Newcomer Joel Courtney on Super 8 and His Steven Spielberg Geek-Out Moment
If J.J. Abrams' nostalgic summer sci-fi adventure Super 8 is intentionally evocative of producer (and Abrams mentor) Steven Spielberg's E.T. (1982), then 15-year-old newcomer Joel Courtney is its Elliott, the young, sensitive boy hero caught in the middle of an otherworldly mystery. It's a big role to hang on the shoulders of a newcomer -- one who won the part after visiting L.A. in hopes of landing a modest commercial gig -- but, as it turns out, the Idaho native now has bigger career goals in his sights.
"I want to be like Tom Hanks," Courtney told Movieline in Los Angeles, where he's spending the summer before returning home to Moscow, Idaho for school. The lanky young actor has given considerable thought to his options, post-Super 8. "I wouldn't mind trying [Nickelodeon and Disney], but I wouldn't want to get sucked into it so that I wouldn't be able to get out." I spoke further with Courtney about the whirlwind experience of making his film debut in Super 8, learning from J.J. Abrams, his big Steven Spielberg geek-out on set, and his hopes for a long and varied career.
You're originally from Moscow, Idaho -- and you come from an acting family, right?
Yes! My dad's mom, my grandma, is very into acting. And my dad acted in a lot of small stuff when he was young, plays. My entire family's been doing plays until this generation.
How did that play into the story of how you wound up in Super 8?
My dad got this e-mail one day that said that Hallie Todd would be coming close to our hometown and giving acting lessons, and that it would be fun -- and my brother just loved it, so he started acting. Last summer I came down to visit him and to see if I could get a commercial and leave L.A. with a hundred dollars. That was the goal, and I got this.
Going into the audition for Super 8, were you prepared for how big of an opportunity it might turn out to be? What did you have in mind when you went in to read for the part?
They had a fake name; actually, there have been two fake names, it was first called Little Darlings and then called Project Wickham. And Little Darlings really confused me -- I was like, "That's really weird" -- but I did the audition and then they gave me two other scenes, and they were completely different. Like, not even anywhere in the same ballpark. They said, "We want you to do these soon," so they put me in a different room and I did them a couple of times and I auditioned for J.J. that day. So I had two immediate callbacks, and it was just crazy.
When and how did you first get to know your cast mates?
We did a lot of mix and matching, which is done to find chemistry. I did a lot of those; we did those the entire time. Every day that I auditioned there was, at most, three people for each role. It was a lot of fun, because I got to go into the room with a lot of people. I met Zach [Mills] on my sixth, and he kept coming back. I was like, "Yes!" Because I love Zach, he was so much fun to audition with. And then Ryan [Lee] I met on my eighth. And I met Riley [Griffiths] really late, and Elle [Fanning] was really late, and Gabe [Basso] was last minute.
Was there a lot of hanging out on set? How did you spend your downtime?
There was a ton of hanging out on set. We were just like one little family, it was a lot of fun. Between scenes we would usually talk to Steve or Rob, they were in charge of props, and they were a lot of fun to hang out with.
You play young amateur filmmakers in the movie, and you and Riley in particular had to learn all sorts of technical terms for the part. Was there a crash course in filmmaking 101, or did you learn from watching J.J. on set?
I had to learn -- well, I didn't have to, but I did because I was interested. One day somebody asked for half an apple. You know what that is, right?
An apple box?
Yes, half an apple box. But I was like, "OK, he wants half of an apple." Somebody brings a box in and I'm like, okay, that's weird. So I learned that stuff because it was so interesting, and I learned all the technical terms. J.J. actually explained a lot of stuff to me. He was like a mentor to me throughout this entire thing. Also with Riley, it was his first movie, too. He led us both by the hands throughout the entire thing. He was so helpful.
That's sweet, and it parallels J.J.'s experience because Steven Spielberg was a mentor to him when he was young. Do you feel similarly inspired to become a filmmaker yourself?
Yes, most definitely. I don't know how good of a director I'd make. I might want to stick with acting, but I would be willing to try it.
There are a number of homages and references to '80s films, Spielberg films, Amblin films, and E.T. in particular with your character. Had you seen E.T. before, or were there specific films J.J. pointed you towards to study beforehand?
