Q'Orianka Kilcher made her film debut as a choir girl in Ron Howard's Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Kilcher also competed on Star Search and used to sing for money at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, alongside her mother and brother. When Kilcher's headshot was submitted for Steven Spielberg's miniseries Into the West, she was thought to be more suitable for Terrence Malick's The New World, which was casting for Pocahontas. At age 14, Kilcher found herself in a starring role of a studio picture, opposite Colin Farrell and Christian Bale. I spoke to Kilcher on January 6 at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: First of all, I'm curious how you perceive what historically transpired between John Smith and Pocahontas because this movie is kind of—it's historically accurate in a lot of ways, but it's also kind of the legend.
Q'Orianka Kilcher: Well, yeah, and it's also Terrence Malick's vision and version that—the story of John Smith and Pocahontas—it's a love story, but it's more so to me the struggles of what this woman Pocahontas went through and the choices that she made and didn't make and the effects of her decisions that she decided to make, on her people as well as the United States today.
G: I know you've said that one of the lessons of the film is that we can learn from our past—that we don't make the same mistakes.
QK: Did you interview me before?
G: No, no. I just did my research, though.
QK: Oh. (Laughs.)
G: I was wondering specifically how you would apply that to The New World. What do we learn from that story?
QK: Your loyalty—the decisions that you make in everyday life—affect the people around you as well as the environment. To really think before you do something and to try in the best possible ways to strive towards peace rather than fighting, so to say, billion-dollar wars for oil when you have cleaner choices like fuel-cell cars and things like that. There's steps, and I want to try to take, and encourage other people to take, the first steps and try to make better things happen.
G: And you drove a fuel-cell car to the premiere, right?
QK: Yeah, I did. I arrived in a fuel-cell car—
G: What was your first impression of Terrence Malick?
QK: My first impression was he was an extremely sweet, sweet guy and was a bit shy, though. 'Cause I had met him first in our audition. He didn't speak too much. He just told me to make up a story and was like, [soft-spoken] "Oh, oh. Good. Good. Thank you so much." So he was adorable, adorable.
G: I know his method of working is pretty unique. First of all, I know that there's a lot of research entailed with this film. What was your research like and how useful was it to you?
QK: Well, before I got the role, I only knew the cartoon like everyone else. But when I went to Virginia, they had a great research team there and they gave me tons and tons of books to do research in. So I was like reading all the time. And I also learned Algonquin, which was their native language. And they had re-resurrected it, so to say. So I was doing that research—I was reading Terrence's script so it would have his vision of the story in my mind as well. That was my research of it—and going camping, being in nature—finding beauty in simplicity.
G: I know that script of his is a lot more voluminous in dialogue than the actual film. How did that work—translating that script into the final—well, the scenes that you shot and then the film?
QK: You know, it was a really, really funny thing—because I would have so much dialogue—and then, like three minutes or four minutes before shooting, Terry would be like, "Um, uh, Q'Orianka, uh, would you, you know, you know, just maybe just say this one line, and don't say anything else?" So I was like, "Ohh—kay. Can you give me a few minutes please?" Because, it was, in a way, like learning a whole new language in itself, and because I had to internalize everything that I would have been saying and try to convey it through my facial expressions and my body language and movement. So it was challenging. But I loved the challenge of doing it, and I learned a new thing, in acting. So it was fun—
G: I understand you—that Terrence Malick made a decision not to let you meet Colin Farrell before you shot your first scene. Did you agree with that choice, and how did that work out for you? What was it like when you did have your first take?
QK: Well, yeah, I agreed with the choice. It definitely created lots of tension in between us and made us more curious to each other because there is curiosity to the unknown. The first time when we met was during the scene where Pocahontas saves John Smith. The famous thing. So, it was exciting and very like, "Whoa, my god. I'm seeing this person now. It was really close to how I imagined John Smith and Pocahontas to be the first time that they saw each other. It was exciting just to see each other way far away—across a fennel field or a grass field or something, because we weren't even allowed to see each other.
G: And after that kind of unique icebreaker, in front of the cameras, how did the relationship develop from there? Did you immediately just start hanging around?
QK: No, we had to wait until the characters got extremely familiar with each other in the film. And that's when we were allowed to talk to each other and be like, "Hi" and "What's your favorite color?"—like, to get to know each other more. Because Terry didn't want us to get very comfortable with each other until we did in the film—
G: Now working on a film like this is quite immersive—like you said, it was almost like a camping trip, I guess. After living it for so long, when you finally saw the film, what were your impressions of it, and were you surprised by the shape of it?
