Though Keisha Castle-Hughes had always dreamed of being an actress, she never thought that she would actually be one. Plucked from roughly 10,000 New Zealand schoolgirls to play the part of Paikea in "Whale Rider" (2002), Castle-Hughes put in a performance that was hailed by critics the world over, especially since she never acted a day in her life, even in a school play. But Castle-Hughes's depth of character and range of emotion was apparent to director Niki Caro and casting director Diana Rowan-who also discovered Anna Paquin for "The Piano" (1993)-from the start. It took several months, and eight or nine auditions, but the then-11-year-old landed the part, and with it, her one-time dream of being an actress turned into reality.
Castle-Hughes was born and raised in Mount Wellington, New Zealand, a suburb of Auckland, where she excelled in school and athletics, including rugby and track. Like many of her friends, Castle-Hughes admired Hollywood actresses-Julia Roberts in particular-if only for the glamour and fashion. It was while attending primary school that Castle-Hughes was discovered by Rowan. In an interview with the casting director, Castle-Hughes was asked if she could ride a bike and swim. She answered yes to both, knowing she couldn't swim a stroke-a slight fib that was discovered two weeks into principal photography; a local Maori girl helped teach Castle-Hughes how. Castle-Hughes eventually got the part and jumped right into four weeks of intense rehearsals, where the budding actress impressed director Caro with her work ethic and ability to act. One scene in particular was worked on intensely-where Paikea struggles to maintain her composure while delivering a heartfelt speech about the importance of her community. While most beginning actresses would be melodramatic, Castle-Hughes pulled the scene off with quiet subtly.
In "Whale Rider," Castle-Hughes played Paikea, a Maori girl (the actress is half-Maori herself), who, being the sole survivor in her family, becomes a potential tribal leader. Though loved by her community for her radiance and energy, Paikea is shunned by her traditional grandfather, who wants to find a male to take the position of tribal leader. Castle-Hughes identified with Paikea, feeling that every girl, no matter what society in which she lives, struggles for self-identity in a male-dominated world. The film won many awards across the world, including the People's Choice Award at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Castle-Hughes won a Best Actress Award at the New Zealand Film Awards, one of nine awards "Whale Rider" took at the ceremony in 2003, and in 2004 at age 13 she became the youngest female ever nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category. She was next seen on screen, however briefly, as the new Queen of Naboo in "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005), the final act in the popular space fantasy.
Castle-Hughes next landed the potential role of a lifetime, playing the Virgin Mary in yet another onscreen telling of "The Nativity Story" (2006), a chronicle of the treacherous journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census ordered by King Herod while Mary was nine months pregnant with the baby Jesus. Ironically, Castle-Hughes was herself pregnant in real life, but in no way through miraculous means (the father was her 19-year-old her mortal boyfriend Bradley Hull, whom she met when 13.) Though usually apoplectic about underage women having children out of wedlock, the Christian Right appeared unfazed by Castle-Hughes' situation while lavishing extensive praise on the film in order to drum up excitement among the faithful. More secular critics, however, admonished "The Nativity Story" for its rather bland take on The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Made her feature film debut in "Whale Rider", as a Maori girl who goes to heartbreaking lengths to prove herself worthy to the stern tribal chief; received SAG and Oscar nominations for Best Supporting and Best Actress
Starred as Queen of Naboo in "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," the final film in the Star Wars saga
Portrayed the Virgin Mary in "The Nativity Story," which looks at her life before the birth of Christ