On an unseasonably warm day just south of the Arctic circle, the star of "The Golden Compass" flops into a chair near a snowdrift and braces herself for an onslaught of questions. She's bundled up, but since this is actually just a soundstage outside London--the Arctic will be digitally added later--she's shedding layers. She has been coached, surely, about how to handle this moment, but just in case, her mother sits beside her, and a publicist hovers nearby like a bee. The fuss is understandable. "The Golden Compass" is next autumn's $150 million film version of the first book in Philip Pullman's critically revered fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials"--the next "Lord of the Rings," if you're into breathless hype--and its star, Dakota Blue Richards, is just 12 years old and about to give the first press interview of her young life. She's nervous for a minute, but soon she's racing through the story of how she landed the part. She was grumpy from a bad day at school when the director called. Her mother tried to put him on speakerphone but hung up on him instead. ( "Accidentally," Mum interjects.) He called back and shared the news. "Then I screamed a lot," Richards says, "and I did the Snoopy dance." Sorry, the what? She hops to her feet and does an adorable little shimmy for a few seconds, then giggles and sits back down. "That's the Snoopy dance. There's a lot more to it, though."
For Pullman fans, this kind of plucky self-confidence must sound familiar: it's Lyra Belaqua, the novel's crafty protagonist, who travels from Oxford to the Arctic Circle--aided by armored bears, flying witches and a truth-telling compass that only she can read--to rescue her kidnapped best friend. Richards read the trilogy with her mother when she was 9, then fell in love all over again when she saw the National Theatre's stage version of "The Golden Compass" a year later. It's not unusual for little girls to leave the theater dreaming of curtain calls, but that's not quite how it happened for Richards. She didn't want to be an actress; she wanted to be Lyra. "I feel like I can relate to her," Richards says. "I like to think I'm quite brave. I stand up for myself. And I don't let other people tell me what to do." She glances at her mother and blushes a bit. "Well, unless it's my mum."
When Richards heard about the film version, which will costar Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig (also known as James Bond), she ventured from her home in Brighton, in the south of England, to Cambridge for the movie's open casting call. Her mother agreed to take her on one condition: that Dakota wouldn't be too upset when she got passed over. There were 10,000 other girls up for the part, after all, and Dakota had never acted before. "Usually, it's a gut-wrenching decision," says the film's writer-director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy"). "You realize the whole time how much rests on the shoulders of this kid. But I didn't have any doubts about Dakota. She looks not quite tamed, and that's Lyra." Weitz says he's trying to keep his young star insulated on set so she can be a normal girl for as long as possible, but he knows there's only so much he can do. "It was hard to cast someone, honestly, because you know that you may be doing them a disservice," he says. "I don't know if anyone can prepare Dakota for the kind of exposure that's going to come with this. Especially in England, where the press can be merciless."
Richards's first round with the press, however, is a snap. She handles with charm questions about shuttling between school and set ("That's quite annoying") and meeting Kidman and Craig ("I figured if I did something wrong, they'd be, like, 'Oh my God , why are we working with her?' But they were really nice"). Finally the questions end, and she offers a polite handshake, then scrambles back out into the Arctic. It's time to be Lyra again.