QK: I was surprised by the shape of it. I was also extremely overwhelmed because we had been waiting so long and working for quite a while on the film. It was really interesting to see the way it was cut. Because the way that we filmed it, I had already pieced it together in my mind and made it into a movie already. So it was in my mind—and to see what was used, what wasn't used, what scenes ended up being used in the beginning here instead of here when we filmed it—so it was really interesting, extremely overwhelming. And I definitely enjoyed it the second time and the third and fourth time when I saw it because I noticed more different details that I hadn't seen before. And I liked it more and more every time I saw it.
G: It's very textured, yeah.
QK: Yeah. I've seen it ten times now and I'm still surprised and like, "Are you sure they didn't cut it since the last time we saw it?"
G: Is there something in particular that sticks out in your mind that's on the cutting room floor that maybe we might see in an extended cut later?
QK: You know, I'm really hoping for this one scene because I really think it shows how low that Pocahontas went. Because right now, the story's beautiful, except I think it makes Pocahontas look a bit desperate for John Smith's love. It's when she goes to John Smith after she's kidnapped, and he's chopping the wood there. In that scene—because earlier on in the movie, my father says to me, "You have to put your people before your own heart. He is not your heart" and it shows John Smith walking, so obviously he knows it's my heart. And in this scene that was cut, and now I go grab his hands when he starts saying, "We should have stopped before it was too late. I didn't want to hurt you. Da da da da da da da—" and then I go and grab his hands. It makes her look a bit desperate, and then they go in the woods and do the thing. Originally that scene was: I went to him, and I actually had a knife. And I was going to stab him when he turned this way, and he slaps me and I go back, and he grabs the knife away from me, and I try to grab it back and then I'm, like, shocked. Because it was like kind of like that I was just so cold because Pocahontas' brother dies, and she's kept out of her family and all these things. And then she's like, oh my gosh, she's gonna kill her heart. And then she becomes kind of, like, fragile and that's a beautiful thing to see because you see that she was gonna kill her own heart. You see how low she went. And I really hope that's one of the scenes that's back in the thing. And a little bit longer of when John Smith is leaving on the boat—that scene they cut quite a bit. And just as I'm about to look up, they spliced it away and I'm like, "Arrrhhrrrrggggrrr!" That drives me insane every time I see it. I'm like, "One second more! Just one second!" So I'm hoping for at least the knife scene because I think it kind of—not having that in there took away the strength of Pocahontas. And I hope it's in there. But I love the movie anyways.
G: So do I—Since this was your first big acting role, and you were working with experienced actors like Colin Farrell and Christian Bale, I know they offered you some advice, right? What sort of advice did you get from those two guys?
QK: Well, Colin—he told me it's not about being perfect, but really being true to yourself and the spirit of your characters that you play. Because ever since I was little, I've kind of been a little bit of a perfectionist. So he told me that. And, as actors and actresses, or whatever it is you do, it's like you should never take yourself too serious enough to be human. Because that's really what matters most in the end. And just being on set with Christian, Colin Farrell—I mean, all these—this amazing, accomplished cast—just being on set watching them when I was wrapped, I learned so much from them.
G: Was there a particular moment you remembered—because I know Terry kind of likes to let things go—do some improv—where you remember kind of letting go and coming up with something really remarkable?
QK: I remember this one scene. I always have to let myself go, kind of. I remember this one scene, though, where I was—it was actually two scenes, but one that was in the movie I'll tell you about. Not the one that's not in there. But it was actually a mistake—it all happened, and we just caught it on film. It's the scene where John Rolfe and Pocahontas are in this huge mud thing. And I fall backwards. Yeah, you know, it wasn't written in the script or anything. I actually kind of—I was feeling really terrible that day, and I kind of blanked out or something—so I fell backwards. Because the mud suddenly felt so heavy. And it just came out so nice and kind of intimate in between them—the first time that you actually see them kind of laughing with each other. So that was probably one of the greatest mistakes that happened on set.
G: A lucky accident, they call it.
QK: Yeah, a lucky accident. And we have it on film—
G: I'll wrap up by giving you a chance to plug one of your causes—I know there's a lot of them. What message would you like to get out given the opportunity that you have?
QK: For anyone that has a dream, just keep on following your dream, and keep it alive even though you think that, "Oh god, it's never gonna happen, or it looks like it's not." Just keep on following it, and stay true to yourself.
G: Alright, thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
QK: Thank you so much. Take care.
[For Groucho's review of The New World, click here.]