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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2003

Meet the odd couple

Keisha Castle-Hughes, at age 13, may be the youngest actress I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing; but don't let her age fool you, she's already learned Rule No. 1 of being an actress: Say anything to get the part! Read on to see how she blagged her way into the role, while Rawiri Paratene tells how Keisha made him lose it on set . . .

JT: Could you give me a little background on what Maori community life is like in Wharanga? In the film, a lot of the people seem to want to get out . . .

RP: I come from a very similar rural community on the coast, so I can relate very personally to this movie. There are a great many problems in those areas, because we are a race that has held onto our traditional values and those values are continually challenged by our modern society. Those rural homelands were dissipated in the '60s, when I was a kid, because a workforce was needed in the cities, so our parents were simply lifted up and transported to the cities. So villages like this, they're very small, but they serve a much bigger community of people, based in the cities, who come back to celebrate birthdays, weddings, funerals. Having said that, although those issues are real, it's not all grim. I mean, we live in paradise.

JT: I think a lot of people will think that when they see the movie.

RP: Well, we do! And we make the most of it. So, although from the outside it may look poor, our needs are few, because our food source is the ocean or the bush, so our basic needs are looked after by nature. And we live in an environment that's pretty much stress-free, compared to here, for example (laughs), where there's just a constant pressure.

JT: How long did it take for the two of you to build your relationship in the film? Because it's really convincing . . .

RP: First rehearsal, I reckon. (Director) Niki (Caro) took us right into one of the toughest scenes, where I have to humiliate Paikea, saying, "You're a girl, go to the back!" Niki worked with improvisation through the rehearsal period a lot. Now I'm a teacher of drama, so I work with people who have made a decision to act, and who are adults. And they struggle with improvisation! Because it's hard. You have to be open and take offers, build on it, and send it back, like a good tennis player. And now I'm working with an 11-year-old girl who's never acted before. So I said, "You're a girl, go to the back," and this girl looked at me in defiance -- it wasn't in the script -- and she just sat down, and it totally threw me. It pissed me off! I looked at her and just thought, "How dare you!" So I had to top her, and I came down on her very hard, and I made her cry. Because she'd upset me, and made me wild. So it became very real right from our first contact. And she was crying, sobbing, and I was hurting for her too. So the improv ended and I grabbed her and held her tight, and said, "We're going to have to go this far, babe, are you gonna be all right with that?" And she looks up, and wipes away the tears, and looks over at Niki and says, "What's next?" (Laughs.) I thought, "Oh, this girl's good!" I wasn't ready to move on; I was drained!

JT: What's Niki like to work with as a director?

RP: The thing I appreciate with Niki is she insists on a solid rehearsal, which is very rare for film, and she honors the actors' contributions. There are things in the film that arose from improvisation. Her script changed because of what happened organically. Not many directors can do that. But she's tough, she works you hard. She just doesn't buy BS.

JT: Tell me about filming the scene with the beached whales . . .

RP: The whale sequence, we spent a great deal of time on, because if the audience doesn't buy that, our film is gone. And I think they buy it, even though none of the whales are real, because all the extras there are from Wharanga, from that village. Whales have beached there before, so they've gone through it and their reactions were real.

JT: I think everybody wants to know about your big scene, Keisha, riding the whale. . . . How was that shot?

KCH: They made a whale's back out of plastic, painted it. What they did was connect it to the back of a boat and they put weights in the front and lifts in the back, so that when the boat went fast, the whale would go under, and when the boat slowed, it slowly rose. It was really simple.

JT: So they really shot you underwater?

KCH: I did it once. I got really scared. And another thing is, I can't swim.

JT: Wait a minute: What about the scene where you jump off the boat to retrieve Koro's amulet?

KCH: I didn't do that either! (Laughs) A little girl named Waio, another girl who had auditioned for the part, did it. They hadn't planned on using any body doubles, but . . . a few weeks into the rehearsal period, Niki suggested I go down to the pool. And I was like, "Oh, no!" because I'd been telling her I could swim brilliantly.

JT: Did you tell her that during casting?

KCH: During casting they all thought I was ready to go to the Commonwealth Games! (Laughs) So, I was busted. Suddenly I ended up at the pool, I slowly got in; I was shaking, I was so nervous! Even at this stage, Niki still thought I could swim! So I decided, "OK, I'll just do this!" So I pretended I could swim, and just splashed and frolicked about in the water. And when I finished, Niki just stared at me, and said, "I've got to go back to the office" and left. And I thought, "Oh my God!" But she just called up Waio, who looked like me and could actually swim, to double for me. But I did all the shots above water!

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