Living Dangerously: Anna Paquin Makes a Killer Stage Debut

Living Dangerously: Anna Paquin Makes a Killer Stage Debut Anna Paquin plans to showcase her Oscar in the New York apartment she's renting. As soon as she finds it.
Anna Paquin and Jeffrey Donovan in The Glory of Living.
Anna Paquin and Jeffrey Donovan in The Glory of Living. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Anna Paquin plans to showcase her Oscar in the New York apartment she's renting. As soon as she finds it.

"I believe it's inside a duffel bag inside a suitcase inside a bigger suitcase inside my suitcase closet," she ponders. "I know it's here in New York, I'm pretty sure anyway. You know, I'm actually not exactly sure where it's gotten filed."

In The Piano, she and Holly Hunter dragged the title instrument through sea and storm, and for their pains both took home Academy Awards in 1994. Her thunderstruck reaction to winning, at the age of 11, charmed TV audiences worldwide. Rather than take her Oscar and run, however, the first-time thespian (the second-youngest performer to win the prize) has kept right on going, from film to film, and from location to location. She had been directed by Franco Zeffirelli ("Jane Eyre") and Steven Spielberg ("Amistad") before she was old enough to drive a car. She celebrated her 18th birthday as an X-girl in the superhero smash "X-Men," with at least two sequels in the works. "Incredible opportunities have come up and sat on my lap," she says, as modestly as possible.

Now 19, Paquin is trying out a new arena, the stage, in the MCC Theater production of Rebecca Gilman's The Glory of Living. Even if she could find her Oscar, there was no guarantee that hauling it over to West 28th Street would automatically cinch her stage debut. "I had to audition, and convince them, somehow, to put their trust in me."

Managing her career, she's not one to coast on former glories, which may be one reason why Oscar sits in the closet (in the same suitcase, presumably, as the other citations she's amassed over the years, from an eclectic group including the MTV Movie Awards, Blockbuster Entertainment, and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films). Making movies, she's minimized the kids stuff. An upcoming credit, "Buffalo Soldiers," has her, Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris up to their necks in black marketeering and heroin smuggling as the Berlin Wall collapses. Even in the fluffy teen romp "She's All That," she wasn't all that, but instead played Freddie Prinze Jr.'s bratty little sister. "I'm not so fascinated by smiley happy characters, all light and bubbly. Every once in a while that's fun, but it's not something I yearn to explore creatively." That said, Paquin is light and bubbly in conversation, sliding in and out of what she calls, laughingly, her "generic, but messy, `American' voice," which has a few flecks of her native New Zealand mixed in and perhaps a bit of Canada (her birthplace), too. She begins some of her sentences in typical teen fashion, prefaced by "It's like, you know," and agrees it was "cool" to put on a rubber suit to play Rogue in the "X-Men" movies. As an actress, though, she's put her inner Sandy Duncan on hold for The Glory of Living, a piece with a few bleakly funny moments but zero effervescence.

Loosely adapted from true events, The Glory of Living stars Paquin as Lisa, a 15-year-old Alabaman living a few junkyards below white trash level with her prostitute mother. Closed off and wary, Lisa nonetheless exudes a fleshy, Baby Doll-like sensuality that's catnip for Clint (Jeffrey Donovan), a "reformed" car thief who in the course of the production graduates to kidnapping, child rape, and worse. How deeply Lisa, whom Clint has married, is involved in his crimes is the crux of the drama. For most of the play, it's title seems a sick joke, or exasperatingly ironic, but Gilman saves (or perhaps withholds) a grace note for the very final moments.

Previously performed in London and Chicago, The Glory of Living follows Gilman's sociologically fraught cliffhangers Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl onto the New York stage. The director is the perpetually multi-tasking Philip Seymour Hoffman, who when not appearing on stage or screen finds time to direct Off-Broadway plays, most recently In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings and Jesus Hopped the `A' Train. Paquin and Hoffman shared a marquee, but no screen time, in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous last year. They had not met until Paquin, whose greatest theatrical accomplishment had been playing a skunk in a school ballet, showed up to audition this past summer.

Paquin had completed a thriller, "Darkness," that was filmed in Spain and was enjoying siesta time when her agents sent her the play. "Yeah, I thought, whatever, I know I said I wanted to do a play, but I'm relaxing. I sat there reading it, though, and my mouth just fell open. `I want to do this, I want to do this definitely,' I said to myself. So often girls get a little shafted in terms of the layers of their characters and this part was just so complex and so rich. Lazy summer time was over."

An education in theatre was about to begin. Gilman tutored the cast on the nuances of the piece for a week. "She didn't have specific things to say; it was more like little things within the script that no one was sure what the exact intention was except her. We'd say, `So, Rebecca....' It made my job so much easier, because there was nothing vague about anything." Paquin credits Hoffman and the cast for filling in the blanks on more mundane matters. "They have been so nice about me asking the stupidest questions, like, `Which way is upstage and which way is downstage?' `Why do I have to speak louder? It's an intimate scene—Oh, they can't hear me in the back row?' I don't quite feel so much like the foreigner up here anymore."

The Glory of Living isn't her first brush with theatre people: She played Donna, underage sexual plaything to the stars, in the film version of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, and was featured in the handgun satire All the Rage, penned by playwright Keith Reddin. The biggest difference between the two mediums, she says, is the ability to work continually with material onstage. "I really enjoy the hours and hours of rehearsal, discussing everything about every scene and every beat within every moment. I'm not sure I'll ever actually `finish' developing Lisa; I'm sure that right up to the last night I'll be finding things that I didn't realize were part of my character or part of the story. All this time is time you have to take, because there's nothing else besides the characters that's driving the play and keeping people in their seats."

The audience is the other key variable. For all her honors, Paquin says she was tongue-tied, "staring at my feet," when delivering book reports in English class. More comfortable now, she confides, with a laugh, "I absolutely love that I can't see them because of the lights. I can see the front row seats, and someone who's jittering or shaking in them through my peripheral vision, at which point I just look somewhere else."

Offstage, she shies away from those curious only about her celebrity. "I don't have any other perspective on my own life except for that which I've gotten from having these things happen to me," she relates. "I tend to steer clear of people who only want to hang out with me because they think it's cool that I'm an actress. I mean, like, you know, close friends are proud of me and happy for me in my successes, but I'm equally proud of them and happy for them in theirs. Some people are like, `It must be so cool meeting famous people!' and I say, [lowering her voice to a comical whimper] `Actually, I don't meet famous people and can we please talk about something else?'"

New York is a favorite subject. She has completed her freshman year at Columbia University and will resume her studies once The Glory of Living ends its scheduled run on December 1 and she completes the second "X-Men" adventure right afterwards. "I visited here when I was 12 years old and decided to live here once I had grown up," she says. "Of course, I'm not sure I have grown up. In my 20s, I look forward to playing women, rather than girls, and maybe have some of the life experiences that will allow me to get more deeply inside their heads."

And, someday, she plans to delve more deeply into her closet and dig up that errant Oscar. "There's just nowhere appropriate to put a great big shiny gold thing," she muses. "My apartment's not big enough to sort of place it surreptitiously on a shelf somewhere. Not that I have any shelves. I'll have to install them first."

—Robert Cashill