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Keisha Castle-Hughes

Whale Rider

When Keisha Castle-Hughes was asked by her school teacher what career she intended to pursue, she responded that she wanted to become an actress. Her plan was dismissed by the teacher as impractical with the added admonition, “This is for your career, not your dreams.”

The 10-year-old daughter of two teachers was crushed. “So I said, ‘OK. I’ll be a teacher, then,’ ” she recalls.

She’d received the message loud and clear: Actresses don’t come from primary schools in Auckland, New Zealand.

But not long after, scouts for director Niki Caro visited her school.

“They looked around the classroom, picked me out and asked me to audition,” she says.

She attended an open casting and, after several excruciating recalls, landed the lead role in “‘Whale Rider,” the story of a young girl’s bid for acceptance by her adored grandfather, a Maori tribal chief.

“We saw thousands of girls,” Caro recalls. “Keisha distinguished herself by being both emotionally open and possessing a very strong will to do well, which was unusual in an 11-year old.”

Castle-Hughes says the closer she got to the part, the more she wanted it.

“Whale Rider,” a $4 million indigenous New Zealand movie, has returned $32 million from just a handful of territories. It swept the New Zealand film awards, where Castle-Hughes collected the actress trophy for her startlingly mature performance.

U.S. distrib Newmarket is backing the now-13-year-old in the supporting actress category, despite her very obvious lead role. The prevailing thought is, presumably, that Castle-Hughes has a better crack at collecting a supporting actress kudos.

The young thesp’s unfussed, noting that the awards buzz has been humbling. “I don’t like thinking about it, it is so huge. I’m from New Zealand and this is the Oscars. It’s hard to put it into place in my mind.”

But it’s not unprecedented. A decade ago, Canada-born, New Zealand-raised actress Anna Paquin collected an Oscar in the supporting actress category for her role as Holly Hunter’s daughter in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.”

Castle-Hughes followed “Whale Rider” with a role in the final “Star Wars” installment, and she intends to pursue others. Meanwhile, it’s time to write that teacher a note detailing exactly how her dreams are playing themselves out.

Coming attractions: “Star Wars: Episode III”

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