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The smallest star shines brightly

When the directorial team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel discuss the star of their new film, What Maisie Knew, they talk about her ease in front of the camera, her ability to convey powerful emotions in close-up, and her gift for instinctively understanding a scene’s emotional core. They had the same fortunate experience, the pair say, with Tilda Swinton on their 2001 thriller The Deep End, but whereas Swinton was a classically trained, Cambridge-educated screen veteran, their new lead, Onata Aprile, was a six-year-old girl.

”It would have been disastrous if we’d got it wrong,” McGehee admits. ”What we found with Onata, and what kept expanding as we worked with her and cut her performance together, was that we were able to rely on her much more than we anticipated. We were able to use her remarkable ability in close-up to help build the emotional story in a way that we couldn’t have imagined at the script stage. All the time she was really honest, giving a genuinely emotional performance.”

A contemporary retelling of Henry James’ 1897 novel about a child’s view of her bitterly divorced parents and their new partners, What Maisie Knew couldn’t work without a gifted child actor as its fulcrum. Every scene is told from the perspective of Maisie, a bright but increasingly abandoned six-year-old fought over but then neglected by her selfish parents – veteran rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan).

Without narration or contrived exposition, Maisie’s understanding of her situation, and that of her parents’ new spouses, bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard) and her former nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), is told visually. Onata’s face flickers from joyous to solemn as the mood changes, while her realisation that her parents’ love is flawed proves heartbreaking.

Since the earliest motion pictures, filmmakers have been working with children, and audiences have responded. In 1935, seven-year-old Shirley Temple was the biggest box-office draw in the world, receiving more fan mail than Greta Garbo or Clark Gable.

Child actors, as opposed to the older teenagers who came to the fore in the 1950s, could bring an innocence and emotional clarity to the screen, although their naivete has long been exploited.

”We’ve heard some terrible stories about the way people have got performances from kids,” McGehee says. ”We heard from an assistant director once about needing an emotional performance from a kid and telling the kid that her parents had left and were never coming back. She made the kid believe it – she’d built up this bond of trust throughout the shoot for this one decisive moment – and was telling it to us proudly.”

Child acting is a lucrative profession, and some hopefuls come with professional headshots and first-name knowledge of the relevant casting directors. Onata Aprile, a student at Manhattan’s P.S. 3 school, had already enjoyed two small roles, but that flowed on from tagging along with her actor mother, Valentine. She wanted to act, but had no idea of the stakes involved or the responsibility that would be placed on her tiny shoulders on workdays that were legally mandated at nine hours long.

”We were talking about resting an entire movie on her and that was a huge leap of faith,” Siegel says. ”We considered what would happen if we got to day five and she didn’t want to do it any more.”

Onata was supported and prepared by her mother, who McGehee and Siegel stress was the opposite of the sadly common pushy stage mother, while her adult co-stars also worked closely with her. Skarsgard, who uses his considerable height to show vulnerability instead of his usual dominance in the film, bonded with her after one play session on the floor of Siegel’s apartment.

”There was just something about her energy that felt so raw and so real,” the Swedish actor told a news website.

”And it was like she was so strong but yet vulnerable at the same time, which was a quality we were looking for. So I flew out to New York and met with her, and I was just blown away immediately.”

Moore, whose scenes with Onata are some of the emotionally harshest as Susanna draws her daughter in but then coldly puts her aside or guiltily lashes out when her career and art call, would talk through each set-up with the six-year-old, explaining her intentions. But when they shot, Onata would take those parameters and expand them, often providing Moore with something extra for her performance.

”It takes actors a long time to go from the state of acting to the state of being. She does that, and instinctively knows how to be on camera,” Moore told reporters. ”Whenever I held Onata while we were shooting, I always had this necklace on. She’d always take the locket and open and close it and look at it. Everything she did was so textured and interesting; she’d play with someone’s hair and engage physically with them. It was really remarkable.”

Onata hasn’t acted on screen since What Maisie Knew was released, although the film’s lengthy and well-received journey from the festival circuit to commercial release has kept her busy. But given the enthusiasm and ease they witnessed daily on set, McGehee and Siegel have no doubts where her future lies.

”Onata was the last person to be wrapped on the film, with a scene running up and down stairs at midnight, and everyone knew what was coming except Onata,” Siegel says.

”Dylan, our assistant director, gathered everybody and when we called ‘cut’ her mum picked her up because she was tired, and then Dylan came out and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a picture wrap on Onata Aprile’, and the place just went bananas.

”Everyone thought this child was special, whether they were close to her or not, and there was just this roar.

”Initially, Onata flinched and for a second I thought, ‘Oh, this is too much for her’, but then this smile spread across her face like a beam of light.

”It wasn’t just that she was happy, it was her feeling that she’d made it, that she’d got through the movie without failing us.”

■ What Maisie Knew opens on Thursday.

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