Before famed director Terrence Malick picked Q'Orianka Kilcher to play Pocahontas in his new movie, the young actress knew the American legend only as the raven-haired babe piloting her canoe through the Disney animated feature.
Kilcher is, after all, only 15.
Now, after shooting The New World with Colin Farrell (who plays colonial explorer and Pocahontas romancer John Smith), she says she feels a deep kinship with her character.
"John Smith was an explorer of new worlds," Kilcher says. "Pocahontas was an explorer of hearts."
The film, currently scheduled to open in Baltimore Jan. 20, will get its strongest hype because of Farrell's fame, but it's Kilcher who'll likely win the audience's hearts. It is easy to see why. At a recent sneak preview held at the United Nations for New York City high school students, the energetic Kilcher charmed a crowd of teens during a Q&A; session.
"I can't believe she's only 15," says Sophia Papadatos, a senior at the Academy of American Studies in Long Island City.
That puts her a few years ahead of the actual Pocahontas, who was perhaps 12 or 13 (records are sketchy) -- and roughly 10 years younger than most of the actresses called in to read for the part.
"There was something compelling about her photograph," producer Sarah Green noted, explaining how the filmmakers had spent months auditioning older actresses who could fill the role with gravitas, but not the right youthful innocence or energy. A casting assistant noticed a photo of Kilcher, who'd been submitted for another film, and suggested that perhaps the young up-and-comer had been placed in the wrong pile. Her film experience was minute (one small role in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas). But, Green says, "when we screen-tested her, with no makeup, Q'Orianka just jumped off the screen."
'She's a free spirit'
No wonder, given her waist-length hair, and heritage (she's part Quechua-Native Peruvian on her father's side). Her name, in Quechua, means "Golden Eagle," and she exudes a proud, birdlike grace in scenes where Malick directs her to dance, arms flung wide, in the tall Virginia grass.
"Terry would say silly things like, 'OK, Q'Orianka, now, be the wind,' " says Kilcher, smiling. "It felt so wonderful, so free. I miss that, actually, because you don't really do that nowadays -- just enjoy the simplicity of life in the trees, the leaves, the sky."
"She's a free spirit," her agent, Carlyne Grager, says.
And, at the moment, a tourist. On her recent publicity trip to New York, she squeezed in a bus tour, a Central Park carriage ride and a tour of the United Nations.
"I told the publicists, I know you're used to working with adults who just want to get in and out, but if we're at the U.N., we should get a tour,'" Grager says. "They've got to remember, she's still a kid."
Kilcher, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her mother and two younger brothers, is home-schooled. She studies voice and music and enjoys making clothes.
Like 'a caged bird'
Not much is known about the real Pocahontas, who was, in many ways, the first celebrity of Western culture. Londoners reportedly gawked at the exotic envoy from the New World, who gave up her breechcloth and buckskin dress for corsets, crinolines and petticoats as she became westernized.
"It was so sad for me," says Kilcher, recalling the five-month shoot in Virginia and London and the transition into Western attire. "I actually cried because I felt like such a caged bird -- she became a confined Englishwoman, tamed and torn away from the freedom and the life she knew before."
A transition not unlike the one Kilcher is about to make, as she steps into the glaring Hollywood spotlight.
"I don't have too many friends at home my age," she admits. Too many have turned star-struck and now "act weird." Post-film "friends" have been no better, more interested, it seems, in what it was like to kiss Farrell -- and how many tickets she can get to the premiere -- than in just hanging out.
"It's like, aww, man, it's lonely up there," Kilcher says. "Like the higher you get, the lonelier it gets. But as long as I have my family, I'll be fine. Anything can happen."
In the short term, Kilcher is interested in expanding her acting career (she is trying out for a role in a Ben Stiller movie, A Night at the Museum), but she already considers herself a singer. "I'm actually making my own CD right now; it's all songs inspired by the making of the film [The New World], and I wrote it all during that time period," she says, rapid-fire. "I'm in the midst of trying to work on it, trying to get it out there, but my schedule is so busy that it's like, 'OK, two hours here, one hour there.'"
Outside the U.N. auditorium, Saskia Kilcher snaps photos of her daughter as she signs autographs at the recent sneak preview. Mom has been documenting the trip, like Q'Orianka's first time set upon by the paparazzi: "I thought, 'Oh, this is a precious moment,'" Saskia Kilcher says.
Joseph V. Amodio writes for Newsday.