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Keisha Castle-Hughes makes her acting debut in "Whale Rider."
in film’s glow
WAILEA, Maui >> Five-foot, 100-pound Keisha Castle-Hughes stands on a hotel lanai wearing orange and red surf trunks, a blue T-shirt with a Maori design and a shimmering smile. She clears her throat, and then talks about how well her film "Whale Rider" (which had audiences and filmmakers buzzing at the recent Maui Film Festival) is doing back home.
"'Whale Rider' has been out for 22 weeks and was number one in New Zealand for eight weeks, then dropped to number two for a week when 'Gangs of New York' opened, then went back to number one for four weeks, then when some children films came out, it was number nine for three weeks, but now the last three weeks has been number three," the 13-year-old rattles off with confidence. "The film is expected to sell more tickets than 'Lord of the Rings' and eventually 'Matrix' and it only cost $3.5 million (U.S.) to make and I've seen it 31 times."
"Just imagine the earnest dedication Keisha brought to her role," says 49-year-old veteran New Zealand actor Rawiri Paratene, who plays her grandfather Koro. "I think she knows more about how the film is doing than anyone connected with it."
The two actors and the girl's mother had just finished three weeks of U.S. media interviews where "Whale Rider" premiered in Los Angeles and New York. They were spending five days at the Maui event for the Hawaii premiere before heading back to New Zealand.
The ebullient Castle-Hughes, who lives in Auckland, admits she doesn't know everything about the film, admitting she didn't know about the legend of the Whale Rider, although her ancestors come from the same Pacific Ocean coastline in northeast New Zealand where the Whale Rider and his tribe arrived hundreds of years ago, bringing the first Maori to the country.
Now the legend of Paikea, who led the Maori to New Zealand on the back of a whale, is being spread throughout the world through this low-budget movie.
The first-time actress, who was 11 when filming began, has drawn rave reviews for her guileless performance. She was sitting in her English class when casting director Diana Rowan (who also discovered Oscar-winning actor Anna Paquin) chose her from 10,000 other girls to play the child with mythic abilities destined to lead her people.
"Diana asked if I could ride a bike and I said 'Yes' because I can. Then she asked if I could swim and I said 'Yes,' but I really can't," she said. "I really, really wanted to be in the movie." The first audition was with 19 other girls in "a workshop type of thing," she said.
"Everyone there knew someone except me," Castle-Hughes said. "A couple of girls had done quite a bit of acting when they were small. So I really didn't think I had a chance.
"At my seventh audition, Diana came up to me and said, 'Keisha, how much do you want this?' I said, 'I want it so badly. I can't tell you how much.' Then she said, 'So you're gonna knock out the competition and you're gonna get it, aren't you?' I didn't know what to say. I was shocked. I was thinking, why is she saying this to me? Does she really want me to be heartbroken when I don't get it?"
The final casting came down to three girls. One was too young, the other too old, so that left Keisha.
ACTING WAS not part of the girl's plan though she admits she's always been "not shy."
"Ever since I was little, I just thought acting would be a fun thing, but I thought it would be a fun thing because I saw these famous actors and they had these glamorous dresses on -- and when I actually did the work, even though it was a really amazing experience, it was hard," she said. "I hadn't realized what I had gotten myself into. I was confused because the story was filmed out of sequence so that made it harder for me to act, to get into the moment."
The hardest acting was exposing herself emotionally, including the heartbreaking speech by her character Pai at the school concert when she tearfully pays tribute to the absent grandfather whose approval she craves. "I had to go to feelings you don't often go to, especially someone my age," Castle-Hughes says. "Sometimes it was really hard, so I pretended like my life depended on my acting."
She's amazed that sharing her emotions causes people to cry. "My 6-year-old brother watched it and he cried, but my grandfather, who's 80, he watched it and he cried, and then all my family, who are all the ages in between, they cried as well," she says.
Director Niki Caro didn't instruct the first-time actor but instead offered choices. "She said, 'Look, you've got these three paths. You choose which one to take,' " Castle-Hughes said. "She didn't direct me; she guided me."
A month of rehearsing allowed Castle-Hughes "to make a lot of self-discoveries before the camera started rolling," said Paratene, who appeared with Hawaii actor Jason Scott Lee in "Rapa Nui."
"I was worried that the darkness of my character would frighten and inhibit her," he said. "I had to have the confidence that Keisha was going to be able to hang with me and feel safe, even though I was tough, and really, really hard. Niki worked to forge that relationship."
