Onata April: The What Maisie Knew child star outshines Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan

Onata Aprile, the acclaimed star of What Maisie Knew, was only six when shooting started. Kaleem Aftab meets a precocious talent

The praise Onata Aprile is receiving for her performance in What Maisie Knew would please a veteran actor let alone by a girl who was just six years old when the cameras rolled on the movie adaptation of Henry James' 1897 novel.

Laurence Phelan, reviewing in The Independent, described her performance as “beautifully and very naturally played”. Justin Chang in Variety weighed in with “Aprile is remarkable as Maisie and manages to convey in every close-up the painful, premature knowledge described by the title”. Anna Smith in Empire said, “performances are strong and Aprile is a remarkable young talent”. Not since a seven-year-old Dakota Fanning exploded into the public consciousness in 2001's I Am Sam has one so young received so much praise.

Aprile is the eponymous character in the tale of a young girl used as a pawn in a difficult divorce. It's some feat that she manages to outshine the performances of both Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, who play her parents. Both claim to want guardianship of Maisie after a messy divorce but try to palm their daughter off to each other whenever the difficulties of parenthood get in the way of their own lives. Maisie spends more time with the new partners of her parents, played by Swedish star Alexander Skarsgard and Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham.

Her relationship with Skarsgard is pivotal. When I meet Aprile, she is clinging to the True Blood star. The precocious talent shows she has an eye for stardom by wanting to be interviewed on a day of interviews that also features Skarsgard and the film's directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel. Yet upon meeting her it becomes apparent just how remarkable her performance is, as she seems far more boisterous and independent then the character she plays. She delivers short, monosyllabic answers that one would suspect from one so young.

She says what she remembers about being on set is “Alex would carry me by his arms.” Her co-star would amuse her between takes of the many scenes that they acted-in together by swinging her around the room.

Skarsgard is as praising of his young co-star as the reviewers, admitting that the film would have been a disaster if the wrong girl had been cast. “It was all about finding the right girl,” says the 37-year-old. She's in every scene. It doesn't matter how good the script is, how great the directors are, or the other actors, if you don't fall in love with the girl then you don't have a film.“

What Maisie Knew is told from the child's perspective and Skarsgard said he had to make sure that they had a believable connection – “finding a kid that had that raw quality, who wasn't a Hollywood starlet, someone who is real”.

Aprile, who recently turned eight, says, about playing Maisie, “I liked playing her a lot. It was a lot of fun”. As for any preparation, she said: “This is the only time I have seen Alex in a film. We did a little bit.” Two weeks before shooting she and Skarsgard met and they played a bit and familiarised themselves with each other, so that there was a natural chemistry on set.

Given her stunning performance, Skarsgard could get a job as a child acting coach should he ever hit a roadblock on his own stellar career. Aprile wanders in and out as I chat to Skarsgard, answering questions when she feels like it and then disappearing when she is bored. Skarsgard sat with Aprile when they watched the premiere. The actor asks Aprile if she has ever seen herself on screen before. The young actress has had roles in an episode of Law and Order and has had parts in Nick Cassavetes's Yellow, and The History of Future Folk, a sci-fi adventure about the origins of an alien bluegrass band. She says that this time was the first time she was allowed to see her own work.

Aprile is taken everywhere and mentored by her actor-mother Valentine, who appears with her daughter in the short film Twist. Valentine's Twitter account reveals that she has just finished making a film Babysitter and she has a Facebook page promoting both their careers.

The directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who previously made The Deep End with Tilda Swinton, remark that Aprile's mum is far from the stereotype of the pushy stage mother.

Key for them in getting a performance from Aprile was building up her trust in both them and the actors. They had heard some horror stories before about how film-makers try to coax performances from young stars, including a tale told to them by an assistant director who had spent the whole shoot of a movie building a relationship with a child star. The motivation for doing so was that when the director needed an emotional performance from the child she told the kid that her parents had left her and would never come back. The directors lament, “she built up this bond of trust for this one moment – and was telling us this proudly.”

They gave Aprile toys on set to amuse her. What they saw as a potential problem was having the tiny Aprile being intimidated by having to act alongside a 6ft 4in actor. Luckily, they say: “Alex is so great with children that it was never an issue. There is something about this young girl being so small, and putting the two of them together and in a single frame was remarkable. ”

“The whole reason we got involved in the project was the challenge of telling the story,” says Siegel. “We needed a child that could convey that experience and to do that we were lucky to find an actress like Aprile. When we cut the film we were surprised to see how much we could rely on her performance. She is so good in the close-up. We were really lucky.” It was a huge risk to rest a whole movie on a child's shoulders but the critical reaction has proved that they were right to do so.

So what next for the young actress? Aprile is currently a student at PS3 school in Manhattan. She has taken no acting roles since appearing in What Maisie Knew, suggesting that Valentine is keeping her daughter's feet firmly on the ground.

'What Maisie Knew' is out now

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month