You can learn a lot about a movie by watching the credits. Take the listing right before caterer: Rattlesnake wrangler.
Marissa Schwierjohn wasn’t providing pit vipers for “Earth to Echo” but making sure the hills around Valencia, Calif., were clear of rattlers for the production of the family film about an extraterrestrial and three young teens in a small Nevada suburb. It opens in theaters today.
Rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley, 17, plays Tuck, the leader of the boys who tries to document everything they’re doing on camera — for posting online, of course. Teo Halm is Alex, an orphan who has lived with a series of foster families, while Reese Hartwig is Munch, a shy eccentric.
“We had to go up to this very deserted area, it was kind of scary. There were no guard rails, we were driving up in a car. I don’t know, it was crazy,” Brian said in a recent call from a Philadelphia publicity stop. “In the grass, there were snakes, so we had to make sure there were none there. There were all types of flies around. … You can’t tell when you’re watching.”
It was friendship on the fly for the Brooklynite, two other boys and young actress Ella Wahlestedt, who plays a classmate caught up in their alien adventures.
“We moved so fast on this set. We only had a week of rehearsal before we started shooting. It was just a comfortable set. It was like we hung out on set and joked around. It wasn’t a stiff set.
“Everybody was just excited. It was our first time doing a major film, even the director Dave Green, it was his first time directing a major film so it was a learning experience and it was just fun all around.”
Producer Andrew Panay, inspired by such 1980s movies as “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Goonies” and “Stand by Me,” essentially asks, what would you do if you found an alien today?
“You’d film it. Everybody has Instagram, has Vine. Basically what those movies were, but with a 2014 twist to it,” Brian said. In a couple of scenes, he really is filming, thanks to a camera attached to Tuck’s bicycle and a scene where he had to wield and operate a heavy camera while sitting in the front seat of a white van.
The alien in this movie is named Echo, and he is a small, owl-like creature who can fit into a backpack. A year after filming, even Brian can’t remember what was digitally rendered and what came courtesy of 3-D printing.
“A few scenes, we were looking at nothing,” the teen said. “CGI effects, it’s just amazing how they turned it into magic. It really looks real. I hope they make an Echo toy so I can have it.”
Brian was a 2011 contestant on the televised talent show “The X Factor” who had a deal with Epic Records but parted ways with the label. He plans to issue an EP soon and says, “I breathe music. … The acting is a job but music is life. You need a job to live.”
“It’s always been fun for me to play somebody else. I did drama class when I was younger. It kind of just happened. I never said, ‘I want to act.’ I just auditioned for the role, I got it. I was blessed with this opportunity to be in ‘Earth to Echo.’ It’s fun for me, it’s cool to do.”
He has a natural, easy presence on screen but says he’s still learning although he always had a talent for imitating some relatives — to their displeasure. “I don’t take it that seriously. Scott Frank, another director I worked with, told me don’t take acting classes. Just keep doing what you’re doing.“
Brian says he’s not the sort of actor who holes up in the restroom 30 minutes before cameras roll to work on his breathing. He just acts, with some coaching courtesy of his manager.
Mr. Frank directed Brian in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” starring Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder, an ex-New York cop who works as an unlicensed private investigator. You can see Brian in the trailer, sitting across a diner table from Mr. Neeson and asking, ”Why aren’t you a cop no more?“
The Sept. 19 release is based on Lawrence Block‘s best-selling series of mystery novels. In addition to directing it, Mr. Frank also wrote it.
Early Internet listings had Brian as part of the “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” but scheduling conflicts squeezed him out of the Pittsburgh project. He will be part of the new Fox series ”Red Band Society“ about teens who meet as patients in the pediatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital. He plays a 16-year-old with cystic fibrosis determined to live every day as if it were his last.
As for Tuck’s obsession about chronicling his actions, Brian has become less like that rather than more.
“Recently, I’ve been doing so many awesome things but I don’t tweet about it. I like to keep certain stuff to myself just because I feel like technology is taking over people’s lives.” He used to direct his friends in little comedy skits using his sweet Sony touch-screen camera but he accidentally left it on a plane, lost it and “it was over from there.”
“Earth to Echo” sends a message that best friends don’t need to appear in skits or reside within biking distance these days to maintain a bond.
“Especially today, with the Internet, you have people who have best friends that they never met, with Facebook and Twitter and stuff. If you’re really friends, it doesn’t matter if I’m on the other side of the world. We’ll still be friends and find a way to connect.”
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632.