Enough beating up on former child stars! In recent years, we've seen plenty of 'em manage to reach adulthood sans embarrassing detours into jail or drug rehab. Just look at upstanding Ivy Leaguers like Claire Danes, Natalie Portman, Julia Stiles and Anna Paquin. For Paquin, 21 — who won an Oscar for best supporting actress in The Piano at age 11 — the secret to avoiding such has-been horrors lies in taking her early success with a grain of salt.

"There's no way to live, worrying about living up to something you did when you were 9," says the Columbia U. student, who co-stars with Joaquin Phoenix in Buffalo Soldiers (opening Friday). "You can't live like, 'Oh, I'm going to recreate something that I did when I was pretty much pre-conscious professionally.'

"I haven't done a lot of things where I was the lead actor," the X-Men mutant humbly explains. "I've always been more comfortable having a smaller, interesting role that is something I feel — with the [small] amount of experience that I've had — is not too much responsibility... Seeing as I've never been specifically trained [in acting]."

While the English major has taken a few breaks for film projects, she's never blown off her studies just because she already has a career. "I'm there to learn things," she says. "I think it's important to have life experiences that have nothing to do with what you do as an actor, because that's such a weird world to grow up in."