In the play “The Glory of Living” Anna Paquin commands center stage like it’s her birthright. But her genius is in the loud silences, hesitations and subtle yet revelatory body language she uses in playing an abused teenager who goes on a killing spree with her deranged older boyfriend in Alabama.
“I pick all my own [film] material,” Paquin says. “But I’d mentioned to my agents from time to time that I wanted to do a play. They told me there was a play being directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. They sent me ‘Glory of Living.’ I loved it. I auditioned.”
She laughs nervously, a refreshing vestige of girlishness from a 19-year-old who reads Albert Camus’ novels in French and studies literature and Romance languages at Columbia University between acting gigs.
This is a young woman who did her high-school community service in a Los Angeles soup kitchen and hides the Oscar she won for “The Piano” at age 11 in her closet so she won’t make friends feel uncomfortable.
“When they told me I got the part, I was surprised they put that much trust in me,” she says. “I’ve never done theater before and I don’t know what I’m doing. But in the rehearsals over the last month, I’ve learned more about acting than I ever have before.”
She is, she adds, “psyched” to be appearing in an Off-Broadway show in the 98-seat MCC Theater: “It’s absolutely like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The instant gratification of the live audience is never, ever there with film. The only feedback you get in film is when your mother tells you that you’re great.
“From a live audience, you learn how you’re really doing. That’s really useful because in theater you can always change tomorrow’s performance.”
Paquin, who has never taken an acting lesson, began her career in 1992 when she and a couple of childhood friends in New Zealand went to an open casting call for Jane Campion’s movie “The Piano.” Paquin was chosen from some 5,000 kids to play Flora, bagged the 1993 best-supporting-actress Oscar and has since appeared in such diverse pictures as “Jane Eyre,” “Fly Away Home” (both 1996), “Amistad” (1997), “Hurlyburly” (1998), “Almost Famous” and “X-Men” (both 2000).
She was attending high school in Los Angeles when her mother, an English teacher from New Zealand, and her father, a Canadian physical education instructor, divorced. After acing her SATs, she headed for Columbia U. “I absolutely love living in New York even if the last month or so has been terribly sad,â€œ she says. “I go out with college friends to concerts, clubs, parties, whatever everyone else wants to do.
“I like that my friends aren’t all from show business. That would be a drag talking about work on your time off. For a large part of “The Glory of Living,” Paquin appears in her underwear as her character, Lisa, is degraded and stripped bare emotionally. She says she couldn’t be more culturally and psychologically different from Lisa. But as a child of divorce, she says, she understands heartbreak and the unglorious parts of life.
“If Lisa wasn’t much different than me, there would be no challenge,” she says. “But when you come right down to it, she’s a young girl who’s playing a dangerous game in the big grownup world without knowing how to get her way through.
“No one’s life is happy all the time. So with a tragic character like Lisa, you take the thousands of comparatively small dark things from your own life and you bring your emotional responses to those things to your character and imagine your way into the rest of it.”
Paquin has two films in the can: “Darkness,” a horror-mystery thriller with Lena Olin, and “Buffalo Soldiers,” an Army-base drama with Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris. “And I hear that “X-Men 2″ is getting ready to shoot shortly after the New Year,” she says.
Does her sustained success surprise her?
“I never had any expectations coming into this life,” she says. “I never say I deserve this, I expect this. It’s just how it is. You don’t question your own reality. That comes up a lot in this play. But I feel really lucky, incredibly happy and challenged that I’m getting the chance to work with great, talented people.”
Does she ever think what her life would be like if she hadn’t gone to that audition for “The Piano”?
“I’d probably be going to college in New Zealand wondering, like all the other kids, what I would do with my life,” she says. “I still wonder what I’ll do with my life, ya know. â€œActually, I really love acting. I don’t ever want to stop doing it.”