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Frame Grab: 'Super 8' star Joel Courtney's small-town charms

June 13, 2011 |  4:00 am

Sometimes that actor playing the wide-eyed innocent is nothing like his character. And sometimes, as in the case of "Super 8" lead Joel Courtney, he's pretty much the same way in real life.

Courtney stars as Joe Lamb, a model-building movie lover who has recently lost his mom, in J.J. Abrams' new coming-of-age movie that was a hit with audiences over the weekend. With a wide-eyed vulnerability and a quiet composure, Courtney's character gives viewers of the Steven Spielberg-produced movie someone to rally behind. 

In real life, the polite 15-year-old has the same unprepossessing manner, with none of the flippancy or attitude you might expect from an adolescent -- let alone an adolescent who has spent the past year working with some of the most famous filmmakers on the planet.

Courtney, who had never before acted in anything more than a school play, sounded a concerned and slightly earnest note about the 5,000 other teens he beat out for the part.  "I feel bad -- a lot of kids had a lot more experience than me," he said by phone Saturday from his home in Moscow, Idaho.

Like the Ohio town of the film, Moscow is a decidedly small place. The largest nearby city is Spokane, Wash., a two-hour drive away, and there's little in the way of Hollywood accouterments. Courtney and his family attended the film's premiere in Westwood on Wednesday evening, then went back to Idaho and spent opening night watching the movie at one of Moscow's two small movie theaters.

"A lot of people from my school and church were there," said the teen, the youngest of four siblings who's about to start his freshman year of high school. But his classmates and fellow churchgoers didn't give him a hard time about his newfound Hollywood status, or mention it at all, really. "They let us leave all that down in L.A.," he said.

Courtney's odyssey to the silver screen began when he came to Los Angeles last summer to visit his 19-year-old brother, Caleb, who has acted in independent films. Joel had modest ambitions. "I just wanted to make $100 on a commercial," he recalled.

Instead, at the suggestion of a Seattle acting coach he and his siblings had previously worked with, Courtney found himself at a nationwide casting call for the lead role in Abrams' film. After an audition in which Courtney was asked to read fake scenes from the movie (Abrams and Spielberg are very keen on secrecy), casting agents and filmmakers called him back 11 times. When he finally got to the set -- the film shot in West Virginia in the early fall, which meant some time off from school -- Courtney admits he found himself a bit confused.

"I just didn't know the movie lingo. When people asked for an apple box or a dolly truck I didn't know what they meant," he said. Courtney found companionship in Riley Griffiths, the brassy boy who is directing the movie-within-the-movie and who also had never acted in a feature film before. (Other co-stars, such as Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler, have a lot more experience.) And of course there was Abrams, who served as both an adviser and father figure, guiding the teens through the acting gantlet.

As for Caleb Courtney, if his older brother is jealous, Joel isn't saying, allowing only that "he's happy for me." The "Super 8" star also notes that his 17-year-old brother Josh has flirted with acting but decided not to make a go of it. "He's really good. He just doesn't like doing it," Courtney said.

The 15-year-old said he only occasionally goes to the cinema.  "I sometimes watch movies with my dad on Netflix. But it's a real treat to go to the theater, which I don't get to do that often, just sometimes with my friends." Asked if he's partial to science-fiction or horror films, Courtney replied: "I actually love comedies. Movies like 'Despicable Me' or 'Kung-Fu Panda' I just think are really funny."

Hit movies have brought us many sweet teenagers whose adolescent charms haven't translated to adult starring roles. Patrick Fugit, the young music reporter at the center of Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" and whose performance Courtney's sometimes evokes, comes to mind. Courtney said he knows that can happen, and thinks smart career management will help.

"Because I was in 'Super 8' I can afford to be picky about my next role, so I don't want to do just any movie or make a stupid choice," he said. "I  want to do something that will push my career forward."  Courtney, who said unequivocally that he wanted to complete a full four years of high school, has yet to sign on to another film, although he hinted that an announcement should be coming shortly.

In the meantime, there are more immediate thrills. Later Saturday, Courtney and his family were planning to drive to a nearby town that has an Imax theater so they could watch "Super 8" there. "I'm really excited," he said. "I haven't seen it like that yet."


Box Office: 'Super 8' is No. 1

As the wraps come off 'Super 8,' will fans come?

Critical Mass: The critics love 'Super 8' for what it represents

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Joel Courtney in "Super 8." Credit: Paramount Pictures