Skip to main content

'Be rebellious against failure'

An interview with Q'Orianka Kilcher, star of upcoming Princess Kaiulani film

SAN FRANSISCO - ''That looks like that girl who played Pocahontas,'' said the coat check woman at the San Francisco Opera House as a striking young woman in a red evening gown passed by.

It was. ''That girl who played Pocahontas'' in the 2005 film ''The New World'' - 17-year-old actress Q'Orianka Kilcher - is now a young woman, with a new film and an articulate vision of the new world she wants to help create.

The film, based on the life of Princess Victoria Kaiulani of Hawaii, will be directed by Marc Forby and is scheduled for international release in late 2008.

Kilcher, who spent part of her childhood in Hawaii, believes she was cast as Kaiulani as much for her activism as her acting.

''They wanted somebody Hawaiian to play the role, but they presented my name to some really big people in Hawaii and they actually heard about my activism and said that there really is no other person that they would want to play the role.''

Kilcher is honored to have been selected for the part. ''Princess Kaiulani was truly an amazing person,'' she said.

Kaiulani was born in 1875 of a Kanaka Maoli mother and Scottish father. Kilcher is Quechua-Huachipaeri on her Peruvian father's side and Swiss-Alaskan on her mother's side. Both women have defended indigenous people in a time of cultural upheaval. Kaiulani, at 17, spoke in Washington on behalf of the Hawaiian nation after it was taken over by U.S. business interests in 1893. Kilcher speaks out in defense of peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, who are threatened by the exploitation of multinational corporations.

Kaiulani was born into the indigenous Hawaiian aristocracy and groomed to be a queen. After the monarchy demised, she died at the age of 23 - some say of a broken heart.

Kilcher came from a humble background and worked her way into the Hollywood aristocracy. As a child, she and her mother were homeless for a time. At 14, she was singing for pocket change on the Venice boardwalk in Los Angeles when she landed the Pocahontas role that shot her to fame.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Teenage celebrity was a mixed blessing. In Hollywood, she was being hounded by reporters and fans. But, back in Peru, Native people were fighting for their physical and cultural survival - her own family members struggling with crime and alcoholism.

She was famous, but she was angry and scared.

''Being a fancy celebrity actress traveling the world, and answering interview questions about how it was kissing Colin Farrell ... you know what? It scared me,'' she recently told an audience at the Goldman Environmental Awards. ''It scared me to realize that collectively, we know more about what is on the cover of In Touch Magazine than what human rights injustices are happening around the world and to our environment.

''I felt lost and unhappy because I suddenly felt that being a successful actor was not enough to make me feel good about myself.''

With Amazon Watch, Kilcher traveled to Peru where she witnessed firsthand the situation of the Achuar and other Amazonian peoples. She has publicly campaigned for the Achuar and for the passage of the U.N. Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Her activism, she said, ''really saved me'' during a difficult time of her life.

''You can find your identity through positive initiative taking. If you have something that you are passionate about, that you are fighting for, it keeps you straight-headed. That's what really happened to me.''

Her organization, On-Q Initiative, assists and collaborates with people who are involved in social projects. She is especially interested in facilitating the work of young Native filmmakers in Peru who have a story to tell but may not have the resources to tell it.

She now sees her celebrity as one of the best tools in her efforts to make the world a better place.

''It's good to be rebellious. I hear a lot of people talking about how today's youth is going down the drain, which is not true because I see so many young people that are standing up and taking responsibility for the future and for the decisions they are making. ''Be rebellious,'' she added. ''But be rebellious against failure.''