Local teen Ryan Lee has an atypical summer ahead of him
Most 14-year-olds likely will worry and hope their way through summer, freshman year of high school lingering with its attendant mixture of anxieties and promise.
Local teen Ryan Lee will experience his own, much more exclusive, coming-of-age ritual. With today's release of "Super 8," the former Canyon Vista Middle School student moves from previous work as an obscure minor role player to featured actor in one of the summer's biggest movies.
The mop-topped blond stars as Cary, the quick-witted, pyrotechnics enthusiast in a small town that bonds together in the face of an otherworldly threat spawned from the mind of director J.J. Abrams.
Don't be misled by the fresh face. Ryan already has more than a dozen credits to his name. So, when he finally got a chance to see himself on the big screen amid all of the incredible explosions and action in Abrams' late-'70s period thriller, he felt more of a sense of accomplishment than awe.
"I've kind of been preparing myself since day one for this moment," Ryan said last week. "So I was kind of more excited than just, 'Whoa! There I am!"
Ryan's start in acting came through the childhood tradition of summer camp when he was in early elementary school. He chose acting from a long roster of available activities and ended up studying with Austin acting coach Mona Lee Fultz. As their end-of-term project, the children staged a performance. Little did they know the audience of parents also included some agents, including Liz Atherton, who, taken by Ryan's performance, decided to represent him.
During the next several years, Ryan made brief appearances in several TV shows ("Friday Night Lights," "Breaking Bad"), but his proximity to the University of Texas and its respected Department of Radio-Television-Film offered him his most useful training ground. The young actor appeared in numerous student films, an opportunity he says helped refine his talents and pad his resumé.
When he says the word "resumé," it comes across slightly garbled. That slip of the tongue comes not from a lack of vocabulary skills. Sometimes Ryan's mouth simply has trouble keeping up with his excitement. That energy is infectious and the manner in which he attempts to calm himself down and speak in a more measured tone endearing.
One can hardly blame the gregarious teen whose wise-cracking persona mirrors that of his character in the movie. Abrams has been at the controls of some of the biggest TV shows and movies of the past decade ("Lost," "Star Trek"). And despite Ryan's youth, he was very familiar with Abrams' career.
Ryan, who tosses around words like "lens flares" and repeatedly described Abrams as a "genius," says the director "has always been" one of his two favorite directors, along with Christopher Nolan.
It's likely a good thing, then, that Ryan didn't know he was auditioning for an Abrams-directed movie until just minutes before he met the director. In his first several auditions, Ryan read scripts that had nothing to do with "Super 8." In fact, the quality of the scripts was such that Ryan questioned whether he wanted the part — a bit of hesitation he says he gladly overcame. On one of his many call-backs, about five minutes before he was to read, Ryan found out that the famously secretive director was helming the film.
"Whenever I auditioned with J.J., all the nervousness came back," Ryan said. But Abrams quickly allayed the young actor's jitters. "He was so inviting. He made you feel so comfortable that it kinda stuck with me the whole time," Ryan said.
Abrams, whom the six young actors called "the seventh kid," helped cultivate a playful mood on set, but the natural jokester Ryan said the director imparted the seriousness of the work. On one set-up that involved a tremendous amount of noise and distraction, Ryan had difficulty communicating his lines, but Abrams steeled him with the fact that the young actor had many people counting on him.
"I'd never really thought about this before, but whenever you're on the set there's time to joke around and there's time to not," Ryan said.
Lending even more weight to the set was the occasional presence of "Super 8" producer Steven Spielberg, whose films Abrams obviously drew from for inspiration for his own tale of childhood, friendship, alienation and family.
Before filming, the young actors received an education in classic '80s Spielberg ("E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Poltergeist"). Ryan said he also learned important lessons from the legendary filmmaker.
"Always stay grounded," Ryan said. "Always know where you came from. Always respect the people around you."
Speaking with the wisdom and humility of a veteran actor, Ryan acknowledges that his career has reached a rather high point early and says he hopes he can maintain the level to which "Super 8" will likely take him.
Ryan, who soon will make a temporary move to California with his mother, Lisa, says he simply intends to continue looking for good scripts. Not your typical homework assignment.