Some actresses might think twice about taking on a role as iconic as the Virgin Mary, but Keisha Castle-Hughes tackled the part head-on, learning to grind grain, weave cloth and master a Middle Eastern accent. "I wanted someone with inner strength," says Nativity Story director Catherine Hardwicke. "Keisha's fearless."

Then, in October, as plans moved forward to market the movie about Jesus' birth to Christian audiences across the country, Castle-Hughes, 16, made a surprise announcement: She is expecting a baby with her boyfriend of three years, Bradley Hull, 19. But instead of the backlash some industry-watchers predicted, many Protestant and Catholic leaders have embraced the film and its star. More than 100 churches have hosted previews. "As a pastor, I'd rather she had not gone that route in her personal life," says Presbyterian Rev. Mark D. Roberts, who hosted a screening for some 300 church leaders at a theater near his Irvine, Calif., church. "In terms of the movie, it's not an issue.... [She did] a phenomenal job." Sister Joseph Andrew, a Catholic nun whose order held a screening in Ann Arbor, Mich., calls the movie "beautiful" and applauds Castle-Hughes's decision to keep her baby: "In today's world, that's to be credited."

This isn't Castle-Hughes's first memorable turn. At age 13, she was the youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee for her portrayal of a headstrong Maori girl in 2003's Whale Rider. Since then, Castle-Hughes has remained in her native New Zealand and has appeared in only one other film—2005's Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. As for the baby, due in April, "she and her family are joyous about it," says Nativity producer Wyck Godfrey. And some fans say Castle-Hughes's pregnancy makes The Nativity Story even more resonant. "God knows far more than we do," says Sister Joseph Andrew. "Maybe that's why He wanted her to have this role, so she'd have such reverence for the life within."