Whale Rider's young star talks to ELEANOR BLACK about her acting debut.

Here's a revelation: Keisha Castle-Hughes, the luminous star of Whale Rider, wants to star in a cheerleading flick.

After hours of careful study with her girlfriends, she could - right now - sing and dance all the cheers from the frothy Kirsten Dunst movie Bring It On, she boasts, wriggling in her seat and making the chip of paua shell on her kete bag jiggle.

At just 12, the first-time actress who has drawn rave reviews for her guileless performance cannot see what a career-killer a cliched American high school movie could be. She just sees the costumes and pom-poms, the fun.


Castle-Hughes begins her own high school experience this Wednesday, the day before Whale Rider opens. She is a little worried about how her new classmates will react to her celebrity, she admits. Between questions she sips orange juice, leaning into her straw like a hummingbird in search of nectar.

"I think it would be nice if I could meet people as me," she says carefully, "but that's not going to be possible. I'm going to meet people as 'the whale rider' and it's going to be hard, even as fun as it's going to be. I want to meet people on my own steam."

At her old school, everyone knew about the movie and shared newspaper cuttings about it. After all, they saw her being "discovered".

Castle-Hughes was sitting in English class, passing notes to friends and giggling, when casting director Diana Rowan chose her above 10,000 other girls to play Pai, a child with mythic abilities who is destined to lead her people.

Although she had never acted before, Castle-Hughes, unusually self-contained for a pre-teen, sensed she would enjoy it and proved a natural. "I've always been not shy," she says not-shyly.

"Ever since I was little, I just thought [acting] would be a fun thing, but I thought it would be a fun thing because I saw these famous actors and they had these glamorous dresses on - and when I actually did the work, even though it was a really amazing experience, it was hard.

"It wasn't what I thought it was like. I didn't actually sit on the edge of the pool and drink cocktails all day. I actually worked."

The work was particularly challenging when it came to several pivotal emotional scenes, such as a heartbreaking speech by Pai at the school concert, when she tearfully pays tribute to the absent grandfather whose approval she craves.

Castle-Hughes, who read Ihimaera's novel halfway through filming and "loved it", said she needed help "finding her feelings".

She is chuffed to think that by sharing her emotions, she can make people cry.

"My brother who's 6 watched it and he cried, but my grandfather who's 80, he watched it and he cried, and then all my family, who are all the ages in between, they cried as well," she says with evident delight.

"It reaches out to everybody."

Castle-Hughes admires Pai's strength of character and says the whale rider is exactly the sort of girl she'd hang out with - despite her shyness. It would be fun, because the ebullient actress would get to do all of the talking.

"She's just really ... determined to show who she really is and to show Koro about leadership and even though he is looking for what he wants, she showed him he needed to look for what he needed."

If Castle-Hughes and Pai were friends, they'd probably go to "soppy, girly movies that make you cry" and tie up their families' phone lines.

"Talking on the phone is a big hobby. I'm always on the phone. When I'm not with a friend, I'm on the phone to a friend and when I'm not on the phone to a friend, I'm on the net to a friend, so I'm always with friends."

That is unlikely to change for at least five years, or until Castle-Hughes finishes secondary school, which is the earliest she can see herself making another film. In the meantime, her life hasn't changed a bit, she says.

"I'll still end up fighting with my brother tonight and I'll still end up having an argument with my mum because I won't want to do the dishes."

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