Whale of a time
Fame came fast for actor Keisha Castle-hughes, who was only 12 when she took the world by storm in Whale Rider, becoming the youngestever nominee for a Best Actress Oscar. Aged 28, she tells Stellar where life now finds the woman who once called herself “
Stardom came for actor Keisha Castle-hughes when she was just 12. Fifteen years, one daughter and a few life lessons on, she takes stock of her charmed life.
“It’s so important to have people who look like you onscreen”
Keisha CastleHughes has lived a life. Born in Australia, a childhood spent in New Zealand, a resident of Los Angeles for the past decade. A mother, one marriage, one divorce. Starring roles in a Star Wars film and Game Of Thrones, an Academy Award nomination and producing her first film. And she’s 28 years old.
Castle-hughes has packed a bit in since she travelled to Australia to promote the breakout 2002 New Zealand film Whale Rider, alongside director Niki Caro. She was 12 then, on a whirlwind tour that would reach its zenith when she became the then youngest- ever nominee for a Best Actress Academy Award.
She laughs hesitantly, her mind whirring back. “Wow, there’s more of my life since then than I had before then,” Castle-hughes tells Stellar. “It’s been 17 years…” Career-defining doesn’t begin to explain that film. Life-changing is more to the point. She looks back at that time fondly. “I mean, like everyone looks back at their life fondly. But I don’t consciously think about that time very often, not for any reason other than it was a long time ago and my life’s changed,” she adds. “It was a very unique and crazy experience, but it was a lot of fun.”
Of course, an actor doesn’t want to be remembered or defined as the child star. But there was a moment when it looked like Castle-hughes may have been playing out the destiny of the ingenue gone awry. Nothing disastrous, but she enjoyed her teenage years to the point even she once conceded she was “New Zealand’s own Lindsay Lohan”.
Late in 2006, after playing the Queen of Naboo in Star Wars: Episode III –
Revenge Of The Sith the year before, the then 16-year- old confirmed she and boyfriend Bradley Hull were expecting a child together. In one regard, the pregnancy was ordained. She recalls playing the pregnant Virgin Mary in film The Nativity Story – and then… she was pregnant.
The media reaction to her announcement was anything but holy. Everyone in her homeland had an opinion about her news. She found solace in the fact none of them would be there nursing her baby, so their opinion was irrelevant.
Castle-hughes ended up helping other young parents by volunteering for a non-profit organisation providing support for teen parents. She says she hasn’t ever second-guessed her decision to have a child at 16. In fact, she is dismissive of even contemplating the alternative. Her frenetic teenage years, she explains, were “all I knew. I don’t know if anyone is ever, when they’re dealing with anything, conscious of feeling like things are too much or you’re putting a lot of effort in to live the pace that you’ve been set, which was very much the case for me.
“It was my reality and my norm to kind of fit a lot of things in, to work and go to school. And then, I became a mum. So to have all those things happen simultaneously…” She stops to think. “I was just putting one foot in front of the other and getting on with it.” Getting on with it has led to consistent screen work, which has included TV series such as The Almighty Johnsons, Cameron Crowe’s Roadies and even three seasons of Game Of Thrones.
But Castle-hughes still has the actor’s fear of not landing another job. “Anyone who’s in any kind of creative field would be totally lying if they said they didn’t have that feeling, absolutely. You can’t help but have fear. It’s just feast or famine, and so much of it you don’t have control of.”
And yet, she says, there is something “intoxicating” about both that fear and the “ebbs and flows in my career. And it changes so much dependent on the era in your life and who you are and the type of characters you can play – especially for women in that transitional period from going to a girl to a teenager to a woman. The kind of roles you see or that are available often aren’t that great, and are few and far between.”
Her latest role in the new SBS drama On The Ropes is one of the great ones. Castle-hughes plays Jess O’connor, a hard-nosed but aspiring boxer taken in by the Iraqi-australian community in Sydney. She stars opposite Romper Stomper’s Nicole Chamoun (in a rare example of two female leads in an Australian show) and both roles required heavy hits of emotion and physicality from the actors.
Asked why she wanted to join the series, Castle-hughes tells Stellar, “It has a unique perspective on a bunch of people that I know, people I’ve met throughout my life, first-generation and second-generation immigrants.” She contends their stories aren’t seen often enough on TV, and particularly from their perspective. “And then there’s the added element of it being a very female- driven story, which was the drawcard for me.
“You don’t realise how necessary it is or how important it is to have people who look like you onscreen,” says Castle-hughes. (She was born to a Polynesian mother in Western Australia and moved to New Zealand when she was four.) “We had a lot of moments over the course of the shoot when we were like, ‘ Wow there’s a lot of brown faces here!’ And over the course of my entire career, that’s a real anomaly.”
Castle-hughes has a lot going on – politically, professionally and personally. She might take direction on the job, but offscreen she is calling all the shots. In 2014, she announced to the world on Facebook: “I am proud to tell you that I have bipolar disorder. Let’s talk about it!”
Her unpredictable teen years taught her to take the reins. She’s currently in the midst of post-producing her first feature film, Wellwood, an alien creature feature set in New Orleans. “That’s really exciting and I feel [work] is all new and fresh again,” she says. “It’s really important to push yourself.”
And take control? “Totally,” she exclaims, “because there’s not a lot of control as an actor, that’s for sure. And if you think you’ve got control of stuff, you’ve got to let go of it real quick.”
“It was my reality to fit a lot of things in, to work and go to school. And then, I became a mum”
RIDING (clockwise Keisha Castle-hughes THE from WAVE above in left) the Whale Rider, for which she was then the youngest person ever to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination; as boxer Jess O’connor (at left) with co-star Nicole Chamoun in upcoming SBS drama On The Ropes; with her daughter Felicity-amore in January this year.