NEW YORK — Brendan Sexton III arrives at his manager's office in lower Manhattan late last summer as if he stepped out of one of his own movies. He's wearing baggy jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, a day pack. He's sweating furiously. He cranks up the air-conditioning. He checks his beeper. He picks up a footstool and plays bongos on it. He absently squeezes a cupful of water until it squirts him in the face. He's all over the place. He's a 17-year-old from Staten Island.
"I'm pretty sure most of my friends have them," Sexton says of beepers. "It's just like all those people who carry cell phones. Last summer mine fell in the toilet, which I think was a good thing, because there were too many pages that I didn't want to respond to."
No doubt many of those pages were from agents and producers scrambling after him in the wake of his performance as a street kid named Marcus in "Hurricane Streets," which debuted at last year's Sundance Film Festival and won the audience, directing and cinematographer awards. Many at the festival remarked that Sexton was a "natural." In other words, he did all the things he did when he entered his manager's office, but he did them in character.
In fact, it was Sexton's character that inspired director Morgan J. Freeman to write "Hurricane Streets" (which opens Friday) in the first place. They had met on Sexton's highly regarded previous feature, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," on which Freeman was working as a second assistant director.
"I did all the actors' transportation and dealt with them when they're not on screen," says Freeman. "Basically hung out and played Nintendo with Brendan, and we became friends."
They made a short together, about a mentally challenged kid named Clyde, and it was during the shoot that Freeman had what he describes as an epiphany.
"He comes booking out of the trees in the snow and he's making a gorilla noise and he's like, 'Hey, Morgan, we got to make a whole movie about Clyde,' " Freeman says. "And it was right then that translated to me, 'Let's make a whole movie about Brendan. Let's write a script that could exploit--in the good sense of the word--his range and things that I would like to see him do.' "
Implicit in this character is a kind of street social awareness. Marcus will steal CDs from Tower Records rather than a mom-and-pop record store because Tower can more easily absorb the loss.
"One of the things that attracted me to him was that he had the mind of a young socialist," Freeman says of Sexton. "I wrote his character based on Karl Marx, because Brendan would say things to me like, 'Yo, you know they're thinking about swapping out the bus passes for kids at school and giving them MetroCards instead, and that means the kids are going to have this MetroCard that gives them the same amount of rides, but yo, man, they're just going to sell them on the street, trade them for a bag of weed.' "
Sexton wears a button reading "Justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal," the former Black Panther convicted of killing a cop. He talks about how John Kennedy Jr. should be doing more with his money and social position. He pulls up a pant leg to show where he broke his leg jaywalking on Canal Street on the day "Dollhouse" won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
"It was like you get blessed but you also get hit with reality at the same time," he says. "I wasn't supposed to get a big head. I was supposed to stay grounded. That's why I got hit by a car."
Perhaps Sexton has a precociously complicated view of life because he's had a complicated family life. He has three stepsisters, a half-sister, a sister and a brother. His father, with whom he lives, works for the Municipal Arts Society. He got his start in the business when an agent saw him in an off-off-Broadway play in 1993 and asked if he wanted to pursue an acting career.
"I was like, 'Do I?' " he says. "I looked in Back Stage a few times, went to a few auditions. But is that what I really want to do? You hear all these things about agents, howthey suck you dry, smoking cigars all the time, stuff like that. . . ."
This is not to say that Sexton is chasing the dollar or--at least for now--stardom.
"He's got a pretty firm idea of what he wants to do, and he's very dubious of all the people coming his way now," Freeman says. "The first step, when he was 15, he turned down everything from 'Flipper' to 'Little Rascals' to 'Leave It to Beaver,' although they were going to pay him a bunch of money and he would get to do this huge budget movie."
Sexton also turned down a role in the Kevin Bacon-Brad Renfro film "Telling Lies in America" because the schedule conflicted with "Hurricane." He did this despite the fact that Freeman didn't have his financing in place and hadn't even cast the girl who would play Sexton's love interest (the part went to newcomer Isidra Vega). He was also defying advice given him by his management and his mom.