D akota Blue Richards is a pretty ordinary 13-year-old schoolgirl. Her school friends call her Dee, or Dee-Dee. She says "like" a lot. She has a tank of pet fish. She's "a bit of an addict" when it comes to MSN. She enjoys math and English, but "I don't like Latin. And I know it's really mean to say that to the teachers and to everyone who likes Latin - but I despise it." She worries about the environment. The last film she loved was Transformers, Michael Bay's noisy robot smash-fest. When she and her friends Celeste, Grace and Olivia get together, they hang out on the seafront in Sussex, southern England where they live, or in the park, creeping up on unsuspecting strangers and shouting "Chicken pie!" before running away, howling with laughter.
"We have these really random phrases. And they're just things that we say. We do Borat impressions and stuff. We're a bit random and weird," says Dakota, with a casual little shrug. (She's a self-possessed person, quite cool and watchful, in a white shirt with trumpet sleeves, tartan leggings, bare feet and a smattering of makeup.) It's a good teenage line, hinting at the security that comes from finding your place in a tight little group as well as the heady thrill of being, well, just a bit different.
Oh, go on, show us your Borat impression, I ask, without optimism. But Dakota, after shooting a quick questioning look at her mother, Mickey - who is sitting quietly in the corner of the room - is game. "Erm, OK, I'll try," she says, straightening up. "Hallaw. My name isa Borat. Nize to meet you. Ver' nize. High five!" Dakota and her friends are mad about Borat. "We did see someone wearing a mankini once when we were out. He was just lying there on the beach. Freak! And we were like, yeuch. My friend ran up to him and she goes, 'High five!' in a Borat voice, and then ran away."
The poignant thing, of course, is that this sort of life - anonymous, free and unconsidered - will come to an abrupt end when The Golden Compass is released, which in Taiwan is tomorrow. At this point, Dakota will become a child star. And after that, anything could happen: just ask Daniel Radcliffe, Haley Joel Osment, Macaulay Culkin, Christian Bale, Drew Barrymore and Jodie Foster, plus all those has-beens whose names are now good for nothing but the pub quiz.
Everything hangs on her performance as Lyra Belacqua, the plucky, hot-headed adventurer whose struggle for self-determination steers the plot of Philip Pullman's ambitious children's trilogy, His Dark Materials. As well as carrying this US$205 million movie, with just a little help from Nicole Kidman, Christopher Lee and Tom Courtenay, Dakota is the central character in what film studio New Line hopes will be its next long-haul fantasy franchise. The company reaped US$3 billion from The Lord of the Rings: the stakes are very, very high.
I met Pullman three years ago, just as casting directors were beginning the search for Lyra, and he was full of uncomplicated excitement about the direction one girl's life was about to take. The person who would play his heroine, he said, "is probably about 11. She might not even have read the books. She's at school somewhere, and she doesn't know that this great thing is coming towards her."
"It all depends on that casting," he added, thoughtfully. "You can have the most wonderful actors all around her, but if she isn't right, it'll be a film with a great big hole in it."
In fact, Dakota is just as good as the rest of the film, which is to say that she does all that she possibly could do and makes a perfectly decent first of it. But for all its budget and lavish effects, The Golden Compass film can't touch the original material, and readers who found Northern Lights disturbing and thought-provoking may feel shortchanged at the straightforward entertainment dished up here. Either way, Pullman wins. As he writes on his Web site: "If I've written the story well enough, then a film won't spoil it."
Long before she heard it was being turned into a film, Dakota loved Northern Lights. Her mother read her the book when she was nine, and they'd been to see the stage adaptation at the National Theatre, London, England. "And since then I'd just wanted to be Lyra. Lyra's like my favorite character ever. I like the way she's so loyal and she'll go so far for what she thinks is right. She's a bit of a fighter for what she believes in ... . I'd like to think I am, too."
Dakota was born in London in April 1994, soon after her parents split up. As for her name: "My mum wanted a place-name that hadn't been used before and, well, Blue just went with it." They moved to Sussex, where Mickey ran a drug-treatment center. Dakota did nativity plays, class assemblies and a bit of local am-dram (no big parts; the adults got those). "I'd always enjoyed acting, but I never really thought I'd get into doing it professionally. It never really crossed my mind. It's like, when you're a kid, then everyone's like, 'Oh, I want to be a pop star' or 'I want to be a movie star.' And at the end of the day, I didn't. I thought of jobs I wanted to do, which would be easier to actually achieve. Acting was just a fun little hobby thing. It wasn't something I dreamed of doing."
So, what did she say when asked about possible careers? "I wanted to be a vet. But I don't any more. Now I couldn't deal with the whole thing of having to put animals down. It just seems like it might be kind of upsetting."
