At only 12 years old Keisha Castle-Hughes went from novice actor to international acclaim, with the 2002 release of Whale Rider. Since then she has had roles on two very different fantasy TV shows — local export The Almighty Johnsons and international hit Game of Thrones — and acted in Star Wars. She has won multiple awards, and became what was then the youngest person to be Oscar-nominated for Best Leading Actress.
Keisha Castle-Hughes was born in the Western Australian town of Donnybrooke to a Māori mother and an Australian father. Her family moved to Auckland before she began at primary school.
Castle-Hughes' very first acting role was in Niki Caro’s Whale Rider. Veteran casting director Di Rowan (The Piano) saw 10,000 children for the role, before choosing 12 to take part in acting workshops. Director Caro was immediately impressed: "Keisha Castle-Hughes just shone. She’s an astonishing actor. She’s the heart of the film and she’s a gift." Castle-Hughes played the central character of Pai, rejected by her grandfather who would rather he was teaching a male to be a tribe chief.
Whale Rider gathered critical acclaim, and international box office in the tens of millions. Among a run of nominations for her role, Castle-Hughes won an NZ Film award for Best Actress and became the then youngest person yet nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (Quvenzhané Wallis was nine when she got nominated in the same category in 2013, for Beasts of the Southern Wild). Castle-Hughes was only the second Polynesian to be nominated in any category (Tahitian Jocelyne LaGarde was nominated for best supporting actress in 1967, for movie Hawaii). In 2004 Castle-Hughes was invited to become a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Critics noted her performance as a stand-out aspect of Whale Rider. Variety's Dennis Harvey described her "unaffected, confident turn", while Entertainment Weekly praised her "great burst of natural stardom". New York Times writer Elvis Mitchell argued that "much of the film’s power comes from the delicate charisma of Keisha Castle-Hughes" and that "her instinctive underplaying gives Whale Rider an added gravity".
Amidst the rush of international attention, Castle-Hughes starred in music video 'Cinnamon Girl', for Prince. The video proved controversial, depicting Castle-Hughes as a Muslim teenager dealing with public discrimination following a series of terrorist attacks.
In 2005 Keisha Castle-Hughes had a small part in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). She went on to star as Mary, mother of Jesus, in The Nativity Story. The film was the first to have its premiere inside Vatican City, with 7000 people in attendance (although neither Castle-Hughes or The Pope were present). New York Times critic AO Scott noted her "poise and intelligence" in playing the character as "a headstrong, thoughtful adolescent transformed by an unimaginable responsibility". She was nominated for Best Leading Young Actress at America’s Young Artist Awards.
In 2009 Castle-Hughes returned to acting locally, with a Qantas award-winning performance in TV movie Piece of my Heart. Castle-Hughes and Emily Barclay (In My Father’s Den) play two pregnant teenagers forced to give up their babies for adoption, with Rena Owen and Annie Whittle playing the pair as adults. The telemovie was well received, with Michele Hewitson of The NZ Herald calling it "a beautifully produced, moving piece of drama, with terrific performances from all four leads".
The same year Castle-Hughes reunited with Whale Rider director Niki Caro for The Vintner’s Luck (2009), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews. However Castle-Hughes’ performance as French peasant Celeste earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 2010 Qantas Film and Television Awards.
Keisha Castle-Hughes has also taken on acting roles in other international productions. She co-starred in Australian dramedy Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (2008), where she played rebellious friend of the titular main character, with Toni Collette as Castle-Hughes’ mother. In 2011 she played a suicidal woman in horror film Vampire — which marked the English-language debut of cult Japanese director Shunji Iwai — and had a small role in Aussie hit Red Dog.
In 2011 she joined the cast of The Almighty Johnsons. Created by James Griffin and Rachel Lang, it centred on a family of Norse Gods living in New Zealand. Castle-Hughes was Gaia, the flatmate turned girlfriend of main character Axl (Emmett Skilton). Castle-Hughes enjoyed being "able to go back in and grow from the character you’ve already set up", a change from her usual work on individual film projects. The show ultimately ran to three seasons, and screened in multiple countries.
Keisha Castle-Hughes has also had a number of high profile roles on American cable TV series. In 2014 she guest starred on AMC drama The Walking Dead, and in 2015 joined the cast of the highly acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones, playing warrior Obara Sand, a rare action role on her CV. 2016 saw Castle-Hughes appeared in short-lived rock band drama Roadies, the first cable TV show from Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous).
On the big screen, she co-starred as the Kiwi object of desire in both 2014 cross-cultural romance Queen of Carthage and Australian film Find Your Voice, about a Māori musician returning to NZ after winning the lottery.
After departing Game of Thrones in 2017, she played FBI agent Tabby in Discovery Channel series Manhunt: Unabomber, alongside Australian actor Sam Worthington (Marvel star Paul Bettany played criminal Ted Kaczynski). Her performance garnered critical acclaim, with The Hollywood Reporter calling her "very good" and IndieWire raving she was "a clear standout ... Castle-Hughes brings believable spunk to the composite character ... Casting directors, take note, as the one-time Oscar nominee for Whale Rider has more than enough charisma to lead a series".
Profile written by Simon Smith
David Ansen, 'Grrl Power, Kiwi Style' (Review of Whale Rider) - Newsweek, 8 June 2003
Daniel Fienberg, ''Manhunt: Unabomber': TV Review' - The Hollywood Reporter, 31 July 2017
Lesley Goldberg. 'Showtime’s Cameron Crowe Comedy ‘Roadies’ Casts Quintet' - The Hollywood Reporter, 8 December 2014
Dennis Harvey, 'Review: Whale Rider' - Variety, 18 September 2002
Chris Herd, 'Exclusive: Director Chris Herd on making Uplifting Aussie film Find Your Voice' - Cinema Australia website. Loaded 2 February 2015. Accessed 12 June 2015
Lydia Jenkin, 'Almighty Love' - The NZ Herald (Time Out section), 23 February 2012, page 8
'Keisha plays explosive role in Prince’s music video" - The Dominion Post, 5 October 2004, page A4
Liz Shannon Miller, ''Manhunt: Unabomber' Review: Discovery's First Scripted Drama Intrigues as It Evokes Empathy in a Madman' IndieWire website. Loaded 1 August 2017. Accessed 2 October 2017
Elvis Mitchell, 'FILM REVIEW; A Girl Born To Lead, Fighting the Odds' (Review of Whale Rider) - The New York Times, 6 June 2003
Lisa Schwarzbaum, 'Whale Rider' (Review) - Entertainment Weekly, 13 June 2003
AO Scott, 'The Virgin Mary as a Teenager With Worries' (Review of The Nativity Story) - The New York Times, 1 December 2006
'Vatican sees Keisha’s film' - The Dominion Post, 28 Nov 2006, page A5
'Kiwi characters out of this world' - The Dominion Post, 27 July 04, page A1
Whale Rider press kit