Most teen starlets are probably satisfied to look their hottest on press junkets and don the cutest duds they can find at Fred Segal. But at 15, Q’Orianka Kilcher isn’t your average Teen Vogue pinup. Perhaps it’s indicative of the added expectations – and attendant ambitions – that come with playing Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World, but Kilcher seemed to be firing on all cylinders, in terms of accomplishments, when she showed up at San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton in gorgeous multiskinned boots and a covetable leather jacket, both of which she made herself.
A dancer, musician, and singer, yet relatively untried in the movies, with only a small part in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to her name, Kilcher – the daughter of a native Peruvian Quecha/Huachapaeri father and a Swiss-Alaskan mother – rose above the iconic demands of playing the metaphorically loaded yet still mysterious Indian princess with considerable charm, unstudied poise, and sweet naturalism on film. Bringing modern-dance moves and a watchful (and watchable) lightness to the first half of The New World, she holds her own when the stifling star power and narrative filter of Colin Farrell as John Smith falls away and Pocahontas and her sadly all-too-familiar story of a native woman’s tragic encounter with "old-world" colonizers move closer to the center of The New World.
Petite, simultaneously softer and rawer than Malick’s other girlish innocents (Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven), and just as graceful in person as she is in front of the lens (except when she is later startled in the women’s room and then resembles a frightened doe in her buckskins), Kilcher seems to be handling the weighty burdens of representing a legendary figure (which included getting her first kiss, from Farrell) well, although a body can obviously only take so much. "Omigod, my back just … cracked!" she yelped, rising from her gilded nest of a settee.
SFBG: I found the Pocahontas story extremely moving because it reminded me of the sad stories of native Hawaiian royalty I’d hear growing up.
Q’Orianka Kilcher: I grew up in Hawaii! I lived there for six and a half years. We lived on the North Shore, Oahu, Kailua, Waikiki – omigod I’m forgetting the names – Wailua? I remember surfing, being at the beach every day, catching beautiful, tropical-looking fish.
SFBG: What were your impressions of Pocahontas before you took the role?
QK: I just knew the cartoon like everyone else. But when I went to Virginia, I did so much research. I learned her native language, Algonquian, and I can even speak it today. I immersed myself. The sets that Jack Fisk designed, as well as the clothing Jackie West made, really helped me to get lost in the 1600s and how life kind of was back then – the purity and delight and simplicity.
SFBG: The clothing conveys the character’s physical changes.
QK: It really does. When she’s in Virginia in her traditional tribal clothes, she holds the spirit of freedom and is able to move freely around, and when she moves to London and has the corset on, she’s very constricted. I went home and cried the first time I tried on my corset and my shoes. I had them put on my corset extra-too-tight and my shoes a size too small.
SFBG: What was the audition process like? Did you know who Terrence Malick was?
QK: I didn’t. I didn’t know who Colin Farrell was; Christian Bale, not too much. I must have done 15 to 20 auditions. I never knew what to expect, because they’d tell me to suddenly do a traditional feather dance or play my Native American flute. They would put all these obstacles in my path to see if I would withstand them and overcome them.
SFBG: What was the shoot like?
QK: It was an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes I would be crying for four or five hours straight – those were my favorite scenes to film, because I was able to throw my whole heart and soul into it and I wasn’t honestly sure in the beginning that I was able to pull those scenes off. So I’d kind of ask the spirit of Pocahontas to guide me and help me show her story as best as I could to the world.
SFBG: Did you feel any added pressure playing Pocahontas because she is such a symbol of …
SFBG: … and …
SFBG: And America.
QK: People have so many different views. Being a young girl myself – Pocahontas seeing a white person for the first time, with their armor and their white skin, never seeing them before, I think she would have perceived John Smith in a way like a god or spirit. So there was a little bit of a crush and [a] naïveté. Were she given the foresight to see what devastating consequences her actions and beliefs in the hopes for peace would have brought upon her own people, I think she would have gone away from [him]. I wanted to show Pocahontas’s story as best I could to the world and really do her justice because I fell in love with who she was. I thought she was an amazing, strong woman who wasn’t afraid to dream.