A family friend happened to catch an item on the BBC's children's news program Newsround, saying that open castings for Lyra were being held around the country. Dakota had to work on her mum to take her to one of the sessions.
"I said, 'Mum, I do really like the part, can I go?' And she was like, 'Well, yeah, you can go, but if it's raining I'm not taking you, and you can't go on your own.' It wasn't raining though, thank God."
That was in April, and 10,000 other British girls were also interested. In July, after two recalls and a screen test, Chris Weitz rang her at home. Mickey answered, attempted to put him on speakerphone and, butterfingered with anxiety, cut him off. When Weitz got through again, he told Dakota she had the part.
Filming was fine, she says, although she'd been expecting to go to "Greenland, Iceland, see the Northern Lights. And we went to Oxford and Chatham and Greenwich!" What a rip-off, I suggest.
"It was nice," says Dakota, remembering herself, "but it's not quite polar bears and ice and cool stuff." In between sessions with her tutor, she spent long hours alone in front of the cameras, so that the special effects - talking polar bears, witches, daemons (spirit companions/souls) and so forth - could be layered in later.
"The bear was just someone in a green Lycra costume running about. And the daemons were, like, green sacks. You're meant to really love these things and they're just ... green blobs." She was a bit nervous about meeting the stars, but there was nothing to worry about, everyone was really nice. (When I ask her to tell me a secret about Nicole Kidman, she thinks hard and says, "She likes Parma violets.") On the weekends, she'd go home to Sussex, catch up with her friends, and sense how much she was missing out on. But she managed to smuggle Celeste, Grace and Olivia into the movie: they're there towards the end, being abducted by Tartars, "and then I basically come along and save them, because I'm cool."
She has signed up to star alongside Ioan Gruffudd and Natascha McElhone in The Secret of Moonacre, based on Elizabeth Gouge's The Little White Horse, but this doesn't mean that she's set on an acting career. Nope. "What I want to do," she says firmly, "is do acting on the side. Do it more as a hobby than a job. I want to be able to go back to school in between, just be like a normal person. I don't want to go from filming to filming to filming, constantly. If I did that, I wouldn't be able to see my friends, ever, and I think I'd get a bit lonely." So she'll finish up at her private co-ed school, "and then go to university and then go on to teacher-training course. Because I want to be a supply teacher in a primary school. I think that'd be cool. I've wanted to be one since I was about 10." Dakota thinks supply teaching is probably a bit of a doss, because someone else will have planned the lesson, and you just rock up and supervise events. "You do get teachers who are annoying, and I want to be one of the teachers that kids really like." I wish her lots of luck. I imagine we all do.
The chills were what first tipped me off that something was wrong. It was an early Thursday evening in late February and I was sitting in my office. I normally hit an energy low this time of the day but this was different, as I suddenly felt chilled, absolutely drained of energy, the lightest of achiness in my muscles and joints and a slight pain behind my eyeballs. I went home, took a long hot shower and went to bed early. After a full day of rest, I felt normal enough on Saturday to jump on my bike and enjoy
1. If you go to the hospital for a check-up, plan for the worst-case scenario — having to stay there without returning home. Have a hospital “grab bag” to either take with you or have someone deliver. Recommended items include: T-shirts, shorts and sleeping clothes, socks and underwear, sweater/fleece, personal toiletries and medications, computer (and headphones) and phone plus charging cables, towel, slippers, nail clippers and reading material. Also, have a water bottle/container that nurses can fill up with drinking water. Remember that Taiwanese hospitals generally only provide the most basic of daily necessities. 2. If you test positive, anticipate
When a man surnamed Chen discovered that his wife, surnamed Chang, was having an affair with a foreign national surnamed James, he hired private investigators to catch them having sex. Chen and three private investigators staked out James’ apartment and, when they heard moaning sounds coming from Chang, burst in and filmed the couple in flagrante delicto. A judge later found the pair guilty of adultery and sentenced them to four months in prison, and ordered the foreign national to be deported. Like anywhere, adultery is a daily occurrence in Taiwan, and rarely a day passes when an adulterous couple
With around 10,000 descendants packing the ancestral shrine every Tomb Sweeping Day, the Yeh family’s grand affair made a bid for the Guiness Book of World Records in 2016. They won’t be coming even close on Saturday. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, less than 30 people will be attending and conducting the rituals. “We hope that our ancestors don’t take offense,” branch association head Yeh Lun-tsai (葉倫在) tells the Liberty Times (sister paper of the Taipei Times). Tomb Sweeping Day activities can potentially aggravate the spread of the virus as large groups congregate in cemeteries and columbariums at the same