It’s been 14 years since Keisha Castle-Hughes sat in the audience at the 76th annual Academy Awards, looking more than a little nervous as her name was read out among fellow Best Actress nominees including Charlize Theron and Diane Keaton.
She was just 13 — at the time, the youngest person to be nominated for the award. Theron won, but it was still a remarkable victory lap to a journey that started two years earlier, when Castle-Hughes acted in her first-ever movie, Whale Rider, at age 11.
The story about a twelve-year-old Māori girl whose ambition is to become the chief of her tribe struck a chord with audiences worldwide, thanks in no small part to Castle-Hughes’ soulful performance as young Paikea.
“I was thrown into it at such an intense level. I shot the film when I was 11, and I was at the Oscars at 13. I felt really disassociated from myself. People were always like, ‘This is it! You must be so excited!’ I’d be like, ‘I’m excited because everyone else is excited, but I don’t really know what this means.’ There was a huge part of me that just wanted to go home and be 13 and go to school and kiss a boy,” she laughed.
“Just being 13, it’s s**t: You’re pimply and weird and you’ve got boobs for the first time. It’s a horrible experience, and you’re doing it on this world stage.”
Raised as one of five children by a single, working class mum, Castle-Hughes suddenly found herself in a world of five-star hotels and first class flights.
“There was a lot of pressure. A lot of, ‘This is the prime of your life’. Imagine that? People tell you it’s the prime of your life when you’re 13. That’s going to f**k you up. That’s not healthy.”
She was told, time and again, she needed to relocate to Los Angeles to “capitalise on this opportunity.”
“But there was no way in the world my mum could move five kids. There was no world in which that was ever gonna happen. Of course, I had teenage resentment towards her about that: ‘Oh my god, you’re ruining my hopes and dreams’,” she recalled.
Instead, she stayed put — and found herself living in a fishbowl. Castle-Hughes’ tumultuous teen years made for perfect tabloid fodder in her native New Zealand. Just three years after she sat in the audience of the Oscars, she gave birth to a little girl of her own, a daughter named Felicity. Castle-Hughes had just turned 17.
“New Zealand’s small. I really felt controlled by the media in terms of how I could live my life; I had so much anxiety around it. I was in this constant state of worrying about s**t that really didn’t matter. I’d be at a bar having a drink, thinking, ‘Oh god, if someone took a picture of me, would that turn into a thing?’ There was this really strong narrative of being New Zealand’s Lindsay Lohan.”
But she never stopped working: Roles in Star Wars, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead followed, and a decade ago she finally did relocate to Los Angeles, where she enjoys relative anonymity. But her most recent role, in SBS boxing drama On The Ropes, has seen her head back to the Southern Hemisphere.
“I’ve built a life in America … but I was the most shocked and the last to know that a lot of the answers I needed were here, at home,” she said.