Slightly mystical: Q’orianka Kilcher

By Steve Beard

(Risen, January/ February 2006)

No, I didn’t ask her.

Apparently, it has been the inevitable question in all her previous interviews.

I regret to inform you that if you want to know what she thought about kissing Colin Farrell, you’re going to have to go buy one of those other magazines.

After conducting a worldwide search for an actress to play Pocahontas in Terrance Malick’s The New World, the studio rolled the dice with 15-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher (yes, she is Jewel’s cousin).

Right up front, let me say that I had low expectations of interviewing someone of such a tender age. While I don’t consider myself an ageist, it was an unavoidable temptation to take her less than seriously. But, I figured that if they weeded through eight kajillion head shots and dug the vibe of a complete unknown like Q’Orianka, there must be more to this teenager than a lip-lock.

I was right.

We decided to meet for breakfast. She showed up with her mother. I felt like I was back in the 9th grade, meeting mom before taking her daughter to the prom. Thankfully, it was far less stressful than when I was meeting parents as a sweaty-palmed 15-year-old. Q’Orianka struck me as a confident, humble, and engaging young woman who had performed publicly around Waikiki Beach from when she was knee-high. She sang and danced, living out her childhood on a stage. During our time together, she spoke almost philosophically, as though she was twice her age. At other times, she spoke whimsically to remind me that she was, indeed, a teenager.

Q’Orianka is an adrenaline junkie who likes kung fu, kite surfing, and wants to go on a dangerous white water rafting expedition. At the same time, she comes across as peaceful, grounded, and slightly mystical.

Six years ago, she was filming an infomercial and was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. “An actress,” Q’Orianka said. “Well, who do you want to play?” she was asked. “Pocahontas,” she replied.

I am not exactly sure how to process that kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But after having had breakfast with her, I must admit that I was not terribly surprised.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine at Swingers Diner in Santa Monica, California.

What is your ethnic heritage?

I’m half Queschua/Huachipaeri Indian from the jungles of Peru and I’m Swiss and Alaskan from my mother’s side.

Have you visited your family in Peru?

I went over there right after filming the movie and it was a wonderful eye-opener and very humbling. It really makes you not take anything for granted, makes you love every day. Peru is very nice but it is hard. It will smack you in your face. It’s a nice vacation over there if you don’t really look at what’ going on there. But if you do, it’s a little draining.

You can lose yourself so easily in Hollywood. You have so many people telling you how great you are. You can kind of lose yourself and lose your soul. So going over there was kind of like, “Yeah, okay, cool. I am so blessed.”

Do you fear losing your soul in Hollywood?

Oh yeah, definitely. I definitely do, except my mom is very good in keeping me going in tiny little steps in the right direction and I am surrounded by wonderful people. I don’t have any terrible sharks around me. I feel very fortunate about that. I have lots of people watching out for me.

You were born in Germany and grew up in Hawaii. Now you live in Los Angeles. Where is home in your heart out of all these places?

I would say around the world because I adore traveling and actually next year I’m going to Brazil because my aunt and I started this organization called Identity for Initiative. It is about finding your identity through positive initiative in things in the world. We are all meeting in Brazil next year. About 5,000 people are going to be coming from around the world and talking about issues that need to be brought to attention.

What kind of issues?

It’s like a human rights and environmental activist organization.

When did you begin performing publicly?

I actually started as a singer because singing was my love. It is a great way to get your voice heard by people and get your messages out. I started singing when I was about 5 or 6 and then acting when I was about seven—I was in my mom’s acting classes.

Where did you learn how to dance?

I started taking Tahitian dance classes around 5 or 6 years old. And with the last little bit of money, my mom would send me to dance classes. They had people coming from West Africa and teaching West African dance. I would take Samba classes and then I would take ballet classes—a whole bunch of things. Now, when I dance, it is a mix of Tahitian, Samba, and Salsa and other things.

Do you think people are tutored to have rhythm, or it is something that it is innate?

I think everyone has it in them but some people still need guidance to try to find it. Other people just have it.

What kind of music do you write?

The CD that I’m working on right now is all songs that were inspired by the making of this film. I would go home sometimes and stay up till 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and I would be writing songs because it was a once in a lifetime experience. I was just savoring every minute that I experienced. It’s a mixture of a lot of different things. It’s nothing out there that I can say, “It’s like that,” or “It’s like that,” or something. I don’t really categorize it. I guess we’ll see when it comes out.

What is the inspiration for art, music or poetry?

You can find it in the smallest things. I learned from Terrence Mallack that you can find beauty in the smallest things like the trees blowing in the winds or something. You can get it from anywhere. You can get it from sitting in here. You can write a song about sitting in a restaurant or something.

You are also involved in the martial arts.

Yeah, I do Wushu Kung Fu at the National Wushu Training Center.

Are you attracted to dangerous things?

I guess so. Like not stupidly dangerous things, but things that burn a fire inside your soul and make you feel really like you’re alive.

What is it like to step in and play such a spectacular historic character like Pocahontas?

I would say that I lost myself in the telling the story of Pocahontas. The people of my culture are spiritual, like my grandmother. We have a way of asking the spirits for guidance and thanking them for what we have gotten. So everyday before I would go to the set, or I would have a big scene, I would go in my trailer and I’d do a ceremony and ask the spirit of Pocahontas to guide me and help me telling her story as best as I could to the world. My biggest challenge throughout the movie was to do Pocahontas justice and show her story as best as I could to the world.

