The Nativity Story: There's something about Mary

A teenage Oscar nominee seemed perfect to play the Virgin - until she became pregnant. Gill Pringle reports
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If many of us have grown cynical of Hollywood's convenient timing of "life imitates art" propaganda, then director Catherine Hardwicke laughs at the notion of the controversy surrounding her new film, The Nativity Story, having been staged.

"Even the most ingenious publicist couldn't have come up with that one," says Hardwicke, left to single-handedly promote her biblical epic in the aftermath of her teenage leading lady - and Virgin Mary - Keisha Castle-Hughes's own pregnancy announcement.

"I doubt there's a single person who thinks anybody did this intentionally," says the director who was still editing when Castle-Hughes called in early October to break the news of her own unexpected nativity story; by then three months pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend, Bradley Hull.

"I felt it was a really brave decision because Keisha knew that there'd be people gossiping about her. Ultimately she decided to do what she thought was right, no matter what anybody else thought, and to have that baby and to announce it and be proud of it - which is pretty courageous for 16 years old," says Hardwicke, 51, no stranger to the adolescent psyche after directing teen films Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen. "In many ways I view The Nativity Story as the third in my teen trilogy. After all, this is a movie about the most famous teenager in the world."

Casting the teenage Virgin Mary wasn't easy since Hardwicke was determined to use a 14-year-old actress with Middle eastern features: "Just as I begun to wonder whether I'd dug myself into a hole, Keisha's face popped into my head. I'd already met her and loved her in Whale Rider. She has a serenity and soulfulness about her but when we talked on the phone and I heard the Kiwi accent, I was horrified. 'This isn't going to work. What was I thinking?' I asked myself. But then she came to LA and we had a dialect coach with her for just one hour, working on a light Israeli accent, and when I saw her afterwards - all the Kiwi was gone. She has a great ear. Finally I'd found my Mary."

New Zealander Castle-Hughes made Oscar history in 2004 when, at 13, she became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her debut film, Whale Rider. The part-Maori youngster was surly when Whale Rider's casting directors visited her Mount Wellington primary school, but it was her attitude that caught their attention, having already auditioned several hundred children. Taken on by the same agent who discovered Oscar-winning Anna Paquin, she was cast in the lead role of Paikea despite the fact she couldn't even swim at the time.

"The other thing about Keisha is that this is the only movie she's done besides Whale Rider - not counting the one day she worked on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in a non-speaking part as the Queen of Naboo. So its not like you see her on The OC every week or anything, so there's kind of a purity about her performance on screen," says Hardwicke. "I think many actresses were scared to do this part; understandable when you think it's the Virgin Mary, revered all over the world for 2,000 years. But Keisha was fearless. She makes it look easy because she's so gifted and intuitive.

"You should see the other audition tapes. There's so many ways Mary could have gone way off the rails, but you don't think that when you see a beautiful performance."

Visibly cringing at the very thought of casting a Lindsay Lohan or Mischa Barton as Mary, she says: "That was never the way I was going to go. I always wanted an actress with whom you felt a spiritual connection, which I sensed with Keisha in Whale Rider, and also from knowing her. This is a young woman who's been on her own spiritual path since she was six, and is knowledgeable of a variety of religions. Some actresses that came in, I didn't feel that from them. They might be beautiful and have the best intentions, but I didn't feel they had a deep connection to the idea.

"And I don't think you can do it half way. This isn't a movie you can view as, 'oh yeah, it's another job...'. It's not. It wasn't another job for me or for Oscar Isaac (Joseph) or Nadim Sawalha (Melchior) or Shohreh Aghdashloo (Elizabeth). They felt their characters. Pretty much everybody realised that this was a special film, to be treated with love and reverence."

While Presbyterian Hardwicke attended a special premiere of The Nativity Story at The Vatican last month, her expectant leading lady was conspicuously absent. Dismissing rumours that the Vatican had frowned upon Castle-Hughes's illegitimate pregnancy, she insists: "The Vatican knew of Keisha's pregnancy from the start. And they know that she's not married, that she's an actress playing Mary. Besides, I guess she got two out of three right - she didn't use birth control and she kept the baby...

"There's a scene that has particular resonance for me, when Mary says, 'There's a will for this child that is more important, that goes beyond what other people will say.' I watch that scene today and think, 'Wow, Keisha had to make that courageous decision, too - to not worry about what other people say, , and to have this child.'

"I think everyone involved thought it was a really brave and cool thing for Keisha to do, on so many levels - and especially for an actress, usually that's the last thing they'd want to do, have a baby.

"But Keisha is very mature for her age. From the beginning I sensed a kind of old soul in her, she's very deep. Her mom also just had a baby who's about two months old, so the baby will have an uncle who's only a couple of months older - just like John the Baptist was to Jesus. And Keisha's boyfriend is in construction so he's a carpenter too. The whole thing's pretty wild! So they'll all be in the house together, with Keisha's four younger siblings. The family home has a very creative environment with easels and paintbrushes and toys.

"Keisha's baby is going to come into an atmosphere of love. Who knows what incredible person that child could turn out to be? If anything, all Judaism and Christian philosophy is against judgement of others, so I think the Christian community will be embracing and positive."

Hardwicke admits that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has helped her film, fuelling renewed interest in films about Christianity. "But Passion of the Christ was a unique case. It had superstar Mel Gibson, then it had controversy and hyper-violence, and so many things our movie doesn't have. But Mel made a very authentic film and I used that as inspiration to make my film as authentic, real, gritty and beautiful as possible."

But this, of course, was prior to Gibson's anti-Semitic outburst, which gained him few friends in Hollywood's Jewish-dominated industry. "But this film has all its roots in Judaism and is very respectful to the Jewish community. And the Jewish people weren't alone in believing Jesus was not the Son of God - nobody believed it. Who would believe it? How could you believe this young peasant girl was chosen out of every possible person? It was an unprecedented idea that the Son of God would actually come down to earth. So there's truth in the rhyme, 'Roses are red, violets are bluish; if it weren't for Christmas; we'd all be Jewish.'

"If my own Jewish friends are anything to go by, they've seen the film and were touched by it and interested in all the Jewish details. We had a Jewish scholar come down and we made a synagogue right there on the Nativity set as part of our Nativity boot camp. We all learnt to pray in the ancient Jewish way and tried to understand what these people's mind-set would be, and how Mary would have prayed to bring God closer to her; all setting the context to how anybody would have reacted if this happened."

Following her "teen trilogy", Hardwicke finally graduates from high school for her next film, The Monkey Wrench Gang, based on Edward Abbey's 1970s anti-establishment novel about a motley group of environmental warriors who wage mayhem against road builders in southern Utah.

"It's a cult classic for the environmental movement," she says. "And many people have tried to make this movie - Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack, Dennis Hopper, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson... I'm hoping several of them will actually be in the movie, too.

"Until now, people haven't cared enough about the environment to finance a movie like this - which doesn't come cheap since it's an action adventure. So many actors are environmentally conscious, so I think the time is finally right to get this movie made."

'The Nativity Story' opens on 8 December