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'Whale Rider's' Keisha Castle-Hughes is ready to grab Hollywood by the tail

As a 13-year-old Oscar nominee, she wasn't prepared for the leviathan industry. Now, just shy of 19, she is.

February 27, 2009|Lisa Rosen

Talk about a walk down memory lane. At 13, Keisha Castle-Hughes was the youngest nominee ever for a lead actress Oscar for her role as the tradition-bending girl in the indie hit "Whale Rider" -- and she became the town's darling. Five years later, Castle-Hughes has returned to Los Angeles to relaunch her career as an adult. There's been a world of change since her last Oscar-season visit; this time, she has a fiance and a toddler in tow.

Back in 2004, her days here were a blur of parties, press and award shows. "I felt like I was Charlie and I won the golden ticket to the chocolate factory," she said recently, and like Charlie, she felt out of her depth. She attended the Screen Actors Guild Awards, not knowing what SAG was. "I would tell everyone who listened on live TV and executive meetings that I wanted to go home and go back to school," she recalled.

Then there were the requisite grooming rituals, which were alien to the overwhelmed child from New Zealand. "I got manicures every three days; I'd never had my nails done in my life," she related in a charming Kiwi accent while sitting in the dining room of a friend's house. "Frederic Fekkai was doing my hair every week -- I had no understanding of how important he was in the beauty world. I had my eyebrows plucked, which was a horrible experience, and I don't think I've had them plucked since."

This time around, there is the same agent but no stylists, no publicists and, mercifully, no plucking.

A rental car has replaced the limos. She and her family bunk down at a modest hotel in West Hollywood between stints with friends at various homes around town. The actress fielded calls on her own to arrange an interview with a journalist. And she watched Sunday's Oscar show from the comfort of bed.

With this visit, she intends to reintroduce herself as a young woman to people who only know the little girl. A month shy of 19, with the same fresh-faced look and big brown eyes that melted hearts when audiences first saw her, the leap isn't hard to make.

Life in a fishbowl

Castle-Hughes was discovered for the role in Niki Caro's "Whale Rider" by the same casting director who found Anna Paquin. At age 11 she played Pai, the Maori girl who has to fight her grandfather to fulfill her destiny. She spent years on the film festival circuit, then the premiere circuit, then the Oscar circuit, all for her first film. After that heady time, Castle-Hughes, who is half-Maori, went home to Auckland.

"I was able to grow up and do silly things and have a life with only a small amount of public scrutiny," she said. That didn't last long.

After taking a cameo in "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" and a role in a controversial Prince video called "Cinnamon Girl," she played, at 16, the role of Mary in Catherine Hardwicke's "The Nativity Story." But the bigger story happened after filming ended. "I came home from the shoot and got pregnant," she says matter-of-factly. If she thought the Oscar nomination brought her attention, she had no idea what was in store. Her pregnancy, at age 16, set off a media firestorm, which was slightly ironic in light of the role she had just played as the pregnant, derided Mary.

At home, she couldn't put out the trash without being swamped with paparazzi trying to get the first shot of her baby bump and had to use a surgical mask, hat and alias to go to the hospital to deliver her daughter, Felicity-Amore Hull.

Now 22 months old, Felicity bounded into the dining room, all smiles and blond curls. She climbed onto a visitor's lap and began drawing on a notebook as her mother chatted "She's not shy," Castle-Hughes said wryly, adding that she was similarly rambunctious as a child. "Mum says it's payback."

The actress has been with Felicity's father, Brad Hull, 22, for more than five years, and engaged since Christmas 2007. But she's not preoccupied with setting a date. "As far as I'm concerned, we're life partners," she declared. Hull, a plasterer, has a flexible schedule that often allows for him to help care for Felicity when her mother's working. As the interview continued, he called their daughter into another room with the code word "bunny."

After a year as a stay-at-home mom, Castle-Hughes in 2008 took a leading role in another Caro film, based on another local bestseller, "The Vintner's Luck." The film is due out sometime later in the year. She also performed in a television movie called "Piece of My Heart," about the harsh treatment of unwed mothers in New Zealand's recent past.

Her agent has been trying to get her out here for meetings "forever," but "it took a long time to be OK with who I was and what I do, and to share it with someone else," the actress said. "This is the first time I've shown my world to Brad."

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