When I’d be there on set, I would just think of her story and think of what she was going through. I really wasn’t myself. And feelings would overwhelm me. It wasn’t hard work, except I would cry so much if I had a crying scene to the point that you just get so tired, you can’t cry anymore. You can just close your eyes, and you’ll fall asleep. And so I would get to that point and would be, “I can’t do it anymore.” I was so worn out that right when we’d get back to the trailer I’d just fall asleep if I’d sit down. But I don’t think I could’ve done it without her guidance. Because I really feel that I had her guidance there in things like that.

Having had such a mystical or metaphysical connection to that character, would it be difficult to act in something like a teen comedy?

I want to do only meaningful films and things that have very good messages. I don’t want to do a movie to get a wider audience so I can build up my career. That stuff doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t think I’d ever do anything silly like that. But then again, you never know.

Where did you learn how to perform the ceremony that you did every day?

I would say probably my grandma and intuition. Because my mom’s always told me stories about my grandma.  But I don’t really know because I didn’t ever have anyone tell me, “Do this, do this, do this.” I wouldn’t go a day without waking up at like 4:00 in the morning and doing my ceremony. And then I would feel ready and strong for the day, like I was guided.

What elements did you use in the ceremony?

I had sage with me or thyme, and I had my eagle feather with me, or a conjurer feather. And I would just go outside and ask for guidance and stuff.

Are you still pinching yourself about getting the lead in this movie?

Some days, I take it for granted and get caught up in my own little drama, and I snap out of it and I’m like, “Wow. I am so lucky.” Because very few people get a chance to do this and have such a wonderful start with something so meaningful. Because usually you have to do a whole bunch of crap.

You have entered all kinds of talent contests, do you lose graciously?

I take it as a learning experience. I don’t really like competing with somebody and saying, “Oh, I’m better at this than them, and they’re better at that than me.” I compare myself to myself, and try to make myself better than myself.

I’m a firm believer in “Everything happens for a reason.” And you might not see the reason right then, and it might be very unfair-looking in your eyes. But then something will come along and you’ll say, “Nope, it’s best that that happened to me.”

Have you always wanted to be an actress?

My soul was in singing. And I wanted to be a singer. And I actually thought that singing would take off before my acting would. Because I always looked older than I was. And when I was up for the older roles, I was competing with the 18-, 19-, 20-year olds. So I just kind of gave up on acting…and then this came along. And I never would have expected it, because this is one of my dream roles, to be able to portray Pocahontas. She was an amazing person.

She had to make tremendous sacrifices.

It was very sad to me to see how she was able to change and converted to Christianity and became Rebecca. And her son was actually a symbol of peace because it was the coming together of two totally different worlds, starting to collaborate and instilling peace. And I believe she always had the vision for that. But I sometimes wonder if she would have had the foresight to see what devastating consequences would have happened to her people in defending the English and trying to help them, if she would’ve still done what she did, or strive away from it. And I think she was a bit naïve in that sense.

Foresight is a difficult thing to have at a young age.

Foresight is a difficult thing to have when you’re young and still trying to identify yourself in a modern, changing world and find out who you are while striving to stay true to your culture and your heritage and your heart might be a little bit with a foreigner like John Smith, that you’d never seen before. And is in a way a god to you. Yeah, I’m sure John Smith swept her heart up or something like that.

Love does some crazy things. How do you view her? 

I think of Pocahontas as a visionary, a peacemaker ahead of her time. And living proof of how far the willingness of a dreamer of new worlds can go. I would be the quickest to defend Pocahontas if people start arguing. I really admire her—giving up her sense of freedom and becoming Rebecca.

Filming such a notable and radical change such as conversion, was that emotionally taxing for you? Was that a difficult scene to work through?

Being able to run around freely in the woods for 4 ½ months in Virginia in Pocahontas’ traditional tribal clothes really had the sense of freedom and one with nature and really made you feel so alive in a wonderful way, and so simple. When we went to London and I changed into her English wardrobe with the tight corset—I actually had to make my corset extra tight and to put my shoes a size too small in order to feel the way I imagined Pocahontas would feel. It was so sad for me. I cried, actually. Because I really felt like a caged bird and I really gave up something. It was so sad for me to not even fully go through what she probably would have gone through. But I had to go through it.

Would you describe your spirituality?

I don’t have one thing that I believe in. I don’t have one thing that I’m like, “This is the only thing and there’s nothing else.”

Do you pray?

I do my ceremonies.

Are you fearful of fame?

No, because I’m not doing it so I can live in a Beverly Hills house. I’m doing it for bigger things—to do something good in the world and bring messages across.

You’re going to become a role model for young women. What do you want to tell them?

Follow your dreams. Always keep on dreaming. Keep them bigger than people say is too much. And keep on working hard toward your dreams and your goals and they will in some way, shape, or form happen.

Are you nice or honest?

I would say that I’m honest. I would think you’d want someone to be honest with you as well. If you are looking really silly or you’re getting a Hollywood attitude, you don’t want people patting you on the back and saying, “Oh, you’re wonderful” when actually you’re being a total b-i-t-c-h. My family’s always been honest with me. I strive to be a very honest person.

What is your most fearful moment?

My most fearful moment is when I got caught up in my silly little things in Hollywood and my mom was honest with me and was like, “Q’orianka, you need to stop.” And she sat me down, and gave me a lecture. And yeah, I really hated the lecture, but it really snapped me out of it. I don’t want to become that person. I really want to be a good person and not fall into everything that happens as a young actress in Hollywood and become involved in drugs and alcohol and this kind of stuff. And it was really scary for me to think that I was going in that direction a little bit. I was like, “Yikes.” I was so scared, I was like, “Thank you so much, Mom, for telling me that.” Because it would’ve been so sad because that’s not what I ever started out to accomplish.

Where do you see yourself in 10,000 years?

I don’t know, traveling through space. I don’t know.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck. (c) Steve Beard/Thunderstruck Media.

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