When J.J. Abrams was 15-years-old, he and his childhood buddy and current-cohort Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) took a job cutting together Steven Spielberg’s 8mm home movies. That sounds like a dream job for a film-loving teenager, and it certainly left an impression on Abrams, whose new film Super 8 is a tribute to Spielberg’s films of the 1970s and 80s. Set in 1979, it stars Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Riley Griffiths as some amateur-movie-makers who serendipitously capture on film a gigantic train crash, and get caught up in an extra-terrestrial conspiracy. First time actor Courtney can now claim to have as awesome a teenage job as Abrams, for landing the lead role in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. We spoke to the 15-year-old about auditioning for the secretive flick, working with Abrams and Spielberg, and his deep affection for Tom Hanks.
SM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand the teaser trailer for Super 8 – the very first one – was released about a month before J.J. Abrams started casting. Do you remember seeing the trailer before heading to the audition?
JC: You know, actually I hadn’t seen it until a little bit before my first call back. The casting process for Super 8 had been going on for a really long time; it had been going on since January if I’m not mistaken.
SM: Well tell me a little bit about that. Finding out about the call out and heading to the audition.
JC: I was down in L.A., visiting my brother, and we both have acting lessons from this acting coach – she’s up in Seattle – and she told me about it. She’s also a casting director up there, and she told me I should go audition for it, and I did.
SM: Nice one. Do you remember what it was like to be in that audition? Were there a lot of people there with you at the time? Was it very secretive?
JC: Actually there was only one other person out in the waiting room, waiting for an audition. It was kind of like, small. I heard a couple times that J.J.’s name was with this, so I was expecting the place to be huge, because J.J.’s so awesome and stuff. But it was really kind of empty. And they’d seen thousands of kids for my role, and they saw me and then they had someone else come in.
SM: So you were already a fan of J.J.’s beforehand?
JC: Oh yes, most definitely. I’ve seen like every episode of Lost, and I’m trying to catch up on Fringe right now. I love that series. I’ve seen a lot of episodes of Alias, and Star Trek and Cloverfield.
SM: What’s he like as a director?
JC: He’s really hands on, which is really helpful, because for my first role, it’s nice to have a hands on director. He really was. He took Riley [Griffiths] and me under his wing, because it was both our first film, and he took us by the hand and taught us everything pretty much.
SM: Tell me about Steven Spielberg’s involvement. Obviously he’s executive producer, but was he hands on as well? Was he ever on set?
JC: Actually he was only on set a couple of times; he was filming War Horse, also, so he was pretty busy. Whenever he got the chance, he came over, which was super exciting because getting to work with J.J is pretty awesome, but meeting Steven Spielberg was just icing on the cake.
SM: Well the film definitely pays tribute to a lot of Spielberg films, especially from the 70s and 80s that a lot of us grew up with and feel a special connection with. Were you a fan of E.T. and The Goonies when you were growing up?
JC: Actually I was. I’d seen E.T. and Close Encounters and Jaws before doing Super 8, but I hadn’t seen Stand By Me and Goonies. As soon as the movie was over, I went and watched those, and a lot of J.J.’s references made sense and I kind of wished I watched them before the movie (laughs).
SM: Right! Do you remember any other movies that you grew up and loved as a kid?
JC: You know there’s a lot of movies. I kind of like movies depending on who I’m with. If I’m with my friends, I probably watch a really ridiculous movie, like Despicable Me; something funny like that. With some of my other friends, I’d watch some scary movie. So, I don’t know. That’s a good question.
SM: That’s ok. One to think about. Working on the film, did you get much time to hang out with Elle [Fanning], Riley and the other guys, before shooting – or during shooting – to connect?
JC: I did. During the auditioning process, half of it was in the auditioning room and acting, while the other half was outside the auditioning room, and seeing who would bond and connect as friends really well. As soon as I met the guys, I was sure I’d be best friends with them, given the time we had to bond.
SM: The film has been kept top secret for such a long time. Has it been difficult to have this great role in an exciting film, and not be able to talk about it?
JC: You know, it was kind of hard at the beginning, but then I realised there are only a handful of people who know about this secret, and I’m one of them. So I put that spin on it, and it made it a lot of fun to know that I’m one of the only people who know.
SM: You’re definitely not going to be one of the only people who know now. Is it exciting to see the film only days away from release?
JC: Oh yes, I’m super excited for the release. I’ve seen it a couple posters all over Sydney, so every time I see them, I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s a poster!’ I’m really excited about the release, and it’s really snuck up on me. Like, it’s pretty soon.
SM: Yeah, it’s very very close. Looking forward, I know the film is not even out yet, but would you like to continue acting? Is this something you want to do for a living?
JC: I most definitely would love to keep acting. I’ve also got some stuff coming up. I’ve only been acting for a year and a half, but I know that it’s what I want to do.
SM: Are there any directors or actors, in a dream scenario, that you’d like to work with?
JC: I would love to work with Tom Hanks.
SM: Sure! As a director, or as a co-star?
JC: I mean, either way! I would just love to work with him in any circumstance. He’s such an awesome actor; I’m sure he’d be a great director. He’s like my acting role model.
SM: Nice one. Do you have a favourite Tom Hanks film or role?
JC: You know, I really love Forrest Gump, because that movie is so funny and crazy and I just love that movie.
Super 8 arrives in Australian cinemas June 9, 2011.