A decade after her childhood Oscar win, Anna Paquin keeps her career, and college, on track. (She hopes!)
Anna Paquin drinks a lot of coffee. At a 24-hour eatery near her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the petite Oscar winner downs cup after cup of java and talks rapid-fire about all of the ways she’s a “normal” 20-year-old.
“I like to party and go out with my friends, just like everybody else,” she says in her slight New Zealand accent. “I don’t smoke, though, because I’m fair-skinned, and the makeup artists always tell me how bad it is for your skin. This is really my only vice” — gesturing toward her cup — “that if I don’t have it, I get cranky and I get headaches.”
Two years ago, the busy actress moved from Los Angeles to New York to attend Columbia University, where she’s leaning toward an art history major — if the school lets her return, that is. Paquin says she’s taken so much time off for acting that she’ll have to beg the college to let her back this spring.
“I can’t let the break turn into two years, because my friends will have almost graduated before me if I don’t go back next semester,” she says. “I have such good intentions. It’s just that things come up that are very, very hard to say no to.”
Like 25th Hour, Spike Lee’s latest, which opens nationwide next Friday. Edward Norton stars as a drug dealer on his last night of freedom before going to prison for seven years. Paquin plays a flirtatious high school girl who gets involved in the night’s plans through her English teacher (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s also a friend of Norton’s. It was that combination of Hoffman, who directed Paquin in her first theater experience in New York in 2001, and Lee that she says made the movie impossible to refuse. But the role wasn’t easy to land, even for an actress with an Academy Award on her rÃ©sumÃ© (for The Piano).
“There were 20 girls waiting to read” — none of whom she recognized — “and I thought, ‘I’m sure this is not going to happen, because I am nervous and I’m tired,’ ” she recalls. “I know my hands were shaking, because the casting director asked me about it later.
“There are certain directors that are such icons, and you think, ‘OK, they’re sitting there, and they might hire me if I don’t screw this up.’ It was nerve-wracking.”
Paquin was Lee’s last addition to the cast. “She was our choice because she had the goods,” the director says. “Whatever we said, she did. We said she’d have to pierce her navel; she did that. And she had to get henna [painting] on her hands and her stomach, and do this whole seduction scene in a club. She hit the ground running.”
Paquin is, by casual observation, a typical college kid. She talks a lot and fast, peppering each sentence with “like” and bursts of giggles. Her style is thrift-store chic; today she’s sporting a vintage black leather trench coat — “Only 20 pounds at a shop in London!” — and big, clunky black Oxford shoes. The only thing that may give her star status away are the bleached-blond streaks in the front of her brown hair: That’s the signature of Rogue, her mutant character in X-Men and its upcoming sequel, which the actress has been filming in Vancouver, British Columbia.
But Paquin is far from average. After beating out 5,000 girls for her role in The Piano and winning an Oscar at age 11, she has seemingly emerged unscathed by the stigma of child stardom, making her mark in more than 10 movies, including roles as Freddie Prinze Jr.’s sister in She’s All That and a groupie in Almost Famous. Now, she says, she’s drawn to heavier roles.
Since late 2001, Paquin has squeezed in stints on both the New York and the London stage. She spends most of her time in airplanes (which she calls “aeroplanes”) and has a crime drama with Joaquin Phoenix hitting theaters in March.
The youngest of three children of divorced parents, Paquin left her New Zealand home to finish high school in Los Angeles. A self-described workaholic, she doesn’t mind her schedule, but some things too often get shoved aside: yoga, dating, ballet, black-and-white photography, decorating her still-stark uptown apartment and listening to her favorite band, the defunct punk group Sublime.
And, at times, her privacy. At the beginning of her Columbia tenure, students would knock on Paquin’s dorm-room door and ask for fictional people just to get a gander at the famous actress. Annoying, yes. But most of the time, she can walk down the hallways — and the street — without causing too much commotion. “We have other actors there, like Julia Stiles, and I really think nobody cares. Everybody takes the academics very seriously, and they’re focused on what they want to do.”
So is Paquin. And after downing four cups of full-strength French roast coffee on an empty stomach, she’s on her way.