Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Q'orianka Kilcher

'World' View

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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In Terrence Malick's glorious new film The New World, Q'orianka Kilcher appears wholly inside the skin of Pocahontas, speaking Algonkian, performing native songs and dances and rituals. When she first encounters white men, she gazes at them with just a little fear and a great deal of wide-eyed curiosity. It's an astonishing performance, as if she had time traveled and emerged, fully-formed, straight from the early 1600s.

In real life, the charming fifteen year-old is quite a bit different, using the word "amazing" perhaps a bit too often, and emphasizing her adjectives with a great big "so."

"I'm so excited," she says, hunting for green tea in a conference room of the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton. Finding none, she settles for English Breakfast. She doesn't mind the caffeine, she says, because she's "dying of no sleep, and just traveling."

She curls up on the couch, wearing a lovely Native-style jacket, light-brown leather with lots of fringes, as well as Native-style boots. "I made these shoes, and this coat and I made my jewelry, and I got this as a present," she says shyly, indicating her skirt. "I've been making all my clothes for all my events that I've gone to. Me and my mom have always made my outfits."

Though it's true that Kilcher is related to pop singer Jewel, by no means is she your standard showbiz upstart. She is descended from a Native Peruvian (Huachipaeri/Quechua) father, and her mother is Swiss. She was born in Germany, raised in Hawaii and is home schooled. She doesn't watch a lot of movies, though she enjoyed Colin Farrell's performance in Tigerland (2000) and saw only one of Malick's other films, The Thin Red Line (1998).

Pocahontas is Kilcher's first role, though she appeared on "Star Search" -- as a singer -- and in a tiny part in Ron Howard's The Grinch.

To win a major part working with one of America's greatest and most elusive directors, Kilcher says she went through somewhere between 15 and 20 auditions. "I never knew what to expect," she says. "They would throw obstacles in my path and tell me to suddenly do a traditional feather dance or play my flute or sing or try to memorize something in ten minutes, to see if I was able to withstand the pressures of it."

"Even if I didn't get the role, I would have learned so much."

She also explains that the producers were looking for someone around 18, to more closely match the 28 year-old Farrell, cast in the John Smith role, and so she knew the odds were not in her favor. Nevertheless, she claims that "everybody always thinks I'm older," and so when the final call came on her cell phone, she let out a big scream on the streets of Beverly Hills.

During the 4-1/2 month shoot in Virginia (plus two more weeks in London), Kilcher went through many costume changes, though those costumes did not always include footwear.

"It was really painful, running through the tall grass in my first opening shot, my legs were all scratched up and bleeding, and my feet had every poking thing possible," she says. "And I was scared I might step on some spiders. But I felt that it helped me because it threw me back into the realism of the 1600s. It had so much freedom. I would do it all again."

Though Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) shies away from the public, he was very available on the set, Kilcher says. He met with her in the evenings to go over the next day's scenes, and always made sure she understood what was going on.

Malick also ordered that Kilcher and Farrell not meet until it came time to shoot their first scene together. "I would always hide from him in the lunch area," she says.

In the film, Pocahontas and John Smith spend a good deal of time together, learning bits of language and culture, completely lost in one another.

"We never rehearsed anything, and it was all naturally lit sets and everything," Kilcher says. "We would just start filming and we wouldn't stop filming until the camera was rolled out. There was something like a million feet of film shot. We would just be doing spur-of-the-moment things, just whatever felt right. If he had an idea we would do it, and if any of us had an idea, we would just try it, and just do whatever and see what worked and what didn't."

As for her many gorgeous costumes, Kilcher gushes about how much work went into them and how much she enjoyed wearing them. She perfectly remembers the difference between her "autumn" leggings and her "winter" leggings.

When it came time for the more restrictive, English costumes, Kilcher requested shoes a size too small and an extra-tight corset just so that she could understand how the real Pocahontas might have felt. "I actually went home that night and cried because it was so sad," she says. "It constricted the free spirits in Pocahontas. I really felt like a caged bird."

The young actress claims to have been a perfectionist since a young age, but says that working with Farrell taught her that being perfect isn't the point. Rather, staying true and never taking yourself too seriously is what really matters. Farrell became like a big brother to her, and in return she gushes about his performance in The New World, remarking that this film did justice to his abilities.

Now that her extraordinary experience has ended, Kilcher has been in full-blown promotion mode. To date, she has seen the film ten times. While she admits that other fifteen year-olds may not have the patience to sit through it, she says, "the more I watch the movie, the more that I notice different details and different ways to perceive it. I fall in love with it more and more. It's really a movie to be watched over and over again."

Kilcher says she doesn't have her next project firmed up just yet, but concedes that working with Malick on The New World might have been a once in a lifetime experience. "After that I might be spoiled!"

See also: my review.

January 6, 2006

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