When Woman’s Day catches up with Keisha Castle-Hughes in Auckland, she’s just flown in from Los Angeles especially to see her nine-year-old daughter Felicity pick up a sporting trophy at her school prizegiving.
She’s squeezing our chat in between shooting a music video and having a dodgy mole removed from her leg. In a couple of days, she’s jetting out again to begin filming the final two seasons of Game of Thrones in Belfast.
“I’m not sad about it finishing,” insists the gorgeous 26-year-old, who splits her time between LA and Aotearoa. “It’s nice to see the show to the end and I’ve made so many lovely friends, but life’s a blur at the moment. I’m like, ‘What is happening?!’”
Indeed, Keisha has been caught in a showbiz whirl almost since she shot to fame at 12 in Whale Rider and became the youngest person nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. “Now I feel like the oldest woman in the world – I’m a complete nana,” she smiles.
The itinerant lifestyle hasn’t been good for her mental health, confesses Keisha, who revealed she suffers from bipolar disorder after the tragic suicide of her good friend Charlotte Dawson in 2014. “A lot of creatives are bipolar because your life requires you to act like that,” says the star.
“It still affects me, but I’ve found ways to manage. For me, what works is therapy and keeping fit. It’s awfully boring, but it’s about exercising and eating well. Of course you’re going to feel s* if you’re sitting on your butt and eating bad food. It sounds simple, but I still slip up.”
Mental health is a big passion for Keisha. “We don’t talk about it enough,” she insists. “We spend a lot of time asking people how they are, but we’re not necessarily willing to hear a real answer. I make an effort to be honest with my friends and check in with them. If they’re having a crap time, I want to know about it.”
Keisha reckons normalising this talk is one way to combat New Zealand’s shockingly high youth suicide statistics, which outrage and baffle her.
“I mean, we sell ourselves as being this clean, green, happy place where everyone’s always outdoors,” she says. “In LA, they’re always surprised when I tell them I’ve experienced a lot of suicide in my life.
“My best friend committed suicide when I was in high school. There was a whole string of them. It was awful and so surreal. I wasn’t emotionally or mentally equipped to deal with it. When you’re young, you get caught up in the drama rather than the reality.
“If someone gets to the point where suicide is their only option, there’s a deeper problem at play. Suicide is very much a symptom of mental-health issues, but while we talk about cancer and other diseases that kill people, we don’t talk about mental illness. We need to.”
Mental health and suicide are both issues explored in the lyrics and video for her debut single 'In the Morning', a collaboration with her good friend, artist and entertainer Mika, which premiered at the Aroha ’17 Festival of Ideas in Auckland on February 15. It will also feature on the soundtrack to an upcoming US blockbuster.
“It’s not a power ballad or a pop song,” Keisha smiles, acknowledging her unlikely move into music. “It’s more like rap or poetry.”
Keisha’s first musical memory is of owning a 12” by gangsta-rap group NWA when she was five. She recalls, “I’d play it on my record player, which was supposed to be for bedtime stories. I’ve no idea how I got my hands on it. I’ve been heavily into rap ever since, although I did go through a Spice Girls phase, charging people 20 cents to watch me do the routines. I still love them.”
When she was nine, Keisha wrote her first song, with lyrics including, “I’m sitting down here by the rose-petal tree, waiting for some guy to come rescue me.” She grins, “How sad is that? I was obsessed with having a boyfriend.”
Last time we met Keisha, she told us she wanted to renew her vows with her husband Jonathan Morrison, who she married on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Now they’re rumoured to have split and she is reportedly dating special-effects coordinator Jimmy Uddo.
But the actress is keen to be known for her work rather than her love life. Says a friend, “She doesn’t want to be known as New Zealand’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor.”
However, while she might be coy about her relationships this time around, Keisha is an open book when the topic turns to sex, another issue addressed in her song.
“Kiwis are quite prudish when it comes to talking about sex,” she muses. “I never really noticed that until I lived overseas. I’ll talk about the sex I have or a masturbation workshop that I’ve been to and people tell me I’m really out-there, but I’m just comfortable with my body.
“When I was a teenager, I wasn’t really comfortable. All through the Whale Rider journey, I felt weird in my skin. Maybe if we talked about it more, it wouldn’t be an issue.
“It’s like mental health, really. We need to talk more and worry less about what other people think.”
Where to get help
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757