This story was originally published on November 30, 2011.
Anna Paquin is just plain cool. • She's from New Zealand and has a slight but delightful accent. She's the second youngest Oscar winner in history — she took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for her turn in The Piano at the age of 11. She just finished her fourth season playing Sookie Stackhouse, the star of HBO's True Blood and arguably the coolest character on the show. And she also just finished working on an independent film called Free Ride, written and directed by Shana Sosin. Paquin, who is also producing the movie, has been working 12- to 14-hour days to bring what she calls this "passion project" to life: The film is a product of the enthusiasm of Sosin, Paquin, their cast and crew, and the students and faculty of the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. The school has served as a set for the film and provided students to help with the costuming and other aspects (they converted a room in a Sarasota high school to look like a 1970s kindergarten class).
Despite being exhausted from another long week of filming, Paquin, who is 29, was kind enough to meet with me at Ringling to talk about the process of making Free Ride, working with the college, True Blood and more. She preferred not to be "in the hot seat," rejecting the cushy interview armchair and instead opting for us to chat in two simple office chairs in a Ringling conference room. She told me to relax (I tried). She even paused to make sure my tape recorder was on (it was). Like I said, she's cool.
What has the process of making Free Ride been like for you, producing as well as acting?
I've always been very interested in what's going on behind the scenes and have not really been a particularly passive participant as an actor. I like to be part of the decision making process. I think the more aspects of the creative process that you are involved in, the more personal the whole project is. I like being in the loop, and not to sound immodest, but I've been doing this for 20 years, I do have some experience to draw on. Even though I'm relatively new to producing, you acquire a certain understanding of how movies are made and what's important.
What about the experience of independent filmmaking?
One of the things about independent filmmaking is that you are very much reliant on the kindness of strangers. In this film, we have been incredibly fortunate to be taken under the wing of Ringling and (we've) been offered numerous students to help us in various departments at various points along the way in our production. When you're shooting a film on a small budget you go on a hope and a prayer, so coming into this environment and finding an institution willing to help has been so unbelievable. . . . and the people who are just getting started, like the students at Ringling . . . there's an enthusiasm that you just can't replicate. You've studied it and learned about it, now you're being thrown into it and doing it. One of the things I like most in my job is feeling inspired and working with people who have been doing it decades and decades longer than me.
What attracted you to the project?
My husband read the script and met with Shana and he basically said, out of curiosity, any particular reason my wife never read this script? It had never come across my radar, and she and I met, and as a woman in the film industry (I) could say there is a lack of really powerful strong female roles, especially ones that are not necessarily depicting perfect people being perfect and making great choices. And this is a story about a young single mother who's just trying to survive and she's making choices and doing things because it's all she knows how to do at the time, and she's not perfect but she's doing the best she can, and those sorts of stories are sort of hard to get told. Shana is obviously writing about her own life experience, the character I'm playing is her mother, and it's hard when you meet her not to be absolutely captivated by how much this all means to her.
Were you able to identify with the Ringling students and their enthusiasm for the arts?
I never studied it (the arts). The truth is, I had no enthusiasm for acting specifically; I kind of stumbled into it. So I can't honestly say it was a life goal that came true. It was more something that happened that I then discovered I passionately loved. I know that I am incredibly fortunate and I am grateful every day that I get to make a living as someone in a creative art, a performance art no less. I mean, jeez, there are so many actors that are incredibly talented that you're just like, why aren't you working all the time? And it's a very challenging way to make a living. (But) it's the only thing I can see myself doing. And that's why kids come to schools like this, because it's like, oh I could be happy being a lawyer or an investment banker . . . but I can't live with myself if I don't do something creative. That's the people (who) are supposed to be artists.
How did it feel going to high school with an Oscar under your belt?
I was a real shy kid and I didn't really like to stand out so I was just embarrassed of the attention. I just tried to keep my head down and not get noticed.
Do you return to New Zealand? When you do, do people notice you?
My family lives there so I go back and visit, but I don't really have an objective consciousness of how other people view me. Mostly I'm just going home to see my family. I spend most of the time sitting on my mom's couch or my sister's couch and playing with my nephew. Very normal . . . what most people do when they get home.
How does working on this independent film compare with your work on True Blood with HBO?
I love my TV show, it is the best job. HBO is an incredible place to work. It's run by people who are humans first and studio execs second and who are supportive of various aspects of our personal interests, from philanthropic things to creatively what's exciting and interesting for the team that puts their shows together. They allow us such freedom as creators and there's really nothing like it. You have no ratings, so it's not like the NC-17 is going to come down on you if you say a particular word too many times or show a particular thing too many times, but also contentwise we're not being censored, which means that our show pushes boundaries. Independent film, in a weird way, is kind of the same thing, because you have complete freedom. It's great either to have a big boss who's able to facilitate and fund who gives you freedom, or to have no big boss at all. There (are) challenges to independent film where if you run out of time and you run out of money, there is no more time and there is no more money, and that's a little scary. There's all kinds of ways to tell stories, and I have a great love and great belief in the importance of independent film because it gives new and emerging voices — in the writer-director pool in particular — an opportunity to tell their stories.
What about the distribution of the film?
We are still working on that. (Laughs)
One last question, if you don't mind: How does it feel to be a part of the love triangle on True Blood, having already made your choice in real life? (Paquin is married to True Blood costar Stephen Moyer.) Sorry, it's a little goofy.
Yeah, that is kind of goofy. It's okay, though. You do all kinds of things on screen that have no bearing on reality. It's all acting. I have done all kinds of things on screen that have nothing to do with my choices in real life. That's kind of the point, though. You get to explore aspects of the world in a way that's sort of . . . safe.
Mina Asayesh-Brown is an IB senior at St. Petersburg High.