She finished filming the role of the Virgin Mary in a hot new Hollywood movie only weeks ago, and now 16-year-old Oscar-nominated Kiwi actress Keisha Castle-Hughes has announced she is pregnant.

The Auckland teenager, who played feisty Paikea in one of New Zealand's most successful films, Whale Rider, is to give birth next year to her first child after a three-year romance with childhood sweetheart, Bradley Hull, 19.

And Castle-Hughes' New Zealand agent Gail Cowan says the couple couldn't be happier.

"They are extremely happy about it. Totally. It's a baby," Cowan told the Herald on Sunday yesterday.

Family members spoken to yesterday said Hull was genuinely excited about the pregnancy.

"Who cares if she is only 16?" said one family member, who did not wish to be named.

But others aren't so sure whether Castle-Hughes and Hull quite understand what lies in store for them.

National MP Paula Bennett, a mother at 17, said whichever way you looked at the situation, 16 was far too young to have a baby.

She believed there was no way a 16-year-old had the maturity to cope with the demands of raising a baby.

"You should be worried about pimples, boyfriends and going out, not bringing up a child."

How the pregnancy will affect Castle-Hughes' career is another question. Her role in the coming-of-age black comedy Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger, alongside Toni Collette, could now be jeopardy. In the film, Castle-Hughes - who left Papakura's Rosehill College last year - is supposed to star as a 13-year-old girl trying to fit into both a posh private school as well as an ordinary public school.

Castle-Hughes and her mother Desrae were out of the country and could not be contacted for comment yesterday, while Hull could also not be reached.

However, there have been concerns in the past about the age difference of the couple. Hull was not allowed to accompany Castle-Hughes to the Academy Awards in 2003 because the actress' representatives reportedly had concerns about the age difference. The two met in high school.

Since Whale Rider, which saw her become the youngest nominee ever for a Best Actress Oscar, Castle-Hughes has gone on to star as Queen of Naboo in last year's Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. She followed this up by appearing in Prince's Cinnamon Girl music video. She has also appeared in Vanity Fair magazine and recently completed work on The Nativity Story.

Off-screen though it hasn't always been smooth sailing for the actress with questions around her perceived liberal upbringing.

In August 2004, when Castle-Hughes was 14, her mother bought alcohol for a teenage party at their Glen Innes home. That evening a 22-year-old man took advantage of a drunken 14-year-old and was later convicted for having sex with a minor.

Cowan wouldn't go into details about the pregnancy, but said she firmly believed having a baby wouldn't ruin Castle-Hughes' career.

Asked how Hull had reacted to the news, all she would say was that he deserved his privacy.

"Small mindedness certainly won't help the family," she said.

Castle-Hughes' previous agent Graham Dunster agreed. He told the Herald on Sunday the couple would make great parents. Karen Kay of Karen Kay Management also did not think a baby would impact on Castle-Hughes' career. "Plenty of people have children and they continue their careers," she said.

Yesterday, Castle-Hughes' Whale Rider co-star Cliff Curtis had only just flown back into the country and was unaware she was pregnant.

"That's wonderful news, they'll be fantastic parents. They've been in a committed relationship for a long time and Bradley's always been there for her."

Family Planning executive director Jackie Edmonds said teenage mothers generally required lots of family support to ensure they made a successful fist of the early years with their baby.

Many teenage mothers coped extremely well, but obviously there were a lot of extra challenges with coping as a young mum, she said.

Keisha Castle-Hughes

Keisha was born on March 24, 1990, at Donnybrook, Western Australia, to Kiwi Desrae Hughes of Ngati Porou, Tainui and Ngapuhi descent, and Australian Tim Castle, a steel-installer and former Aussie Rules player. When she was four, the family moved to Auckland. She has two younger brothers, Rhys and Liam, and went to Bailey Rd School and Penrose High School.

In 2001, casting agent Diana Rowan picked 11-year-old Keisha, who had no acting experience, for the starring role of Paikea in Niki Caro's hit film Whale Rider. Her performance made her the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar in the "actress in a leading role" category. At 14, she was invited into the actors' branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Films: Whale Rider (2002), Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), The Nativity Story (2006), Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger (shooting scheduled to start this month), plus appearances on six TV documentaries, films and shows, including Bro' Town and New Zealand Idol.