WE LAST SAW HER IN 1994 AT THE OSCARS, WEARING her royal-blue taffeta dress and matching beaded beret, and clutching a gold statuette. Now, perched tentatively on the edge of a sofa in her suite at Manhattan's stately St. Regis Hotel, Anna Paquin looks more like a bird about to bolt than the star of three major motion pictures. Ask so much as what her older brother is doing back home in New Zealand, and she seems eager to seek the security of the next room, where her father, Brian, is waiting.

Which is understandable, and part of her charm. Even now, two years after taking home the Best Supporting Actress prize for The Piano, Paquin is only 13. And because her fiercely protective parents have succeeded in shielding her from the downside of success, Paquin is submitting only to a handful of interviews to promote her new movie, Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre.

Paquin spouts no soundbites, just as, on the set, she never agonizes over her motivation. "She has tremendous natural ability that is unschooled in the best sense of the word," says Jeff Daniels, who plays her father in another film, Flying Wild, due this fall. "Sometimes she doesn't even know what she's doing or how good she is at certain moments."

One of those would have to be that special night when Paquin stood onstage at Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in front of a TV audience of 1 billion. Wide-eyed and holding the Oscar Gene Hackman had just handed her, she delivered an endearingly breathless list of thank-yous.

"I was completely overwhelmed. I just thought I was going to sit there and go clap, clap, clap, and the other person goes up and gets it," says Paquin. Looking back, though, she has no qualms about how she handled being the second-youngest person ever to win an Oscar. (Tatum O'Neal was 10 when she won Best Supporting Actress for 1973's Paper Moon.) "There's nothing you can do to prepare yourself if you have no idea what to expect."

Paquin never had a burning ambition to act. The youngest of three children of recently separated high school teachers—her father is a Canadian native who teaches phys ed, her mother, Mary, a New Zealander and an English instructor—Anna was leading the life of your average 9-year-old near New Zealand's capital, Wellington, when a friend told her about a newspaper ad for film auditions. On a lark, Paquin says, she "got up the courage to call"—her father told her she would have to phone herself—and beat out 5,000 other hopefuls for the part of Holly Hunter's daughter in Jane Campion's The Piano. Even then, the family didn't realize how big the movie would be. Recalled Brian Paquin: "I told my mother in Winnipeg that, if we're lucky, it might come to her local theater in a few years. Suddenly we're dealing with Jurassic Piano."

For a while it looked as if the little girl from Lower Hutt, New Zealand, was poised to become the next Macaulay Culkin—four film offers arrived the week after her Oscar win. But that was not the life the Paquins wanted for their baby. (Their older children, Andrew, now 19, and Katya, 16, had done no acting.) The family engaged a Hollywood agent to act as a buffer, then flew back to the land of lush, sheep-flocked hills. "We're trying to avoid the trained-seal syndrome, the dog jumping through the hoop," Brian said. "Fortunately for us, New Zealand is pretty removed from it all."

Anna makes almost no public appearances, even in her homeland. Interview requests are routinely rebuffed. "Sometimes people say, 'Are you Anna Paquin?' and I go, 'No,' and just smile and walk off," she says. She means she's not that Anna. "You cannot say she came back [from the Oscars] with her head full of glory and pranced around," observes family friend Sarah Gaitanos. "She just wanted to get on with her life."

Today, that life seems very much that of a typical young teen. Paquin, who says that in her first year of high school her grades are "pretty much quite good ones," enjoys "mucking around" with her golden retriever Jessie and her girlfriends, as well as running and playing rugby. She watches few films and says she has seen only a "censored" version of The Piano. ("Someone puts their hand over my eyes in the bits I shouldn't see.") "I still don't really think about acting that much," says Paquin, who has had no formal training. "I just do it."

Most recently, Paquin spent a month in England costarring with William Hurt and Geraldine Chaplin in Jane Eyre. "Basically," Paquin notes of the character, "she's had to learn that if she doesn't stand up for herself, no one else is going to." That shoot was followed by four months in Toronto on Flying Wild, the true story of an estranged father and daughter who rebuild their relationship while teaching a flock of formerly captive geese how to migrate. During the filming she was struggling with some family problems of her own. "Anna was very upset some days" by the unfolding separation of her parents, who took turns staying with her on the set, director Carroll Ballard says. "It left her feeling very sad at times."

But, most of the time, the Flying cast found Paquin a smart, spunky costar. Says Dana Delany, who often played pool with her and lost: "Anna said she wasn't sure if she wanted to be an actor or a barrister, so she could argue with people for a living. Especially boys."

For now, though, Paquin is happy to continue making movies. "You get to go to neat places and work with neat people," she says. But forget about any part that requires her to cut her long hair. (That's a pixie-style wig she's wearing in Jane Eyre.) "No way!" Paquin exclaims. "It's not worth it, changing your entire physical appearance. I'm just a kid."

PAM LAMBERT
DI WEBSTER in Wellington, JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles and SABRINA MCFARLAND in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Di Webster,
  • John Hannah,
  • Sabrina McFarland.