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Thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes nominated for Best Actress Oscar

On this day in 2004, the actress Sigourney Weaver joins Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to announce the 76th annual Academy Award nominations.

Weaver was a three-time Oscar nominee herself (twice for Best Actress, for 1986’s Aliens and 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist and for Best Supporting Actress in 1988’s Working Girl). She and Pierson announced the nominations, which were chosen by the Academy’s 5,803 members by mail-in ballot, before 400 members of the international media at a 5:30 a.m. news conference in Los Angeles.

In addition to the 11 nominations racked up by Peter Jackson’s trilogy-ending The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, undoubtedly one of the leading stories to come out of that year’s nominations was the Best Actress nod given to Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 13-year-old star of the independent film Whale Rider and the youngest actress ever to be nominated in the category. (The youngest winner of a contended Academy Award was 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal, who collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1973’s Paper Moon.) Born in Western Australia to a Maori mother and an Australian father, Castle-Hughes moved with her family to New Zealand when she was an infant. While attending primary school in Wellington, the 11-year-old was spotted by the Whale Rider casting director. She was later chosen from among several hundred young girls to play Paikea, the heroine of the film.

Directed by Niki Caro, Whale Rider told the story of Pai, the only grandchild of a tribal leader who resents her for not being the first-born son who can traditionally inherit the leadership role. Named for the tribe’s ancient ancestor, who as legend has it rode into town on the back of a whale, Pai must overcome the tribe’s chauvinism and her grandfather’s animosity and prove herself as the tribe’s rightful leader. The film became one of the year’s biggest independent hits at the U.S. box office, and Castle-Hughes won raves for her precociously nuanced performance, culminating in the historic Oscar nomination. Though she eventually lost the Best Actress statuette to Charlize Theron (Monster), the nomination marked her arrival on the Hollywood scene. She soon appeared in the controversial video for Prince’s song Cinnamon Girl, in which she played an Arab-American girl who dreams of carrying out a suicide bomb attack on an airport after she is victimized in the aftermath of 9/11.

In 2005, Castle-Hughes played the Queen of Naboo in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and the following year she starred as Mary in The Nativity Story. She gave birth to a baby girl, Felicity-Amore, in the spring of 2007; the father is Bradley Hull, her boyfriend of several years. Castle-Hughes promptly returned to film work, starring opposite Toni Collette in Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger (2007) and reteaming with Caro for a second collaboration, Vintner’s Luck (2009).

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