I had seen E.T. But no, there weren't [study references]. But I was super excited. It was my first movie, I hadn't done anything else like it, and it was so much fun. I watched Close Encounters with my dad, I watched E.T. with my dad, during the filming I watched Goonies and Stand By Me.
What did you think?
Ah -- loved them. I love Goonies.
Glad to hear it! It's a classic. And you and your co-stars really captured a kind of Goonies dynamic in your ensemble chemistry.
With the group? Yes!
I also appreciated that the kids in Super 8 talk like real kids do. They swear, they tease each other, and their dialogue feels more true to life.
Yes. And the cool part was that J.J. would tell us, "OK, this is the basic scene. If any of the lines don't seem regular to you and how you would naturally say them, tell me and we'll change them." I was like, "Yes!" Because some of the lines threw me and I couldn't get them, so I was like "Could we change the line to this, because I think it will sound more real?" And he's like, "Absolutely. Whatever makes the movie feel more real, let's go for it."
How would you describe the romantic subplot you and Elle share?
It's more of a first crush scenario between me and Elle. Her dad is not on good terms with my dad, and my dad doesn't want me hanging out with her, her dad doesn't want her hanging out with me.
It's a very sweet relationship.
It is, and it's not like a love. It's a first crush.
They do connect in many ways other than the traditional romantic connection. There's no kiss, for example.
Right! It's sweet. It's innocent, it's not like love.
Were you relieved not to have the pressure of having a kissing scene in your first movie?
Kind of. [Laughs] But, I mean... [Shrugs]
So much of Super 8's plot has been kept under wraps, but what's been the hardest thing for you to keep secret?
I really wanted to tell my friends this the entire time.
You haven't told any of them?
I haven't told any of them. Well, what's in the freight train. I haven't told anyone and I really want to, but I want them to be surprised when they see it.
It's so tempting, isn't it?
It is so tempting!
Especially since you have these huge, big set pieces in the film, which must have been insane to film.
It was so much fun. Like, the train scene -- everything falling out of the air is digital, but everything on the ground was there. The train sticking out of the ground, all the ripped up pieces of train. And it was incredible. It was the coolest set ever! Granted, it's my first movie. But still!
I caught a photo of you and Steven Spielberg on Twitter. How excited were you to meet him?
I was... very excited. I am a huge fan, and I was ecstatic. I was so happy. [Pauses] OK, I have to tell you. The first time Riley and I were doing a scene, and he came in, I didn't know if Riley saw him, but I did. I was like, "Dude!" He was like, "Yeah, I see him!" It was so funny because during this scene we were trying not to break character because he was there but we really wanted to talk to him and meet him. And it pushed us to do better in the scene, because he was there. That's one of our better scenes together. It's the one where we're watching the TV, watching the newscast, and he was there during that scene. While we were at Bad Robot watching [the film] with J.J., I was like, "Riley, that's the scene Steven was there for!" He was like, "I know, it's awesome!"
What are your plans for the near future? I know you're in school now...
Yes, I'm in school, and I'm trying to finish my finals right now actually. I want to be versatile. I want to be like Tom Hanks, because he went from Forrest Gump to Angels & Demons, and that's like the biggest jump.
It's interesting that those are your Tom Hanks touchstones, because us older folk know him from way back in the day. Were those a few of the first Tom Hanks film that you'd seen?
Yes, those were the first. And he was also in Splash, and he was in so many things.
He's a good role model to have. Looking forward to this summer, do you plan on coming back to L.A. or going back and forth from home?
Actually, I'm going to be down here this summer trying to get my next job. [Smiles] Then I'll go back to school if I don't get anything.
Performers your age tend to go for the Nickelodeon/Disney track or down a different film path. How do you feel about your options at this point?
I wouldn't mind trying them, Nickelodeon and Disney, but I wouldn't want to get sucked into it so that I wouldn't be able to get out. There are some TV series that have been going on forever and they won't stop because they're still good, but the actors aren't able to get out. So I don't want to get stuck in it, but I would be willing to try it.
Catch Joel Courtney in Super 8, opening this weekend.
[Top photo: Getty Images]