The Catholic woman who saved 2,500 children

Q&A with Anna Paquin, actress portraying Irena Sendler “No act of kindness is too small”

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By Julie Rattey

How did one woman save 2,500 children? On Sunday, April 19 on CBS, Hallmark Hall of Fame presents “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.” Sendler, who died in 2008, was a Polish Catholic social worker who rescued approximately 2,500 Jewish children during World War II by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hiding them in places such as Catholic convents and the homes of Polish non-Jewish families. Catholic Digest recently spoke with Academy Award-winning actress Anna Paquin about her experience playing Irena.

You’ve said that doing this film made you feel part of something important. Would you share a little more about that?

I think that telling any story that’s such an important part of history and that is so sad and painful for so many people, and telling a story of someone who was trying to make a difference and did… that’s a really amazing thing to be able to be part of. [Irena] was a very, very incredible, strong, and sort of anonymous figure from that time. It’s kind of amazing to think about how many people like that have just gone unnoticed, and to get to be a part of telling those sorts of stories is really important.

How do you think Irena’s Catholic faith influenced her actions, and how did that factor into your interpretation of the role?

She was raised a Catholic, but what she was doing was probably more, I would say, derivative of the basic values of a belief system rather than (from her) being a very religious person herself. She was doing what she believed was the right thing, which was to be helping in any way she could and to be putting herself out there and on the line.

Sometimes people encountering heroic stories like Irena’s tend to ask themselves, What would I have done? Would I have been as brave? Did you ever find yourself asking those kinds of questions?

Other people have asked me probably more than I’ve asked myself. (laughing) I was more worried about not offending her memory by trying to be as true to her as I could be without ever having met her. I would hope I would be as strong as her, but I hopefully will never have to know.

How did preparing for the role and then being part of the production affect your own life?

We were in Latvia for two months and it was winter and it was really cold. We worked six days a week and it was pretty grim. The subject matter that you’re dealing with, it’s hard to shake it off at the end of the night. Really all I was doing was preparing for the next day and trying to sleep.

How did you cope with it being such an emotional project to work on?

What’s interesting about Irena is that she was actually very unemotional. She sort of was able to — and I think that’s part of the reason she was so effective — detach from the immediate emotion and pain of it and able to be really strong and really tough. Otherwise how would she have managed to do the things that she did? That was something that I found really intriguing to play with. But also she was very compassionate, obviously. Sometimes the kindest and most compassionate thing isn’t to be too soft. The truly compassionate thing sometimes is a little painful at the time. Doing something in someone’s best interest.

In one interview on the Hallmark site you mentioned something she had said — that she was scared about what she was doing but that she was more angry about what was going on, and that that helped her.

Yeah, her anger sort of helped her overcome her fear. Anyone caught or found out or suspected to be helping in any way in the Jewish community would be killed. There was no middle ground. You’d have to be a pretty determined and strong person to really not care that that was the situation you’re putting yourself in because the situation of the people you’re trying to help was so much worse.

So would you say that her emotional strength helped you get through the day-to-day process of portraying…

Well, all I was doing was doing a film about her. There’s nothing more annoying than listening to actors talking about making a traumatic film about traumatic things as if it was as bad as the actual experience. (laughing)

Were there any things that you discovered about her that you hadn’t expected or that you found particularly interesting, or even a similarity between you and the character?

She was such a protective and loyal… It wasn’t just an abstract thing she was doing; the people who were being rounded up and sent to death camps were her friends, the people she had grown up with and knew. Part of it was very personal for her. As far as the people in my life that I love, there’s absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do for them. (I’d have) that mentality, “Say yes, think later.” I found that to be a similarity. And obviously she didn’t know what she was doing as she was doing it, necessarily, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like she had some flawless plan; it was kind of making it up as you go along and adapting to whatever happens and doing what you have to do to get by.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

For me what I like about [Irena] is that she… There was no good reason why she needed to or should have been as effective as she was — you know, one person, what can you do? But I like the idea that you can really make a difference, even if it’s only by starting a chain reaction of people who then will follow what you’ve set up, which is basically what she did. I really like that idea that no one act of kindness or following through with your beliefs is too small. Even if you don’t necessarily have the backing or the support or any idea how you’re going to pull it off. The idea that you can effect change, even if it’s just one person or two people. I find that really inspiring.

One act just led to another. There’s that scene where she says “One child is not enough,” and ends up going out to save about 2500!

Yeah, and also the, “Well you can’t do that.” “Well, why not?” (laughter)

Also I like that it’s a female story. I’m sure there were thousands more [female stories] we don’t know about. I like getting to be part of bringing someone like that into the light so that women and young girls feel like it’s not just about being a big, tough boy during crises. Part of why [Irena’s plan to smuggle children out of the ghetto] was able to work is because a mother and a child is a completely inconspicuous item. They were able to blend in. And I like that. I like that in order for a woman to be powerful, it’s not like you have to behave in a non-female way. You’re never going to be the biggest and the strongest. That’s fine. You can be very powerful and very effective in the ways that are very specific to you.  CD

What she looks for in a film project:
“I love things with talented writers and directors and interesting actors and producers who will let the creative people do the creative things that they hired them to do.”

Favorite foods: sushi and Pinkberry frozen yogurt

Her hero:
“Does having a really amazing mom count? She’s a very quietly strong woman and very bright, and somehow managed to allow me to work in a very treacherous industry and not have it wreck me as a person like it can with some people. She’s a very, very strong, great woman. It’s a good thing for a daughter to have.”

In talking about growing up with her family in New Zealand, Paquin says:

“I personally don’t care how much of a career I had as a teenager; if I had to be home by a certain time, I was home by a certain time. That was part of the condition in which I was allowed to work. My grades weren’t allowed to slip and I had to behave myself. And I was a pretty good kid anyway, so it wasn’t really a problem. There were no special rules because you’d been invited to be a ‘fabulous person’. (laughing) [The film industry] wasn’t really the focus of our family or our life. If I could be an actress and not be famous I’d be okay with that. I’m very passionate about what I do. But I like having a life with my family and my friends and the people who are important to me.”

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from