Little American girl

  • Article by: TOM MAURSTAD , Dallas Morning News
  • Updated: June 27, 2008 - 2:02 PM

Abigail Breslin is a veteran actor with an Oscar nomination and plenty of red carpet walks behind her. But she's still 12.

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Abigail Breslin is shown in a scene from "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl."

Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann, Associated Press

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Interviewing Abigail Breslin is a good-news, bad-news experience.

The good news is that for all of her success in Hollywood, and all the trappings that go along with it, Abigail still comes across as what she is: a 12-year-old girl. She's not preternaturally poised. There's no artificial air of a showbiz automaton. No blank gaze of a soul-deadened celebrity on press-tour autopilot.

The bad news is that talking to her is like talking to any young child. You can see she's trying hard to be attentive, but she's fidgety. She looks down and around a lot and tends to respond to questions with a few words, maybe a sentence, in answers that invariably boil down to "Yes," "No" or "Kind of, but not really."

Putting a child in the celebrity-interview equation reveals just what an empty and ridiculous ritual it is. Like any kid, Abigail doesn't speak in paragraphs to answer questions she doesn't really care about, so the typical order of the interview (in which the journalist asks short, simple questions and the celebrity goes on and on) is reversed.

For instance: Her new movie, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," is a detailed and evocative depiction of Depression-era America, offering all kinds of intimate vignettes of the hardships people endured. As the plucky Kit, Abigail portrays a young girl whose family is torn apart when Dad (Chris O'Donnell) loses his job and heads to Chicago in hopes of finding work. Mom, meanwhile, has to turn the family home into a boardinghouse while Kit watches friends and classmates fall into homelessness and poverty.

It must be pretty rough to put yourself in that kind of situation. It seems as if it would be kind of, you know, depressing.

"Yeah, all the scenes having to do with that kind of stuff were sad to do," says Abigail. "But there was some fun stuff to do in the movie, so that's good."

Yes, well, that's good. Fortunately, there's an adult we can turn to -- director Patricia Rozema, who's more accustomed to handling adult fare, such as adapting Jane Austen to the big screen with 1999's "Mansfield Park" or overseeing the first few episodes of HBO's boundary-pushing drama "Tell Me You Love Me." She is able to fill in the blank between "the sad stuff" and "the fun stuff."

"You know kids have a much stronger 'receive' mode than a 'send' mode," Rozema says. "They can take it all in, but they can't really articulate it. Abigail was completely receptive and emotionally available.

"I would just talk to her and ask her, 'If this happened to you, what would you feel,' and she would just go with it. As an actor, she's as natural as can be. She can cry, but she doesn't like to because she really feels it."

There. That's more like it. So Abigail is more of an intuitive actor; she doesn't really want to "talk" about her "process." Of course, start talking to a 12-year-old actor who does want to talk about her process, and you'll see just how quickly cute can curdle into creepy. Speaking of which, one thing you can't talk to Abigail about is other child actors -- in particular, Dakota Fanning.

How do I know this? Simple. A publicist who hovered nearby throughout the interview cornered me shortly before it began to say, "Look, no child-actor questions, nothing about Dakota Fanning." Apparently, this has been a problem, as Dakota and Abigail are currently the two biggest child actors and journalists frequently ask one about the other. Superman would probably get tired of fielding questions about Batman all day, too.

Fine. So what else to talk about with a girl who has been working since she was 3 and at the tender age of 12 has already been nominated for her profession's highest honor, a supporting-actress Oscar for 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine"?

She loves the American Girl dolls that provided the inspiration for "Kit Kittredge" ("I have every single one") and is home-schooled ("so I can just get out of bed at noon if I want to and then go to school").

How about fame? It's hard enough to deal with when you're an adult. But what's it like as a child?

An adult star in this situation would go on and on, about the push and pull of fame, trying to balance the demands of public life with the need for a private life, wondering aloud at the public's insatiable appetite for scandal, or decrying the paparazzi's wolf-pack behavior.

But little American-girl Abigail has no use for any of that. She cuts right through all the celebrity-interview claptrap.

"Everybody's been nice so far. So if everybody's nice, then it's fine."

And there you have it. The state of fame and celebrity life in American culture summed up in a dozen words, one for every year Abigail has been a part of it.

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