Sixteen years ago, Keisha Castle-Hughes won over the world with a winning smile and a deep well of determination. In breakout hit Whale Rider, she stepped into the shoes of pre-teen Paikea — a Māori child given the name of a leader, as keeping with her tribe’s custom, but forbidden from living up to her moniker because she’s female.
Taking on her first acting role at the age of 11, Castle-Hughes proved as spirited as her character. As Pai fought to be taken seriously by her disapproving grandfather, doing whatever she could to claim her birthright, the young newcomer established herself as an exceptional talent. For her considerable efforts, Castle-Hughes earned acclaim worldwide, becoming the youngest ever person to be nominated for best actress at the Oscars. (At the 2004 ceremony, where she would ultimately lose out to Charlize Theron in Monster, she was still a month shy of 14th birthday.)
Fast forward to 2018, and Castle-Hughes is still fighting. She’s still making quite an impression as well. This time, she’s stepping into the boxing ring in SBS’ new drama On the Ropes, playing hard-nosed competitor Jess Connor — who’s set to make her professional debut with the help of aspiring Iraqi-Australian trainer Amirah Al-Amir (Nicole Chamoun).
PODCAST INTERVIEW WITH KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES:
A return to Australia for the Aussie-born, New Zealand-raised actress (who also has Hey, Hey, It's Esther Blueburger, Red Dog and the Australian-shot Star Wars prequel Revenge of the Sith on her resume), On the Ropes showcases Castle-Hughes at her compelling and charming best. They’re traits that have kept her on big and small screens for nearly two decades now. There’s a spark to her performances, both here and across her career, that instantly stands out regardless of what she’s in. Since coming to fame before she even reaching her teenage years, Castle-Hughes has had ample opportunity to prove that that’s the case.
After Whale Rider, she took on two important roles. The first, as Revenge of the Sith’s Queen Apailana of Naboo, might’ve been shot in a single day, but it brought her into the Star Wars universe. In the second, Castle-Hughes played a 14-year-old Mary to Oscar Isaac’s Joseph. While Nativity Story received lukewarm reviews upon its 2006 release, the biblical drama was boosted by an empathetic performance from its young leading lady.
It’s not quite a case of life imitating art, but after Castle-Hughes became Jesus’ young mother, motherhood beckoned in real life. Giving birth in 2007 at the age of 17, her teenage pregnancy was splashed across newspaper headlines — a phase that, while obviously difficult for anyone in the spotlight, Castle-Hughes now looks back on without any sugarcoating. “There was this really odd sense in the country of being New Zealand’s Lindsay Lohan,” she told The Feed’s Marc Fennell.
“I really felt controlled in New Zealand by the media in terms of how I could live my life,” she explains. “I had so much anxiety around it — and was just constantly in the state of worrying.” But Castle-Hughes’ drive remained. As well as her acting career work, she joined Greenpeace’s 2009 campaign to urge the country’s government to cut carbon emissions. Her activism claimed headlines again, especially when then-New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Castle-Hughes should "stick to acting”.
While her personal life garnered media attention, Castle-Hughes took a series of lower-profile on-screen parts, including reteaming with Whale Rider director Niki Caro in A Heavenly Vintage and flirting with blood-sucking territory in Vampire. Between 2011 and 2013, it was New Zealand television series The Almighty Johnsons that gave the local press reason to take notice. As Gaia, Castle-Hughes was literally a goddess — but in a scenario where ordinary Kiwis discover that they’re actually the reincarnations of Norse gods.
Moving to Los Angeles, Castle-Hughes then became a regular on US television, complete with two parts that any actor would kill for: on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Though her time amongst the undead was limited to just one appearance, she spent eight memorable episodes in Westeros and its surrounding lands, with the warrior-like Obara Sand making quite the impact as she violently sought to avenge her father’s demise.
A role in the short-lived Cameron Crowe-created series Roadies also followed, as did mini-series Manhunt: Unabomber and a part in returning soldier drama Thank You For Your Service. On the big screen, Castle-Hughes also returned home for parts in New Zealand efforts Queen of Carthage and Find Your Voice, while US movies Wellwood and Tone-Deaf are currently in post-production.
Since initially carving her place in cinema history — and into the world’s hearts — with Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes has amassed 23 more credits to her name. Given her commanding on-screen presence, it’s a resume that promises to keep growing. Segueing from unexpected child star to successful all-round actor, she now boasts one of the benefits of longevity, too: when viewers see Castle-Hughes on screen, they also see a lifetime’s worth of work.
Indeed, when On the Ropes’ Jess Connor commands the ring, the gleam in her eye glistens just as it did in Whale Rider all that time ago — and in everything from Nativity Story to The Almighty Johnsons to Game of Thrones in the years since.
On The Ropes airs every Thursday night at 9:25pm on SBS. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.
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