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Reiner discovers a new star for 'Flipped'

Jane Sumner

Rob Reiner has worked with a lot of class actors. Jack Nicholson, James Woods and Kathy Bates all landed Oscar nominations under his direction. For "The Bucket List," Netflix's third most-rented film of all time, he directed Morgan "The Voice of God" Freeman with rascally Jack Nicholson.

But Reiner's highest praise these days is for Madeline Carroll, 14, who plays "iridescent" Juli Baker in his new movie "Flipped." Based on Wendelin Van Draanen's young adult book, the coming-of-age comedy tracks the love-hate relationship of two middle-schoolers — aggressive, iconoclastic Juli and shy, conformist Bryce.

"Maddy has developed as good an acting instrument as any actor I've ever worked with," Reiner said recently in Austin. "It's spooky in a way. She was 13 when she made the film, but she's got the facility of somebody in their 30s, 40s or 50s."

At each accolade, the polite teen, hugging herself in the Four Seasons' cryogenic ballroom, demurely thanked the director, who first saw her in "Swing Vote." She played Kevin Costner's daughter, and Reiner thought she had talent. Then Carroll came in to audition.

"She was the first of 30 or 40 actresses to read, and she knocked me out," Reiner says. "She was exactly the character as I imagined her. We saw the other actresses, and none came close to what Maddy was able to do."

If poised, sweet-faced Carroll looks familiar, it's because she's already appeared in 60 national commercials and a dozen TV shows, including "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost."

"I've been acting since I was 31/2 now," the actress, a Los Angeles native, says matter-of-factly. "The first thing I did was a Fisher-Price video for some kind of toy."

At 4, she made a music video called "Breathe." (You can see it on YouTube.) Carroll played a child robot who poisons a man in a swimsuit. When Reiner asks how it felt to poison a man, she says, "At the time I didn't realize what I was doing. They told me to pour the powder in the lemonade, so that's what I did."

Her movie roles include the White Queen in "Resident Evil: Extinction" and Jackie Chan's girlfriend's stepdaughter in "The Spy Next Door."

"The reason she works so much is she's good," Reiner says. "You don't keep working like that unless you can bring the goods."

The director says he first learned about "Flipped" when his son Jake was assigned the book in fifth grade. "He brought it home, and we read it together. We read a whole lot of Lemony Snicket books together. We read 'Holes,' the Louis Sachar book. I like doing that if there's writing that's not just for children."

Even though "Flipped" is a story about kids and for kids, he says, it speaks to adults. "There's a very sophisticated understanding of what it is to go through first love. There's a much more profound take on it than you would find in a normal children's book." And, yes, Reiner admits he cried at the end.

So when Jake said, "I think this would be a good movie, Dad," Reiner said, "I think you're right. I love that it flipped back and forth between the girl's point of view and the boy's point of view. I'd never seen that done in a book or a film. I thought that could work."

Carroll also read the he-said, she-said novel for class. "You read a chapter through Bryan Loski's eyes, and you think she must be a really bad pest. Then you read one through Juli Baker's eye, and you have a completely different point of view."

As text arrivals pinged on his cell phone through the interview, Reiner explained why he set "Flipped" in the late '50s and early '60s. "We wanted to strip away the technology distraction you get nowadays. We wanted to focus purely on those first feelings, which are the same today as they were back then."

Also, that's when he first came of age and experienced love. "I was 12 going on 13 when I went to a new school (Beverly Hills High)," he says. "There was a girl named Kathy Schrillo. She was adorable. She looked like Hayley Mills to me. She had curly blond hair."

When he tried to kiss her, she hit him with a hairbrush. But to this day, he says, sometimes on his way to work he'll detour to drive by her old house. "Do you think you'd recognize her if you saw her now?" Carroll asks. "I don't know," Reiner says. "She's a 63-year-old-woman like I'm a 63-year-old-man."

Asked why he shot "Flipped" last summer in Ann Arbor, Saline and Manchester, Mich., Reiner says: "We did it in Michigan, first of all, because it afforded us the locations we needed. We wanted it to look like any rural suburban area in that time period."

And to be crass about it, he says, there were great tax breaks. "It allowed us to make the movie much (more) inexpensively than any other place. Texas incentives are nowhere near Michigan's. We got a 42 percent tax break."

Reiner may be a gifted director, political activist and humanitarian involved in children's causes, but to those who saw the groundbreaking sitcom "All in the Family" in the '70s, he will always be Michael "Meathead" Stivic, bigot Archie Bunker's hippie son-in-law.

From 1971 to 1976, the show that tackled taboo subjects from racism to erectile dysfunction was No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings. "I don't think Maddy understands" how big it was, Reiner says. "We were in a time when there were only 200 million people in America. Right now, we've got more than 300 million. We would get 45 million people watching the show every single week."

Today a hit television show gets an audience of 20 million, he says. "But we had literally a fourth of the population. There was no TiVo, no VCRs, no DVDs, so if you wanted to see the show you had to watch it when it was on. Everybody was talking about it. There's nothing like that now because everything is so fragmented. It's all niche marketing. There's the Shoelace Channel. It was a different time." Just like in his movie "Flipped."