As the second-youngest Oscar-winner ever, Anna Paquin knows what’s expected of her. “I should be in rehab, right? I’ll let you into a secret. My one vice is in this cup. It’s very strong coffee.” Paquin says this with a broad smile on her face, and if that means she looks a little smug, then she can be forgiven for feeling rather pleased with herself. After all, the youngest-ever winner of an Oscar was Tatum O’Neal, now best known for being John McEnroe’s ex-wife and a former coke fiend.
By contrast, Paquin has made films with the likes of Cameron Crowe and Gus Van Sant, and acted opposite heavyweights such as Sean Penn and Ed Norton, in the years since she won the best supporting actress Oscar for The Piano in 1994. She was 11 at the time, a year older than O’Neal, and was famously lost for words when she went on stage. Even now, she seems bemused by the honour. “It was really weird,” recalls Paquin when we meet in a New York hotel. “I mean, it’s such a strange thing to happen to some little kid from New Zealand. It’s amazing, and it gave me a career – and I’m grateful for that – but it’s odd.”
She has grown into a self-possessed, articulate and attractive, rather than stunning, 20-year-old. With her multiple earrings, casual clothes and a vivid red streak through her brown hair, Paquin looks more like the student she now is than the veteran of 15 movies. Neither does she sound like that little girl from Wellington any more: she is a fast talker, and her accent has mutated into standard American, even if she still retains a distinctive Kiwi clip on certain words.
For the past year and a half, she has combined her film career with studying at Columbia University in New York, and, despite the temptations of life as a successful actress in Hollywood, she insists that’s where she’ll stay until she gets her degree in art history. “I’m not planning on giving up acting, it’s just that there are other things I’m interested in learning about. Besides, I worked my ass off to get into this university, so I may as well get the piece of paper at the end of it that says I completed the course.”
That’s typical of Paquin, who comes across as a determined, sardonic and slightly intense character. Those qualities were there in embryonic form in her performance as Holly Hunter’s daughter in The Piano, and they’re probably the reason why her subsequent films have been mostly adult dramas rather than the sort of fluffy, feelgood teen fare that some of her contemporaries have specialised in. While Kirsten Dunst was playing cheerleaders, Paquin was appearing as a teenage runaway in 1998’s Hurlyburly and as a groupie in Almost Famous.
“Well, you know, they’ve already made The Brady Bunch,” she says of her predi-lection for playing tortured adolescents. “There’s a limit to how many happy stories are going to be interesting. And I don’t think people are happy all the time. I certainly haven’t met anyone who’s got a perfect life. As an actor, there would be nothing to figure out or understand about them if they had perfect lives and lived happily ever after.”
Paquin’s latest film, 25th Hour, is in a similar vein. Directed by Spike Lee, it sees her playing the sort of knowing, sexually precocious sixth-former who’s a nightmare for young male teachers to deal with. In this case, it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman who’s the unfortunate beak, and he’s no match for Paquin’s pouting minx. “She’s so obvious,” she smiles. “She’s like: ‘I’m going to flirt with you and wear half an outfit, and you’re going to give me a better grade.’”
Her performance is uncompromising. Unlike many young actresses, Paquin makes no concessions to the audience; she doesn’t try to win you over to the characters she plays, and that’s what makes them real. “She’s this really confident, cocky, mouthy girl, and you either love or hate her. I know she irritates the hell out of a lot of people.” At the same time, Paquin is adept at suggesting the insecurities that are lurking just beneath the surface, and she’s more than capable of articulating them. “Mary’s at that really great and, in retrospect, terrifying age where you no longer look like a kid and are getting the attention a young woman gets, but you have none of the life experiences to really know what you’re doing,” she explains. “At that age, you feel you have quite a lot of power, because when people are paying you that kind of attention, you can kind of manipulate them with that.”
She has powers of a quite different sort in her other film of the moment, X Men 2. As Rogue, one of a group of mutants who fight for justice, she’s capable of absorbing people’s memories and personalities, and with the sequel tipped to equal the $300m that 2000’s original took at the worldwide box office, it means she’s finally becoming famous within her peer group. “It was interesting timing to start college two months after X-Men came out, because previously, nobody of my generation knew who I was. I’d been in movies that they probably hadn’t seen, or were too young to have seen.”
Luckily for Paquin, the actress Julia Stiles is also in her year at Columbia, so some of the attention from the other students was deflected by her more famous fellow freshman. But she’s comfortable with a lower level of stardom, and she’s attracted more to challenging independent films such as the yet-to-be released US army drama Buffalo Soldiers than to big-budget blockbusters.
“I think you appreciate different projects for different reasons. So coming off a Spike Lee film onto X-Men, you’re like, ‘Cool, I get to fly around and do stunts,’ and that’s a complete change of pace. I like each job to be completely different, although, from a purely creative perspective, films that are character-driven, or theatre, where it’s entirely character-and material-driven, are more satisfying.
But if you did those pieces all the time, I think you’d burn out and end up in these really dark places emotionally.”
With that sort of sensible attitude, it’s no surprise that Paquin’s transition from child star to adult actress has been so problem-free. She, though, insists that she did have her moments as a teenager. “I did rebel, I just did it in my private life and not in the public eye,” she claims unconvincingly. “I do think the things that I would have been sacrificing if I had rebelled in a big way were too important to me. I didn’t want to jeopardise my job, and I was pretty motivated not to, because my work really matters to me. But of course I rebelled – just ask my mother.”
The daughter of divorced teachers, Paquin was born in Canada and moved to New Zealand when she was four. She had never acted before The Piano, and she still hasn’t seen the film. “I saw a version of it, the PG version, when I was 10. That involved other people telling me to stop watching at certain moments,” laughs Paquin. “But I don’t really enjoy watching myself. That’s why I love theatre, because you never have to see yourself.”
London audiences got to see her in 2002 when she appeared in This Is Our Youth, and she has also appeared on stage in New York. Having moved to LA with her mother after The Piano, she says she prefers living in New York now, partly because of the theatrical tradition: “If you do theatre in a place where people really appreciate it, then it’s fantastic.” Nevertheless, as a nonsmoking, nondrinking vegetarian, she fits in pretty well in California.
In fact, Paquin seems a little rootless. “I don’t know where I’m from, really,” she notes. “I’ve got to live in enough places that I don’t think I have to be from anywhere in particular, which is nice.” But she’s still enough of a Kiwi to be proud of what The Lord of the Rings has done for her home town, Wellington, even if she’s possibly the only New Zealand actor not to be in the trilogy. Paquin was too busy to commit to it. And the way she’s going, that seems likely to be the case for a while yet.