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 “

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - In­ter­view by MICHAEL BODEY On The Ropes pre­mieres 8.30pm, Wed­nes­day Novem­ber 28, on SBS.

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.

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