On Monday night we watched a pretty girl in pink silk chiffon charm her way along a very long red carpet on which very famous people in very flash frocks swaggered and posed.

From an Auckland hotel, Diana Rowan watched it all too. And fascinating as it all was, no doubt it was the first sighting of the girl who would go on to become the diminutive star which set Rowan's heart beating a little faster.

It was Rowan who set in train the events which would lead to little Keisha Castle-Hughes having a very big night out at the Oscars. It was Rowan who discovered a Glen Innes student, cast her in a film called Whale Rider and in doing so changed a life.


This is what Rowan does - casts people in films - and has been doing for two decades, and just occasionally sometimes it really does change their lives. She is the casting agent who found another girl who was nominated for an Oscar, and won: Anna Paquin.

Rowan watched this year's Oscars at a Variety Club bash. Watching Castle-Hughes on the carpet, she felt, obviously, admiration and pride. What she most certainly did not feel was any desire to be any nearer to the showbiz circus of the year than an Auckland hotel.

To have actually been there would, she says, have been "a bit much, all too overwhelming".

Rowan does not much go for razzle dazzle. She does not live anywhere near the land of bling. At her offices in Newton we sit in a meeting room and her three farm dogs stick their heads in through the window and bark and lick anyone stupid enough to extend a hand. Where she really likes to be is on the farm on Waiheke. She calls herself "the farmer's wife".

The room we are sitting in is stark and grey. Rowan is wearing black, and she looks about as comfortable as somebody being stuck with pins.

She likes auditioning people; she does not much enjoy being interviewed. And she certainly feels much more at home peering through a camera at actors than she is having a camera pointed at her.

Hers is a mostly anonymous life - she has done a few interviews over the years but not many really. She has been pretty successful at deflecting attention away from her personal life.

It's hard to know why she is so cautious. As I said to the intermediary who set up the interview: "It's not as though she's an axe murderess, although that might have been quite exciting."


Anyway, there is something in her nature, or possibly in her childhood, which has made her cautious. Also, she says that keeping a low profile helps when casting children. "I prefer to catch children unaware, because then you get to see who they really are as opposed to 'Choose me, choose me, I want to be a star'." It helps, she says, that "they don't know who I am".

She is private to the point that she will not budge in her refusal to let us go through the doors which lead to her office and the space she holds auditions. She won't divulge her age because "when I was 21 [and lecturing in drama at a university] I was told I was too young to be doing what I was doing. So I decided I would never again tell anybody how old I was. They could judge me on what I was doing". Yet she is doing this interview and having her picture taken.

Well, she says, she is thinking of giving up casting. She has directed a few short films and would like to take the leap. "Maybe I'm worried about not being good enough at directing."

She has given up casting before but a script she can't turn down always seems to turn up. The last time she swore she was taking a year off - a deal she had with her husband, George Lyle, a first-assistant film director - the Whale Rider script arrived. She ignored it for a few days and "then, you know, female curiosity ... " So she read it and she cried and that was that.

She does not just cast children but she says she seems to be particularly good at finding the right ones.

She found Keisha in a classroom, asked her a few questions including the one about whether she could swim which Castle-Hughes has now been asked about hundreds of times. She couldn't swim but said she could. She has since been quoted as saying she thought Rowan was looking for children for a Maori swimming team.

Rowan doesn't know how she does what she does. She does know that she "knows within a minute of meeting those children in a classroom whether they're what I'm looking for, and whether they can act. It must be something to do with recognising someone's imagination. I don't know".

She had no idea whether she could do the job or not when a director suggested she cast a film. She was an actor - she says she was good - quite newly arrived in New Zealand from Britain, where she met her husband, who is a New Zealander, and she was getting parts.

She knows all about actor's insecurities. Which they all have, she says, even when they are very good at acting at not having them.

She also knows what happens when people get famous. Life for Castle-Hughes, "will never be the same again", says Rowan, "not just for her, but for her family. You know, hopefully that's a good thing. [But] along with fame and fortune you get invasion of privacy. You lose all of that quiet time that you don't realise how much you value until you don't have it."

Rowan knows quite a bit about quiet time. Her childhood, from the time she was one until she turned 11 was spent in isolation in a tuberculosis ward. She is quite horrified that I know this about her and says she doesn't like to talk about it much. But, "It wasn't bad; it was good. It was just a different life."

She now calls that life "an enforced loneliness" but doesn't remember "feeling lonely as a child because I think that loneliness has to be related to socialness as well, otherwise there's no comparison".

She wasn't taught to read, in fact she was scarcely taught anything, because she was "very sick and I don't think they thought I was actually going to need it very much".

She amused herself with a game played inside her head where she predicted the mood of people coming through the door and the first thing they would say.

What she now does for a living is really just an extension of the game. That and "instinct built up on experience ... have led me in a direction where I read people. That's my gift if you like".

She makes that gift sound - and not through lack of attempting to analyse a job which proves impervious to even the job holder's attempts to understand it - slightly mystical.

In a way, she is a sort of fortune-teller, a sometime dream-maker. Although she always takes care to tell those auditioning that the process is akin to buying a Lotto ticket, she saw in an 11-year-old girl with no acting aspirations, something that would lead her to that walk up the red carpet.