NEW YORK — Anna Paquin grew up in New Zealand, but she might as well have “I love New York” tattooed on her forehead. She jogs around the Central Park Reservoir. She has vegan delivered, often. And she worships downtown boutiques whose names she can never remember, but which she can always find when she needs a new pair of Jimmy Choos. “Nothing makes you feel sexier than the right pair of high heels,” she says.

It’s a good thing she’s feeling so at home in Manhattan these days, since the young actress — perhaps the only one for whom winning an Oscar is a sore subject — has become the go-to girl for playing disaffected youth on stage. Paquin made her off-Broadway debut in 2001 as a teenage murderess in Rebecca Gilman’s “The Glory of Living,” and played a drug fiend in Paul Weitz’s “Roulette” earlier this year.

This story first appeared in the April 20, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Now, she’s in previews for Neil LaBute’s “The Distance From Here,” a fly-on-the-double-wide look at what happens when kids start having kids, opening at The Duke in Times Square on May 6. Simply uttering the date aloud makes Paquin giggle uncontrollably, throwing her head back, tossing her hair and smiling wide in one smooth take. The play’s subject matter, however, is anything but light.

Paquin stars as a troubled single mother — her wardrobe all leggings, T-shirts and beat-up sneakers — though she can’t imagine being one in real life. “I have two dogs,” she says. “That’s plenty of responsibility.” She can still empathize with her character: a girl looking for love in all the wrong places. “She has trouble differentiating between caretaking love and sexual love,” Paquin says. “Everyone just wants to be loved. This is emotionally treacherous material and it’s hard to navigate.”

Which may explain why the 21-year-old would-be Hollywood ingenue is spending more time away from Tinseltown these days. “I love movies,” says Paquin — who won that trophy at age 11 for “The Piano” and reprised her role as Rogue, the ultrasensitive superhero, last summer in “X2” — “but sometimes the material is better in theater.” (She’s currently reading several movie scripts, but is a signature away from announcing her next project, another play.)

Work in New York has been steady for Paquin — she also did Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in London — which doesn’t surprise LaBute. As a man comfortable in both genres, he knows the goods when he sees it. “As a theater actor, you have to reach the guy sitting way in the back row,” he says. “And Anna can do that. It’s invaluable.”

Paquin has Philip Seymour Hoffman to thank. He directed her in “The Glory of Living.” “Phil taught me everything from projecting my voice down to what kinds of notes you ought to be taking in your script.”

Anna sits on a Central Park bench, a cropped black leather jacket (vintage, naturally) over a red polyblend sweater from H&M. Her shoes are from Daffy’s; her bag is Gucci. (“Duty free at the airport,” she adds.) And she is shivering, though there’s not a chill in the air. “It’s the coffee,” she says. “I’ve had three cups today.” Before noon.

She is a few blocks from Columbia University, where she would be graduating this semester, were it not for the film and theater work. (She attended her freshman year, but hasn’t been back since.) She may go back to school; she may not, because she loves her job and loves to work.

“You’re only going to be really young and really enthusiastic once,” she says. Throwing her head back, tossing her hair and smiling wide.

— Mickey Rapkin

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