Los Angeles Times

Grounded, more ways than one

Keisha Castle-Hughes is wincing.

It's not even 9 a.m. and a stranger is plucking her eyebrows.

Here in Los Angeles things get weird during Oscar season. People who have spent their adult lives in front of a camera get nominated for something or other and suddenly they're on a regimen of lemon juice and colonics for four weeks, most of which are spent in dress fittings, photo shoots and awards shows. Tension runs high.

So imagine you're a 13-year-old girl from New Zealand who, until two years ago, thought going to the movies was a pretty big deal. Now you're the youngest best actress nominee ever, flown in from Auckland to L.A. for five days from which your Hollywood handlers are determined to squeeze every drop of publicity, even if it means waking you up at 7:30 at the Mosaic in Beverly Hills so the makeup artist can start plucking your eyebrows before 9.

Today, a couple of weeks before the Oscars, the winsome star of "Whale Rider" — the story of a young Maori girl determined to show her patriarchal grandfather that girls too can be leaders — is booked on AMC's "Sunday Morning Shootout," hosted by Hollywood producer Peter Guber and Variety editor Peter Bart. Then it's on to the Ivy for lunch, then to Burbank for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

It's almost enough to go to a girl's head — were it not for Desrae.

Desrae Castle-Hughes is Keisha's mom, a no-nonsense New Zealander of Maori descent (and single mother of four) who is not particularly impressed with Hollywood and its pre-Oscar excesses. She shops at Old Navy. She seldom speaks — particularly when with strangers.

Desrae has her hair up in a loose ponytail and is wearing jeans and a plain gray sweater blouse. No lipstick, no makeup.

Then there is Graham Dunster, Keisha's New Zealand agent. No Armani here. Looking more like a middle-aged surfer, Dunster comes into the hotel room sporting jeans, a faded brown shirt, an earring, a gold tooth cap on his incisor and tousled curly hair.

"G'day, Graham," Keisha salutes from her makeup chair.

"G'day, Keisha," he responds cheerfully.

A call comes announcing the arrival of the limousine. Downstairs, the New Zealand clan — as well as the studio's publicist, a reporter and a photographer — crawls in. Five adults, all riveted by one child's every move, every mood, every expression.

In the car, Keisha turns on the television.

"Oh, it's Clifford!" she coos as the cartoon "Clifford the Big Red Dog" jumps across the screen.

"Clifford" is really not Keisha's favorite show, Dunster offers quickly.

"It's 'The Strip,' " Keisha says — a Kiwi comedic drama about a woman who runs a male strip joint.

Suddenly, she sighs, "I need to be home."

Dunster looks over and says, "She may seem as cool as a cucumber, but she flares out."

Fame can be painfulPlucked from a schoolwide audition by casting agent Dianna Rowan, Keisha had no experience in acting, much less publicity. In fact, the stress of getting nominated has caused Keisha's elbow to erupt into a pus-filled eczema rash. She starts picking at the sore red scab. Desrae tells her to stop touching it and put medication on it.

At Raleigh Studios, where "Shootout" is shot, Keisha's hair is curled with a curling iron. She asks for a cup of coffee and a bagel. An eager assistant brings her a heart-shaped bagel with cream cheese (for Valentine's Day) and a large coffee that Keisha fills with four packets of sugar.

Outside the makeup trailer, Desrae is smoking, a recent habit she has taken up to relax. She sees Keisha's nomination as a "good thing." She says she is worried "only as much as any parent would be."

Does she want her daughter to become an actress?

"It's up to her. I'll support her whatever she wants to do. She's got this thing now that she wants to work at McDonald's and that's fine with me," she says, exhaling the smoke.

The important thing is that she goes back to school.

"She needs to catch up with her mates to keep her honest," says Dunster, standing with Desrae outside.

"Keep it real," adds Desrae, nodding her head.

Keisha is informed by a fast-talking producer of the show that Peter and Peter are ready for her.

"I wish I had a twin sister and then I'd send her over here," she yawns as she gets up from the makeup chair. "My day doesn't start until 4 p.m."

At the entrance to the set, Peter Guber appears, wearing a thick, beige paste of makeup on his face, a black velvet dinner jacket with silk lapels, jeans and a white striped shirt.

"Hiiiiiiii, how are you?" he exclaims, grabbing Keisha's hand. He pulls forward. "I loved your film. I saw it in Hawaii, where I live, where there is a large native population. They were blown away."

Keisha smiles politely.

She is not Hawaiian. Her mother is not Hawaiian. They are from New Zealand. But whatever.Wearing a long silk spaghetti-strap top and jeans, Keisha makes herself at home in the phony cafe setting where the show is taped. She downs another giant cup of coffee in a "Shootout" mug.

The questions start and Keisha, on cue, lights up, relating her cache of stories about the film. Since she gets the same questions from every interviewer, she has practically memorized the answers. She can't swim, but she told the casting agent (the same woman who discovered Anna Paquin for "The Piano") that she could. They used a body double for the shots of her in the water with the whales. She adores Peter Jackson, a fellow Kiwi, and tried to meet him at a recent awards show. She is asked about the red carpet. She is asked how it feels to watch herself on the screen. Her favorite movie is "Bring It On," her favorite actress is Julia Roberts.