PARATENE HAD to age 20 years in the role of Koro, who was also the wise elder looking for a new tribal leader from the younger generations. Paratene had initial concerns about telling a story that is the cornerstone of another tribe. His elders told him, however, about the legend of Paikea and the whale figures in his Northland tribe's whakapapa (geneology), too.
"I was a bit worried about how I would be received ... I've played Australians. I've played Noel Coward ... it was an acting role. I'm certainly not going to play him as a Ngapuhi, because he ain't. This man is Ngati Konohi and he's from Whangara and so that is what I am going to play," he said.
Playing Koro, whose years and mana command respect, meant Paratene had to be a solitary, aloof figure on set, and restrained from his usual clowning around.
"The most constant direction I got from Niki was 'Rawiri, keep it down in here'," he says, touching his stomach.
Castle-Hughes says the film can teach girls lots of things, "like boys aren't always better than girls."
Success hasn't changed her life much. She still talks for hours on the phone with friends and loves to shop.
"When I'm not with a friend, I'm on the phone to a friend, and when I'm not on the phone to a friend, I'm on the 'Net to a friend, so I'm always with friends," she said.
While acting may not be something Castle-Hughes will readily jump back into, there is a definite perk to it. "Sometimes I think I'm just not ready to go through it all again, but then I think that it would allow me to keep shopping," she said.
Playing at Consolidated Ward
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Young girl fights to restore
people's pride in 'Whale Rider'
The Maori drama "Whale Rider" is based on a folk myth, and it's told with an elemental and simple timelessness that feels like stroll into prehistory.
The adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's 1986 novel of the same name, the film combines a straightforward coming-of-age narrative with Maori mysticism to a most engaging effect.
Taking place in the village of Whangara, on the northeast coast of New Zealand's North Island, "Whale Rider" is the story of a people's decline and a young girl's uphill battle to restore its pride.
A difficult birth results in the death of a young mother and her infant boy. The twin sister survives, but father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) grieves terribly, which is made worse by grandfather Koro aka Paka's (Rawiri Paratene) quick push for a new marriage to produce a son.
"There was no gladness when I was born," narrates the older Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes).
Paka is descended from a long line of tribal leaders and is obsessed with grooming a next-generation chief to "lead our people out of the darkness" that modern life has forced on them. His traditional view is clear: A girl child is "worthless" for leadership.
Pai is 11 years old when the film begins and the wrecked culture she surveys could just as easily be on an Indian reservation or the Marshall Islands. Drinking and joblessness are pandemic, the women chain-smoke and play cards all day, and the men are either in prison or have, like her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), fled to less hopeless locales.
Native arts sculptor Porourangi is so disgusted he travels to Europe, leaving daughter Pai to be raised by Paka and her grandmother, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton).
There's no mistaking that Paka loves his only grandchild; a close bond does develop between them. But when Porourangi visits from Germany many years later, old conflicts flare up, all made worse by news that this distant son is now expecting a child with a German girlfriend.
Paka denounces Porourangi. The nearly adolescent Pai still can't convince herself to leave with dad because she knows somehow her destiny lies at home.
PAKA IS RESIGNED that a new community leader must be made rather than born so he creates a "sacred school" to educate local boys in "the old ways -- the qualities of a chief." This involves religious rituals and martial arts instruction, but none of his lazy male charges show promise.
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Koro aka Paka is comforted by his wife Nanny Flowers.
Meanwhile, the rift between grandfather and grandchild widens when he learns that she's secretly been teaching herself these customs. Paka considers this blasphemous, and in his stubbornness, he ignores obvious signs that she is a natural, perhaps even a supernatural, leader.
But Pai's stubbornness shows her determination. There's a scene where she out races a school bus on her bicycle that says everything you need to know about this girl's drive. Ultimately it's that attitude that brings her family and friends around.
Paka eventually comes around but only after several disasters culminating when numerous whales (sacred to Maori beliefs) are found beached on a nearby shore. Enter Pai.
Testimony to the quality of "Whale Rider" is that this event doesn't come off as contrived or manipulative. Pai's ocean ride atop a whale's back is a convincing, clever blending of drama, humor and magic.
Director Niki Caro turns the coming-of-age tale into a study of generational differences, a dogmatic devotion to history and bonds that run deeper even than those of the flesh.
The story's simplicity might suggest a cultural comeuppance for centuries of patriarchal values, but "Whale Rider" is anything but political. It deftly applies universal truths -- search for family, love and acceptance, and purpose in an unfamiliar and often hostile world -- in a context that is uniquely fascinating.
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