Xzannjah, the young star of Mr Pip, clearly remembers the moment she knew she had got a big part in the much-anticipated film adaptation of Wellington author Lloyd Jones' novel.
"I was actually in bed," she says. "It was during the school holidays and I was having a sleep-in. And then my Dad just burst in the door and said: 'Wake up! Wake up!'
"I went 'what happened?' [He said] 'You've got the part.'
"I was still half asleep and I went 'oh'. Then: 'Oh, I got the part!' I went up and hugged him and everybody was really happy for me."
And no wonder. Xzannjah – the X is pronounced – had landed the crucial part of Matilda the teenager. It would mean acting alongside British actor Hugh Laurie, whose title role in House saw him become the highest-paid actor on American television, and being directed by New Zealand box office success story Andrew Adamson, of Shrek and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Equally impressive was the fact that Xzannjah, who was at school in Bougainville, had never acted before.
She credits her mother – doctor Healesville Joel, who is also a first-time actor in the film, playing Matilda's mother – for kick-starting her on the road to Mr Pip. Her mother had read in a newspaper that Adamson, who had spent time in Papua New Guinea when aged 11 to 18, was adapting Jones' award-winning Mister Pip and was auditioning teenagers to play Matilda.
Adamson was also determined to film much of it in Bougainville, where the story is set in 1991 during the bloody civil war.
Xzannjah prepared herself for the audition by reading Mister Pip.
"I knew the plot, the story, everything. So it really helped me in the auditions. I really loved the story."
In the film Laurie plays expatriate Mr Watts, who is asked to fill in as a teacher at a village school. He reads from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, which captures the imagination of Matilda. The film includes sequences – shot in Oamaru using the town's distinct 19th century architecture – where Matilda mixes her world with that of an imagined Victorian England.
Xzannjah, who turned 15 during filming and is now 17, says she could relate to Matilda being inspired by a novel. She has read books and even Mister Pip has been an influence. "It's helped a lot in my life."
She hasn't, however, read Great Expectations in its entirety.
"I found some of the language a bit hard to come to terms with. Somewhere along the line I stopped. But to make it easier they got me to watch [a] movie [version]."
Having her mother play her mother was another big surprise. Xzannjah says she was told it was because they struggled to find the right person for the role, despite an extensive search. Then one day Adamson asked: "How about your real Mum? Would she like to?"
"I said: 'My Mum's a doctor, a gynaecologist. She's real busy.' But to my surprise she said yes. She did an audition and got the part."
Xzannjah has been back and forth to New Zealand several times for the film. She was flown to Auckland for acting workshops as part of a call-back process before landing the part. She then returned for more preparation, coached by veteran New Zealand actor Rawiri Paratene from Whale Rider.
"The camera adores her," Paratene says. "She is gorgeous and it's not just her face. It's not just the physical beauty that she brings. She's a 14-year-old girl going on 8 and this is a quality that is incredibly appealing to an audience. Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider – she brought the same thing. Paratene says."
Xzannjah says it was then that it really sank in just how important her role was and the large amount of screen time she would have in the film alongside Laurie.
"I felt a huge load of responsibility. A lot of times I felt 'what if I'm not giving it my best shot'."
But she credits the support of Paratene, Laurie, other cast members, which includes New Zealander Kerry Fox, and Adamson, for being able to step up.
Adamson says he was confident in her from the moment she was rehearsing with Laurie.
"You could see them immediately having a fascination with each other. They were kind of sizing each other up and it was just this great chemistry that worked straightaway."
She's also able to comfortably watch herself on screen.
"When watching it, I don't really feel like I'm watching myself. I'm watching Matilda. I'm watching a different person up on the screen."
Xzannjah, who lives in Buka on Bougainville, has experienced some of the side effects of stardom. At the Toronto Film Festival last year she found people lining up for her to sign autographs. But in a way she was already prepared.
She says when she was cast friends and local people quickly gave her the nickname "movie star" and she was the subject of some good-natured teasing.
"In the classroom they'd call me 'X Star' or 'X-tra'."
Mr Pip is screening now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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