September 25, 2011

Child stars bask in starring roles

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 1:20 am by dinaheng

When it comes to press interviews, movie studios are careful to monitor and protect access to young actors who are just starting their careers. So it was no surprise that “Dolphin Tale” stars Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff were paired for every interview at a recent Clearwater Beach, Fla. media junket.

But studio executives need have no worries about these two 13-year-old actors, who never lacked for something witty or genuine to say about their experience making the movie. Both clearly loved working with Winter, the dolphin.

“I first met Winter on my audition,” says Gamble, a blond whose hair was dyed brown for the role of Sawyer. “They flew me in from Los Angeles to make sure we bonded. I was a horrible swimmer before the movie, but am pretty good now. Holding my breath for the underwater ballet scenes was the most challenging thing for me.”

Zuehlsdorff, who played Hazel, the daughter of the marine biologist who supervises Winter’s recovery, adds, “They take such good care of Winter, and make sure she’s not stressed out in any way. You can tell she’s forming an opinion about you when she looks at you.”

Gamble — the more experienced of the two — made his feature film debut as the son of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s characters in the 2006 movie “Babel,” earning a Young Artist Award nomination for his performance. He then went on to appear as Commissioner Gordon’s son in “The Dark Knight.” Along with other film credits, he was a regular on the TV series “Hank,” and has had guest appearances on shows including “Private Practice” and “House MD.”

Like the pro he is, he’s quick to praise his co-star. “Cozi’s a blast to work with,” Gamble notes. “You could never tell this was her first movie.”

Zuehlsdorff, who has appeared in numerous commercials, began her acting career at the age of eight, when she starred as “Annie” in a local theater company in Aliso Veijo, Calif. Her effervescent personality and singing ability then led to roles in shows like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Seussical the Musical,” and “Willy Wonka.”

“I loved the camaraderie on the set, and having good chemistry with people,” Zuehlsdorff says. “Not all of the kids in youth theater care about being in the show. But on the movie set, it was different.”

The two speak with a maturity that belies their years, something that every adult on set noted. Director Charles Martin Smith auditioned nearly 100 youngsters for each role, and quickly zoomed in on Gamble and Zuehlsdorff.

“They’re mature, but they’re funny,” Smith says. “Kids at that age will act like a 7-year-old one moment, then a 15-year-old the next. I wanted them to be real kids, to be upset and unreasonable sometimes, and goofy and giddy other times. They both come from good Christian families, which underpins everything in the movie. We didn’t want to be religious in the tone, but Sawyer finds a sense of family and community through caring for others in need.”

Harry Connick, Jr., who plays Zuehlsdorff’s father in the film, is equally enthusiastic about his young co-stars’ abilities.

“These two kids are freaks,” Connick says, with admiration. “Nathan’s incredibly bright and possesses so much maturity, it’s sometimes hard to interact with him. He’s 13, and sometimes I had to remind myself, I can’t tell him that (raunchy) joke. Cozi’s an incredible singer and actress, and I’ve become great friends with both of them. “

Zuehlsdorff says acting has made her comfortable around adults, and she’s quick to find things in common with people she’s working with. With Morgan Freeman, who played the doctor who designed the prosthetic tail for Winter, Zuehlsdorff turned to music as a common denominator.

“Morgan likes to sing a lot, so we had these musical theater moments,” she says, laughing. “We were talking about ‘West Side Story’ one day, and he was pounding his foot on the grates in the rhythm of one of the songs, and the trainers said, ‘Stop! It’s freaking the dolphins out!’ “

While Winter was in most of the dolphin action shots, Gamble explains that a “stand-in” blow-up named Plan B was used when needed. For a birthday gift, everyone in the cast and crew signed one of the Plan B dolphins and presented it to him.

“I got so used to being around Winter, Winter would push Abby (her trainer) off and circle around me, like she owned me,” Gamble says. “After spending three months with this magnificent creature, it was sad to let go.”

When he’s not working, Gamble is home-schooled, which means he can’t play on sports teams like many kids his age. But it’s a trade-off he accepts in order to have an acting career, which he loves. Speaking to the press like an adult, rather than a young teen, is part of that life.

“A lot of sets don’t have a lot of kids, so I’m surrounded by adults,” Gamble says. “The only way to connect, for me, is to be more adult-like. I have three role models — my dad, Jesus, and Indiana Jones. My dad’s absolutely fantastic, a really kind person, the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.”

Now that’s a true star talking.




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