Since her Oscar-winning performance in The Piano at the age of 11, Anna Paquin has worked hard and kept her head down.
So how is the reluctant A-lister coping with the phenomenal success of cult vampire series True Blood?
Anna Paquin arrives at Gjelina’s, her favourite LA restaurant, on a pale pink pushbike, asks for her usual lemonade, smiles and starts to chatter. Not nervous, over-your-head chatter, but wry, offbeat, barbed wit.
The actress, who for many will for ever be the elemental child Flora in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano, is laughing about the superhero doll made after her. ‘There’s a Rogue [her character in X-Men] action figure at Toys ’R’ Us! You have to get a kick out of that. I’m nonbiodegradable.’
Chattiness ‘is what people least expect of me, I know,’ says Anna. ‘At one point, in my early 20s, I was so shy that people were surprised I actually spoke.’ Since winning an Oscar at only 11 for The Piano, Anna, now 26, has had a consistent and acclaimed career – from Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, via Almost Famous, to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, The Squid and the Whale, and as Rogue (the superheroine whose kiss kills) in the X-Men franchise – but has avoided the public eye. She rarely gives interviews and even more rarely talks about her private life. Her reputation is, she confesses, ‘Being incredibly serious about my work.’
Her head-down, work-hard approach has paid off with industry respect, no tabloid tittle-tattle and a recent Best Actress win at the Golden Globes for True Blood, the steamy vampire comedy-drama TV series that is now airing on the FX channel and will be shown on Channel 4 in October.
Since it first screened in the US last autumn, the show has become HBO’s third highest-rated series after The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and Anna is now constantly recognised and papped.
The drama, based on the cult Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, features Anna in the lead role of Sookie, a Southern barmaid who can hear people’s thoughts in a world where vampires have ‘come out of the coffin’. Sookie (for whom Anna has gone blond) even has dress-alike disciples among teens and 20-somethings across the US, all denim micro-shorts and clinging white T-shirts.
For Anna, the show works, ‘Because it’s a perfect marriage of something creatively challenging and potentially mainstream. And that’s rare. It’s a really bold show; odd, dark, twisted and funny.’
The character appeals to Anna’s ‘serious actress’ side because she’s a ‘kick-ass female action lead’, she says. ‘Usually [in dramas] things happen to the girl and around the girl and here she’s right in the centre of it and does a good job holding her own. She’s a very complex and beautifully structured character. How many actresses get to say that?’
True Blood taps into the current vogue for vampires instigated by the hit film Twilight. Anna feels it reflects the need for a secular society to believe in something ‘other’, although the bottom line, she admits, is that a vampire storyline has a ‘dark, dangerous, brooding sexuality’ to it.
Sexual chemistry is arguably what has made True Blood such a success. Anna’s Sookie falls for Bill Compton, a vampire whose thoughts she cannot read, played by British actor Stephen Moyer (Ny-Lon, Lilies, Quills). While filming the first series, Anna and Stephen developed a real-life relationship, which they tried to keep quiet. When they eventually went public it was, says Anna, ‘the worst kept secret on the planet’.
These days they are often snapped by tabloids doing entirely low-key couple things such as shopping at Whole Foods and swinging on the monkey rings in Santa Monica. They appear very together, very much in love. Anna is also a firm fixture in the lives of Steve’s two children, Billy, nine, and Lilac, seven.
With a stable relationship, her first proper home in Venice, Los Angeles, and high hopes for a third series of True Blood, it all seems as though, for the first time, Anna is settling down. ‘I don’t want to disappear. I’m done with that. I don’t want to be a transient figure in my own life any more. I’m enjoying the prospect of doing up the house. I’ve never decorated anywhere I’ve lived before.’
She loves the laid-back vibe of Venice, and the beach: ‘It reminds me of home in New Zealand.’ Anna’s older brother, film producer Andrew, 32, lives in LA, too, ‘So there is family,’ she smiles. Together they have formed a production company, and produced the indie film Blue State in 2007.
The relief with which she describes her happiness is a reminder that Anna has worked solidly for the past 18 years and rarely had what she could call a consistent life of her own. She was born in Canada and brought up in New Zealand; her parents Mary and Brian were teachers, who separated when she was 12.
