Teen actor thanks Kate Winslet for helping him grab the reins



TORONTO -- Navigating the red carpet, even in fancier footwear and duds than usual for a high school freshman comfy in gym shorts and Vans, is nothing compared to hanging onto a speeding horse -- while doing tricks.

Unlike older, even Oscar-winning actors, Gattlin Griffith had no handler sitting across the room just in case of ... a public relations or time management emergency. Three months shy of his 15th birthday at the time, Gattlin puts press interviews into perspective.

"People always ask me if I'm nervous when it comes to this kind of stuff. I used to be, until I had to get on a horse that's running as fast as it can and not only ride it but do tricks on it while it's running. I just kind of compare it to that, and I think I'm not going to die doing this kind of stuff, so it's not a big deal."

Gattlin, the eldest of four sons of a stay-at-home mom and a stuntman and the grandson of legendary trick and rodeo riders, was stationed in a small suite at the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Toronto to talk about "Labor Day."

The Jason Reitman movie had premiered days earlier at the Telluride Film Festival and was playing at the Toronto festival in September. It arrives in Pittsburgh theaters today.

"Labor Day," based on the Joyce Maynard novel and set in 1987, is about a pivotal Labor Day weekend for a divorced mother, her lonely 13-year-old son and the escaped convict they shelter -- and how he changes all of their lives in the process.

Gattlin is Henry Wheeler, Kate Winslet his mom, Adele, and Josh Brolin is Frank, the uninvited house guest. The story is told through Henry's eyes.

This wasn't Gattlin's first rodeo, er, movie. At age 7 or 8 he portrayed Angelina Jolie's son in "Changeling," directed by Clint Eastwood and based on actual events.

Ms. Jolie was Christine Collins, a divorced working mother whose 9-year-old son disappears in 1928 Los Angeles. Months later, the cops joyfully announce that her beloved Walter has been found, but the child they hand over is not hers. When she speaks up, she's branded delusional and unfit.

"I just want to say thank you to both of them," he said of Ms. Jolie and Mr. Eastwood. "That was my first film. It could have gone a lot of different directions and they were so nice to me. Everyone on the set was nice to me. That kind of started my acting career and made me like it."

Gattlin, who also played the younger version of Ryan Reynolds' character in "Green Lantern" and has commercials and TV guest appearances to his credit, had an inauspicious start with "Labor Day."

He was at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo when he received selected lines for Henry, which he read only once or twice before filming them at the show's media center. "There were people opening Coke in the background and people on their laptops looking straight in the camera, all this crazy stuff."

He and his family sent the early audition anyway and were surprised when someone phoned two weeks later for a callback. "Are you sure?" they asked. Gattlin tracked down the novel and did three or four callbacks before winning the job from Mr. Reitman.

The California teen had read with Mr. Brolin during one of those appearances but was taken aback during their first scene when the bleeding, no-nonsense stranger confronts Henry during a rare shopping trip with his emotionally fragile mother.

Those first couple of takes were intimidating, and in between Gattlin walked over to Ms. Winslet and whispered, "He's so scary." She assured him, "Don't worry. Don't worry. He's just acting. Use that for the scene."

She was making good on her promise that she would support him through the project.

Gattlin had been a "nervous wreck" when he first met the "Titanic" star, stuttering a bit and trying to disguise his jitters with his customary impeccable manners. He calls adults Miss or Mrs. or Mister, even referring to Mr. Reitman that way during an earlier studio press conference.

"It's Kate, first of all. You seem a little nervous," she said to him. "I'm going to be here for you throughout the whole movie. You can count on me for anything," she promised. "From then on, I knew that. She was kind of like a mother on set," the teen says.

"Labor Day" was shot in Massachusetts in summer 2012 and while it required Gattlin to leave school a week or so early, it also meant he could be with his three brothers (12, 10 and 4 at the time of the interview when he was 14) since the production rented the family a house near a park, no less. Owners of 50 horses, the Griffiths normally live on a ranch.

This project required him to think like an actor.

"Most of the time, I could have gotten away with being cute in the other movies I'd done," he acknowledged, but this time he had to convey what Henry was thinking and feeling. Mr. Reitman, whom he also calls "JR," advised underacting rather than overacting and said he wanted to see his performance in his eyes and facial expressions.

The movie includes the book's signature scene in which Frank takes a bucket of juicy late-season peaches and shows Adele and Henry how to make a pie just like his late grandmother did. Although it took only a day to shoot (probably thanks to Mr. Brolin's daily practice of pie baking), it was described in the script as "the greatest pie-making scene in cinema history."

Gattlin knew Ms. Winslet from "Titanic" although it was released a year before he was born and was a fan of Mr. Brolin from "Men in Black 3" but was stunned to discover another co-star, James Van Der Beek, in a movie he watched after filming wrapped. It was "Varsity Blues" and Gattlin not only plays football and soccer but brings a football to every set.

"He pops up. No way! I had a lot of questions for him when I saw him the other day." Not on a football field, but the red carpet.

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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