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Twelve-year-old Ian Hamrick on his gruesome death in M.I.A.'s 'Born Free' video

May 10, 2010 |  9:40 am

The most gobsmacking five seconds in a music video in 2010 happens at 6:51 in M.I.A.’s infamously gruesome clip for “Born Free.” If you’ve seen it, you know the moment -- a crew of young redheads is forced onto a bus, dragged to a field in the desert, and promptly shown that things are about to get much worse.

At that instant, one slender, moppet-haired adolescent meets a fate that takes the “Born Free” clip from a police state dystopia to a level of grim violence that might make Tarantino flinch.

That young man is 12-year-old Angeleno Ian Hamrick.  Few actors earn their first break by getting shot in the head by a paramilitary squad, but Hamrick is awfully level and contemplative about his small, shocking part.

“M.I.A. wanted to show people what an ethnic cleansing looked like,” Hamrick said in a phone interview Thursday. “She wanted to show that it can happen in any country, not just a place like Iraq. Just because this is America doesn’t mean horrible things don’t happen here.”

Hamrick got the call for the clip, directed by Romain Gavras, after an agency called for redheaded boys for a music video, and put them through a fairly grueling audition where they were screamed at, batted around a room and told that things would escalate considerably from there. Hamrick was excited to work with CGI (even CGI depicting his own exploding skull), but soon began exploring the deeper wells of metaphor in video, especially from his vantage point in an adolescent culture inculcated with violent media from childhood. 

But Hamrick felt a potency in the video absent from far more graphic media such as “Call Of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.” Perhaps it was the verite footage of downtown Los Angeles, or the visual nods to news footage from Gaza and Baghdad, or that graphic violence against children is still one of the last taboos on screen. M.I.A. shared his sense that the part might take its toll.

“She came up to me on set and complimented my work, and we talked a lot about what she wanted the video to mean,” Hamrick said. “She wanted to make sure I was OK, that I knew what was happening and why she killed me. I said I did, that she really accomplished her goal of getting people to talk about something they don’t usually see.”

Most 12-year-olds don’t have much life experience in military executions, so Hamrick had to draw on his own sense of panic and confusion at the situation to nail the part. His quivering poise (and notably slight stature) at the moment of the shot makes it all the more harrowing.

“In the video, I look like I’m seven or eight, and all the other kids were a lot taller,” he said. “So when you see me get shot, your reaction is like ‘Why’d they have to kill the little kid?’”

That shot also might have profoundly shifted his career. TMZ reported that his appearance in a high-profile Shakira video was re-cut so as to less prominently feature Hamrick’s now-infamous face. Hamrick has a wry cynicism about the potential for thwarted future prospects, and hopes the “Born Free” clip will instead open up darker, adventurous indie fare for him. But above all, the most shocking part about his role might be the preternatural professionalism he took with him to the set.

“Look at a movie like ‘Kick Ass,’ that girl is 11 and she’s cussing and killing everyone,” Hamrick said. “I created a character that’s not my real person. In some ways, it was just another job, but in a lot of ways it wasn’t, because it had a message. I don’t think I’m making content for kids -- this is definitely going on my reel."

-- August Brown

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