollipop.' "

Then, five years ago, her equipment was stolen from the family car. "I had a huge fan base," she says, "and they contacted the L.A. Times." The story about the robbery that ran in the paper caught the eye of an agent at William Morris, who gave her money to replace the equipment and sent her out on auditions.

Kilcher was eventually cast as a choir member in the 2000 film "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," but she didn't pursue acting. Instead, she kept up her studies (she's home-schooled) and spent five days a week at the Musicians Institute of Hollywood, where she has a full scholarship.

Finally, she decided to try her luck at acting once again. Her picture was submitted to the casting agents for the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries "Into the West," and one of the casting assistants, Kilcher relates, thought she looked like an "Indian Julia Roberts."

Though she wasn't right for "Into the West," the casting directors were also working on "A New World." And they kept calling on the girl with the unusual name (pronounced Corie-AHN-ka). "The director and the producers wanted me. It was just the matter of the studio. For the studio, me being a teenager must have been entirely unsettling."

Farrell, 29, she says, was like her big brother.

"He was always watching out for me. Since I was little, I was a perfectionist, and Colin taught me acting wasn't about being perfect.... An actor should never take themselves too seriously. It took a burden off my shoulders." Still, she says, playing Pocahontas was an emotional roller coaster for her. "I was so lost," she says. "I would go from totally distraught to bouncing around the woods very happy. Luckily, Colin was there to guide me."

Her screen kiss with Farrell was her first kiss ever, and she told everyone. Looking back now, she notes sheepishly, "I probably never should have said it."

As the waiter comes to take her plate, she asks for the contents of the bread basket to take home. She hates having food go to waste, and her mother and two younger brothers, she says, would love the goodies.

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