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While watching her performance as would-be beauty

While watching her performance as would-be beauty queen Olive Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Abigail Breslin wasn't quite sure what to make of the audience's reaction at the end of the film. "People began clapping and standing up," she recalls of the packed theatre. "And I got scared. I'm from New York, and when people do that, it means you need to evacuate. Someone had to tell me, 'Nothing's wrong. This is a good thing.' "

"Good" might seem like an understatement in retrospect, but this was before the movie became the sleeper hit of the year, before it grossed more than $100 million worldwide, and before Breslin became one of the youngest Oscar nominees ever. Audiences were instantly charmed by the offbeat Hoover family and were won over by Breslin's sweet and unaffected performance. The beguiling actor managed to be adorable yet not cloying, wise yet childlike. She earned a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award and a Young Artist Award, and she shared a SAG Award with the cast for outstanding ensemble. Last week she was honored by ShoWest as the Female Star of Tomorrow. And of course there was the Oscar nomination last year, a whirlwind event that she assures us was "a lot of fun."

It's a relief and a pleasure to hear that word repeatedly come up in conversation with Breslin. The actor, who turns 12 in April, has shared the screen with Catherine Zeta-Jones (No Reservations) and Ryan Reynolds (Definitely, Maybe) since her breakout role. And in the coming weeks, she will be seen taking on impressive lead roles in two very different movies. First up is Nim's Island, opening April 4, an action-adventure film in which she receives top billing—over Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler. She will follow that with the title role in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, about a Depression-era youth, set to open in July.

Though Breslin comes off as preternaturally talented for her age, she is still a child. So it's a kick to hear her talk about why she's excited for these movies. "Kit Kittredge was really fun because it takes place in the 1930s, so I got to wear some cool clothes," she says. And Nim's Island? "I got to ride on a sea lion and be with lizards and pelicans. That was the funnest movie ever." And she shows no discernible trepidation about moving from ensemble and supporting roles to headlining: "I didn't really think about it. I just go into work and do my job."

Though she refers to acting as her job, Breslin stops short of calling it a career. "I won't really have a career until after college," she notes. Still, she has been performing for more than half her life. She credits her elder brother, Spencer (The Cat in the Hat, The Shaggy Dog), with starting her interest in acting. "He was doing it, and I started, and I liked it," she says. "So I just kept doing it." She says her first job was a Toys"R"Us commercial; her film debut was as Mel Gibson's daughter in M. Night Shyamalan's alien thriller Signs. As she was only 5 years old at the time, she doesn't recall much about the experience, other than thumb-wrestling co-star Joaquin Phoenix on the set. "I think he let me win," she reveals. Though the material was intense, the creatures were done in postproduction, and Breslin wasn't even aware the film was about an alien invasion. "When I saw the movie for the first time, I was like, 'Why are there aliens in it?' " she says with a laugh. "But it didn't scare me. At the premiere, I was carrying a pink French poodle stuffed animal instead of a pocketbook. And that's basically all I remember."

It was her performance in Signs that caught the eye of casting directors Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner, who were searching for their Sunshine Olive. Said Davis-Wagner in a Hollywood Reporter interview last year, "For the three years that we were on it—we did our first lists in January 2002—we did open calls and searched every state in the country. The thing about that character was it had very specific criteria. In addition to the challenge of finding a great young girl for such a key role, she also needed to be able to dance and was supposed to be a little bit chubby." Co-director Valerie Faris saw Breslin on tape, then caught her on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. "What really impressed us is that she was totally unaware of the audience," says Faris. "She had this really intense focus that we knew was perfect for Olive."

Even though Breslin sported a child-sized fat suit and spent long hours in a van without air conditioning on the indie shoot, the young actor says making the film was—yes—fun. She even inspired other cast members, such as Greg Kinnear, who played her floundering motivational-speaker father. "It's like she's not even acting," Kinnear raves. "She's just all honesty and truth coming through in every scene, and there's nothing better than that."

The hardest part of the shoot, Breslin reveals, was Olive's climactic dance number at the pageant, in which she shakes her groove to Rick James' "Superfreak." She admits that the first time she saw the scene on film, she had to bury her head from embarrassment. "I was nervous while filming it, but when I saw it I could only think, 'Goodness gracious!' " she says, laughing. "Olive was really brave."

Breslin's own courage paid off handsomely; her turn in the hit film has moved her into an enviable new category of actor—Dakota Fanning comes to mind. In fact, Breslin recently took on the role Fanning vacated in the film adaptation of Jodi Picoult's novel My Sister's Keeper, about a young girl who was conceived to be a bone-marrow donor for her sister. Breslin now has her choice of roles and didn't even have to audition for her upcoming films—though she says she'd have been more than happy to. Paula Mazur, a producer and writer on Nim's Island, reveals they were prepared to do a worldwide search for the title character. "Then Little Miss Sunshine came out," Mazur notes. "And we never looked further. Abigail was the first person we met. She read the material, and she just got it. She understood the character. And of course she was really desperate to play with sea lions."

To play the role of an adventurous girl who lives on a deserted island with her father (Butler), Breslin went on location to Australia early and took swimming lessons and learned to use zip lines in the jungle. "She was a New York City girl, and we wanted to transform her into a girl who climbs volcanoes and runs through the jungle barefoot," Mazur says. "And she was up for anything." Aside from Breslin's physical transformation, the cast and crew were impressed by the young actor's ability to play the dramatic scenes. "I don't want to use the word prodigy lightly, but there were times when it was almost spooky to see how easily she could hit an emotional zone," Mazur recalls. "She'd do a gut-wrenching scene and then stop and say, 'Hey, can we get some ice cream?' You'd suddenly remember she was 11."

One of the people particularly impressed by Breslin was Foster, who put it in her own contract that Breslin be billed above her. "[Jodie] felt very strongly about that," Mazur reveals. "She said, 'This is Abigail's film. She gets top billing.' " And Mazur admits it was a thrill to watch the two work together. "What an enviable position to be in: to have a two-time Academy Award winner and, in a way, the inheritor of that," she says. "Jodie was also a nominee by age 10." Breslin has nothing but praise for her co-star. "Jodie was awesome," she says. "She's so nice, and you totally believe the character that she plays." Did Breslin ever approach the elder actor for advice about her career—or noncareer, until after college? "Well, we're working, so it's kind of hard to ask them questions," Breslin points out. "But just watching her is a class in itself."

So if acting isn't yet her career, what does Breslin think her future holds? "I'm not sure if I want to act or be a veterinarian," she says. "I guess I could do both." One person who has no doubt Breslin could make the transition from child to adult actor is Mazur. "She has a great family, and they're really navigating the tricky waters of their children being actors very well," she says. "It's so hard to do, and what they're doing is so impressive."

Perhaps most important, Breslin appears to have the same enthusiasm for her work as she did when she first started out. "It's mostly all fun," she asserts. "Sometimes it can get a little hard—usually when I have to do a crying scene. But most of the time, I'm having a great time." When asked how her success has changed her life, Breslin just laughs. "Nothing is that different," she says. "I mean, I still have the same cat."

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