New Zealand-raised Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest best actress Oscar nominee aged 13 with her first film, Whale Rider, topping previous record-holder Isabelle Adjani, who was shortlisted aged 20. "I can't get my head around the fact that it's the Oscars," the teenager said upon snagging a place on the shortlist. "It's something a Kiwi girl like myself would never dare dream about."
Keisha was a normal 11-year-old she'd never even participated in a school play when, incredibly, she beat more than 10,000 aspiring actresses for the starring role in the film. She was discovered by the same agent who spotted the youngest best supporting actress Oscar-winner, Anna Paquin, years before.
Born on March 24, 1990, in Donnybrook, Australia, the rising star, who moved to New Zealand with her mother aged four, says she had aspirations to be a movie star early on. "I'd always wanted to act. But it wasn't just that," she says. "It was because all the ladies wore pretty dresses."
While making the acclaimed indie flick, the novice thespian, a big fan of Halle Berry and Julia Roberts, quickly learned an important lesson, however. "I found out it is not all glamour, riches and fame, because that's what I thought it was," she says. "Then I realised I actually had to do some work."
Keisha sees plenty of similarities between herself and her character Paikea, who bucks tradition to become the leader of her male-dominated Maori tribe, admitting both she and her onscreen persona have an independent streak. "Pai is an 11-year-old girl who is confident about who she is and knows exactly who she is," she says. "Not many 11-year-old girls are like that. She's a great role model for young girls. And I think I'm like that, too."
Her portrayal has won accolades from all corners, with Hollywood heavyweight Dustin Hoffman confessing to her that he cried after seeing her moving performance in the film. "She has a lot of natural attributes that are very good for an actor," says co-star Rawiri Paratene, who plays her grandfather in the film. "It was no different working with Keisha than it would have been working with one of (New Zealand's) experienced (actresses)."
At one point, it looked as though Keisha's on-screen career might be nipped in the bud when, opining that acting was "too hard", she said she'd prefer a job as a science teacher. Her second film outing, in the 2004 sequel to Star Wars, seems to have changed the young beauty's mind. "I know I have a passion for acting," she says, "so I don't know why I shouldn't continue to do it."
After the surprise announcement that, aged 17, she was expecting a child with with her long-term boyfriend Bradley Hull, Keisha gave birth to a daughter, Felicity-Amore, in April 2007.