Suddenly she sneezes. And she wipes her nose with her hand. Everyone laughs. One of the Peters asks if she can believe what has happened to her.

"I know it's happening, but it still doesn't feel real," she says.

And then the question: Whom do you most admire?

"My mum," she answers instantly and sincerely. "She works so hard for me. I am so grateful. It's really amazing." Sitting in a darkened corner in the back of the set, Desrae wipes the tears from her eyes. The man working the teleprompter machine asks if she is the mum.

"Yes," she says quietly.

"I was a child star," he tells her.

"It was a shock to me when I was 16 or 17 and no more parts," he continues. "I went nuts. The more grounded they are at home the better."

Desrae seems to appreciate his concern. At home, Keisha is surrounded by family and friends. None of them have allowed her Hollywood success to get to her head. Her friends, who are always over at the Castle-Hughes home, have different interests and do not seem jealous of her. And every month, there is a family meeting in which Desrae and her four children and their friends talk about what is going on in one another's lives.

"Good luck to you," the teleprompter guy says.

She smiles and thanks him.

In the limo, Keisha taunts her mom.

"I made Mummy cry! I made Mummy cry," she says laughing and hugging her.

"That was a good sneeze," replies Desrae, unfazed. "I love how you wiped it all over."

Off go the shoesThe coffee and sugar have finally exploded in the 13-year-old nervous system and she is so hyper she can't stand it. She starts dancing, singing, reciting lines of "Bring It On." She takes her shoes off — she loathes shoes and never wears them at home.

Suddenly she grabs her breasts.

"These are so amazing," she exclaims to no one and everyone. Then looks at one person and says proudly, "I've been going through puberty."

"No more coffee for you," Desrae says.

At the Ivy, a tall, dark and handsome waiter approaches with menus.

"I think I'm in love," Keisha whispers as she looks up at him and smiles.

He smiles back; it's unclear if he recognizes her.

"He smiled at me!" she squeals as he turns to leave.

J. Lo often dines at the Ivy, Keisha is told.

"We've moved on now," Keisha says, shrugging off the J. Lo reference. "We've got Ashanti and Beyoncé."

When she is done with her meal, she decides she wants her picture taken with the handsome waiter.

"Would you mind if we took a picture?" she asks. He says of course not but does not realize that she wants him in the picture. "Of me and you," she says, posing with him at her side. He laughs. Her mum shoots the picture.

Outside, someone calls for the limo, but as the group waits Desrae notices a paparazzo across the street.

"Keisha, get behind me," she orders.

Desrae, the publicist and Dunster form a protective ring around the 13-year-old star, hoping to shield her from the photographer's long lens.

"You never know how they will use those pictures," Desrae says when Keisha protests.

Finally the limo arrives but before they get in, a woman rushes up to Keisha and says, "Hi, I'm sorry to bother you. I have four kids and I made them watch 'Whale Rider.' I hope you win."

A quick music stopKeisha wants to play music in the car, so the driver stops at Virgin Records on Sunset. The publicist buys OutKast. Keisha buys Missy Elliott. During the entire drive to Burbank, Keisha plays OutKast's "Hey Ya!" (dancing and singing with her publicist), "I Like the Way You Move," and a Missy Elliott song with lots of profanity. Desrae rolls her eyes.

On the NBC lot, an argument ensues. Keisha is determined not to wear her loaned, open-toed, green Jimmy Choo shoes for the DeGeneres show. Her feet are too wide, she complains to her mom.

"Keisha, you have to wear the shoes," she says. "Oh, Mum, don't tell me what to do," Keisha says.

"OK, that's it, everybody, she is grounded," Desrae declares.

Keisha wears the shoes.

While she is in her dressing room (between those of Simon Cowell and Annie Lennox, the two other guests that day), a parade of show coordinators wearing headsets stops, knocks and enters, making sure she is OK. Ellen does not stop by. A producer comes in to tell her what questions to expect. He reads from his notes, "talk about how you got the part ... how you fibbed that you could swim ... Ellen thought that was really cute," he continues with a list of possible questions. "She also loved how your little brothers tell you 'you're a movie star but you still have to do the dishes,' " he says with a smile.

Keisha nods, understanding her assignment.

Once they leave, Keisha rifles through one of her gift baskets, grabbing all the candy. . Her mother warns her that she will have to share with her brothers and sister back home. Keisha changes into a lime green flowery dress to match the Jimmy Choo shoes.

After a quick interview with DeGeneres and a clip of her movie is shown, it's time to return to the hotel. In the morning she will fly back to New Zealand for a week of school and then back to L.A. for the big night. "I will be so excited after this," she says to herself. And then flinging out her arms, she says, "It's a wrap."

Behind her, Desrae counted the hours until the flight back home.

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