Anna auditioned for The Piano when she was nine alongside 5,000 other hopefuls, only because, she says, ‘I got to have the day off school.’ She had no acting experience bar what she calls ‘the skunk incident’ (playing said skunk in a class ballet recital – ‘by no means a formal stage debut’).
When director Jane Campion chose Anna, her parents were reticent. ‘It wasn’t an automatic yes, which shocked Jane. They said, “OK, we will think about it and get back to you.” But that’s how my family is. They were not overly impressed by the film world.’
Anna remembers The Piano as ‘doing what I was told. You listen, you repeat. It was a hell of a lot easier than it is now, because I didn’t think about it. There wasn’t the overlay of, “If I screw up, people are going to judge me.”’ And she was used to imaginative play: ‘I went to one of those Steiner schools where at that age all you do is make-believe. So it wasn’t a massively odd transition.’
Of The Piano in retrospect she says, ‘I guess what was strangest about it is that it is an adult film; one I didn’t see in full until I was much older. My character became the mouthpiece in the burgeoning relationship between her mother [Holly Hunter] and Harvey Keitel, but I was sent off-set for anything beyond kissing. Even though, truth be told, I had a good idea of what was going on.’
It’s hard to forget the open-mouthed 11-year-old, who was handed her Oscar statue by Gene Hackman, ran back to her seat instead of off-stage, and fell asleep at the after-party. Her parents subsequently decided she could only do ‘one film a year. And they were very picky about what they would give me to look at. The emphasis was on: was it an interesting writer, director? Was it creatively challenging, a growth experience?’ and she thanks them for this.
n the first few years after The Piano she starred in Fly Away Home and Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, in agreement with both parents, despite their separation. She says they created the standards by which she chooses her work to this day.
At 16, she moved to LA with her mother and enrolled at the academic Windward School, although she was rarely there. ‘I was kind of a joke. In the school year book my “most likely to…” was “be too busy to read my own most likely to”. I was always working.’
However, the family also agreed that she could move to New York and go to Columbia University as a break from acting, if she managed a year of high school first. ‘At Columbia [where she studied liberal arts] it was the first time I’d ever not worked. So what did I do? I handed my papers in on time. I went to seminars. I had time to go shopping and socialise with people my own age.’
After a year at university, acting took over. Philip Seymour Hoffman specifically wanted to direct her on Broadway in The Glory of Living and Anna postponed finishing her degree indefinitely.
There was never any danger of Anna derailing in the way that other child actors have done. What does she put this down to?
‘My parents, firstly, because they took a conservative approach with me, so I was never overexposed and work never became a chore. And secondly because I have always valued being taken seriously at work, and you don’t get that unless you behave [appropriately]. I was the most serious 15-year-old ever, but that was my happy place. I was a very good girl wanting to do a good job.’
You can’t help but feel, though, that she must have missed out somewhere by growing up so quickly. ‘Yes of course I did,’ she admits. ‘I was always quite shy and learned quickly how to behave like an adult in an adult world. But I have a Hello Kitty bike now, thank you. I might not have had it when I was eight but, hell, I appreciate it so much more now.’
So is it any surprise that Anna, 18 years and 23 movies after her debut, wants to kick off her shoes and stay by the beach with Stephen, and have downtime filled with yoga and photography?
As to whether she and Stephen are thinking of having a child of their own, she can’t say. ‘I don’t know how they’d resolve me and my short shorts on the show with a baby bump! So there are a few “not untils” on that one. At some point, when that convenient time, which never exists for actresses, comes – somewhere between now and menopause – I will. I have time.’
Hearing her today, aside from her addiction to caffeine (‘my one true vice’), Anna’s only enemy sounds like her formidable work ethic. Her perfect day is ‘a good day at work, until I’m so tired I fall over’. A woman who, when I ask where she wants to be in five years says, ‘Employed!’
As we finish dinner at Gjelina’s there’s – honest to God – an earthquake. A 5.0 no less, 15 long seconds, during which we both go quiet and I reach for Anna’s hand (it’s my first quake, I’m scared).
It’s an odd end to our interview; a reality slap that puts everything into sharp focus. I want to get back to my daughter immediately and Anna turns to me and says, ‘Well, that reminds me to be grateful. Of quite how happy I am – here and now. I’m so very lucky. It all feels right.’ And with that, she pedals off into the night.