MEXICAN writer-director Guillermo del Toro almost gave up after auditioning nearly 100 young girls for the lead in his new movie, "Pan's Labyrinth."
None of the actresses he interviewed seemed capable of a performance that alternated the maturity and innocence necessary to carry the movie. Del Toro began to worry that he would have to rewrite the part to demand less of a young actress.
Enter Ivana Baquero.
Baquero is now 12 but was only 11 during the filming of "Pan's Labyrinth." She is from Barcelona and began acting at age 9 after responding to a flier looking for a young brunet who spoke English. She has since had a handful of film roles but none as substantial or as splashy as her turn in "Pan's Labyrinth."
"The first thing you see in an actor is presence," Del Toro says. "Walking in the room, it's an intangible thing. Some people can be attractive, articulate, intelligent, and the camera does not love them. I cannot explain it any better than that. Ivana walked in the room and I thought, 'This girl has command, command of the screen.' "
A stunning fable set against the backdrop of Franco's postwar Spain, the movie centers around a child named Ofelia who moves to a remote military outpost commanded by her cruel new stepfather. Once there, she finds herself grappling with foes in realms both real and otherworldly.
Del Toro, who originally envisioned the role for a girl of 8 or 9, rewrote the script to fit Baquero, changing certain nuances throughout. If anything the part became more demanding, asking the young girl to grapple with thoughts of death, birth and the nature of existence itself. Baquero's character serves as the audience's avatar as she navigates the borders between fantasy and reality. Rather than dwell upon the difficulty or emotional strain it might put on such a young psyche, for her it was all in a day's work.
"The basic point of an actress is knowing how to use your feelings when you need them in shooting," Baquero says. "When I needed to do a drama sequence or a really sad sequence, Guillermo would come to me and help me and explain to me what Ofelia felt in the moment. But as an actress I also needed to know how she was feeling and to use my feelings to do Ofelia."
Since the film's premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the team behind "Pan's Labyrinth" has been steadily promoting the film at other festivals. (The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.) In the process, Baquero has become something of an old hand at the media game and by now answers some questions before even being asked them.
"In the fantasy sequences, for example, I had to act with a green screen or a blue screen," she says, while explaining the computer-generated fairies that lead Ofelia on her fantastic journeys. "And people ask me, 'But wasn't it difficult to do it without seeing what was happening?' And I said, 'No, in fact it was not, because Guillermo and all the crew told me where the fairies were.' So it ended up being quite easy."
The somewhat preternatural composure Baquero exhibits onscreen translated to her time when she was on set but not shooting as well.
Baquero's costar Maribel Verdu (perhaps best known as one of the stars of "Y Tu Mama Tambien") began acting herself at only age 13, and she marvels at how Baquero manages to seem so serious and responsible while also maintaining the innocence and wonder of a child.
"She was like my little sister," says Verdu. "Ivana, for example, speaks English perfectly. All the time she was with me, she would teach me English. It was fantastic.
"The relationship between Ivana and I was very important for doing the film, and because our relationship was real, it transmits on the screen that we were close."
Many of Baquero's scenes were shot with actor Doug Jones while he was made up either as the majestic fawn Pan or as a grotesque creature -- which provides the film with one of its key images, a man with eyes in his hands -- known as "The Pale Man."
"The first time, of course I was impressed," Baquero says of Jones' costumes. "It was a giant Pan walking in front of me. So it was kind of freaky in some way. But then I ate with him, I acted with him, I talked to him, I read with him, so I ended up being used to it. It was like acting with any other actor but acting with a Pan. It was comfortable.
"When you're shooting it you don't hear the music, the action. It's when you really see it on screen that you get into the movie. But when you're filming it, at any moment Guillermo can say 'cut,' so you're not scared."
For now, Baquero says she likes to think of acting only as a hobby and is trying to keep her focus on her studies. The regimen of press days, premieres and after-parties has yet to lose its luster, and she's hoping to keep it that way.
"It's kind of overwhelming," she says in regards to the amount of work that happens even after the film is done. "You see a schedule with lots of names and this is this interview and that's another interview, and at this time you have to finish eating. So it's kind of hectic, but I don't do it every day, so when I do it I love it."