After the media frenzy that came with the success of "Whale Rider," Keisha Castle-Hughes took a year off to relax. She's in town to promote the film's PBS premiere on Sunday night.

Teen actress faces
difficulties of fame

On the air: "Whale Rider" will be have its national broadcast premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday on PBS Hawaii/PBS.

KEISHA Castle-Hughes seems like a normal 15-year-old who loves to shop, enjoys going to movies, still fights with her brothers and has her first boyfriend.

But that's where the stereotype stops for Castle-Hughes, who's in Hawaii to promote Sunday's 8 p.m. PBS broadcast premiere of "Whale Rider," for which she was nominated for a best actress Academy Award at the age of 13. The broadcast coincides with an outreach campaign developed between Pacific Islanders in Communication and the Girl Scout Council of Hawaii.


Keisha Castle-Hughes: As Queen Apailana of Naboo in "Star Wars Episode III."

The petite actress, at about 5 foot 1, with luminous eyes and an assertive personality, sits at a run-down picnic table at Ala Moana Beach Park reflecting on the film and her future.

"All the publicity that came to me with 'Whale Rider' was very, very stressful; it was hard," says Castle-Hughes, who's half Maori and half Pakeha (European New Zealander). "I did three years of constant interviews and thought it was never going to end.

"Then came the Academy Awards, and I took a year off and hibernated. I didn't go out much, maybe shopping once a month, and I would wear a big hat and goggles. I didn't do any publicity or red-carpet events. I really wanted everything back to normal."

Castle-Hughes looks relaxed while staring at surf breaking a quarter-mile offshore and surfers riding the new south swell.

"I took my first surfing lesson yesterday," she says. "I paddled all the way out to where the real surfers were."

Then, as if to reveal how innocent she was during the filming of "Whale Rider," Castle-Hughes says, "I didn't even know how to swim when I did the film. I still don't. Had to learn on the job."

She also had never acted before her role as "Whale Rider's" main character, Paikea, after being discovered by the film's casting director and casting assistant, who had visited her school in Mount Wellington, New Zealand.

The film is set in a small New Zealand village, where a Maori girl is destined to lead her community but must overcome patriarchal tradition to claim her birthright. It received the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature at the 2003 Maui International Film Festival, and the AGF People's Choice Award at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Scouts' interest in sharing the film is because "Girl Scouts is about encouraging a girl to live her life with courage, confidence and character," said Gail Mukaihata Hannemann, CEO of the Girl Scout Council of Hawaii. "The story of Pai, in 'Whale Rider,' speaks to these qualities."

Desrae Hughes traveled with her daughter to Honolulu.

Being a role model adds pressure to Castle-Hughes' life, but she understands the necessity.

"I'm humbled that anyone looks up to me, because I have so much to learn," she said. "I have a lot of role models."

Like most nonactors, Castle-Hughes fantasized that stars mostly "sat by the pool and drank martinis" while waiting to work.

"You learn fast that's not the truth," she said. "It's a job and quite hard. I came in from the outside where it's all glamorized and you think, 'Wow, this is going to be so much fun.'

"You think anyone who acts is so rich and so happy. Then you do it and you still have financial struggles, and just because you make one good movie doesn't mean you're always happy."

The most troubling aspect of notoriety, Castle-Hughes says, is "you become public property."

"You have no choice," she says. "People come up to you on the street, and you may be having one of those days when you don't want to talk to anybody but you have to be this lovely, caring, grateful person, or otherwise you come across as snobby.

"So you end up many times not really being yourself."

Her success also brought long-forgotten friends back into her life.

"It was weird because some kids I knew when I was 5 were suddenly trying to be my friends again," she said. "You find out really fast who your true friends are."

Add the emotional mayhem of entering high school.

"High school for girls is hard enough, but girls can be really catty," Castle-Hughes said. "Sometimes I would so much rather be a boy. When guys have fights with friends, you have a little bit of a punch-out, and the next day you're all happy. Girls hold grudges for weeks and months.

"Some girls just ignored me, and that first day I was really emotional ... and I started crying. I think a lot of things were just catching up with me."

As suddenly as Castle-Hughes shares her intimate feelings, she admonishes herself. "I sound a bit self-absorbed, don't I? I was being honest but I do love acting. The other stuff is just part of the job."

The "biggest high" Castle-Hughes got from "Whale Rider" was knowing the film helped some people feel happy or "left the theater with something that's meaningful."

She enjoys acting so much that after working on her second film -- a day's filming as Queen Apailana of Naboo in "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" -- the 10th-grader isn't close to selecting her next project.

"I get a lot of scripts (from Hollywood) where they still think I'm the 11-year-old girl in 'Whale Rider,'" she says. "They don't believe that I actually grew up."

She also gets coming-of-age stories.

"I'm not going to make any film that I don't want my grandparents to see," Castle-Hughes says. "I guess I'm pretty fussy with them, but for me it's not for the money or 'I just have to do a film to get back out there.' I want to make films that I love -- something that has meaning."

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