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Acting Out Teen Troubles

Movies * High school theater workshop helped two youths from a rough area land movie parts.

November 02, 2000|SAUL RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Herman Osorio and Tommy De la Cruz are busy watching the girls and checking out the action on the Santa Monica pier, but they can't ignore the big cameras and the sizable movie crew following their every move--a reminder how much their lives have changed lately. They've gone from being Hollywood-area teenagers to playing teens in a major Hollywood production.

"It's a trip," says Osorio, a stocky kid with a booming voice, as he and De la Cruz waited in their trailer recently before appearing in a scene being shot at the Pier. The two John Marshall High School seniors are part of the unusual casting for a new Touchstone production, "At Seventeen," about a Latino boy from East L.A. who falls for an Anglo girl from the Westside.

Director John Stockwell went with established and marketable actors for the leads--Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez. But half of the supporting actors are people playing, more or less, themselves, from real teens to high school teachers and a football coach.

Osorio and De la Cruz play friends of Hernandez. De la Cruz says his character, Victor, the most likely of the friends to become a gangster, echoes his own life. He says he grew up in the "bad part" of Hollywood and last year lost his older brother, killed in a drive-by shooting.

"I was going through issues. I was in a gang, and I was trying to drop out," De la Cruz says. "I've been through my own things, but I've calmed down a lot."

Now he and Osorio have their own trailer on a movie set. Neither has an agent, but they were just called in for an audition at Warner Bros. Recently an assistant producer on the "At Seventeen" set overhead De la Cruz rapping, and now they're bringing him into the studio to record and possibly use some of it for the movie soundtrack. It's all happening fast for a kid who only last month couldn't afford a pager. "It's crazy, exciting," De la Cruz says, but adds: "Sometimes it has its downside. This can be stressful like any other work."

Osorio and De la Cruz both take part in the highly touted Theater Workshop program at Marshall taught by Kevin Kane, who helped them land the parts in the film. To students, the Theater Workshop has never been just another class. Many refer to it as a refuge, a place where they can seek comfort and sometimes redemption by transforming their troubles into autobiographical theater.

The training they got in the class helped Osorio and De la Cruz land the parts in "At Seventeen," according to director Stockwell, who says he was impressed by the students' ability to improvise during auditions.

"The more traditional actors are thrown by that. They want to know what their lines are," Stockwell says. "But these kids, that's where they shine."

Stockwell has even encouraged the boys to ignore the script and say things during filming that seem more realistic to them. De la Cruz recently pointed to a line that had him using the word "folks."

" 'Folks?' I don't say 'folks,' " De la Cruz says, slapping the script. "I would say 'people.' " And that's what he says when they shoot the scene later that day on the pier.

Osorio felt like he understood his character before filming even started. "My brother was a hoodlum when he was younger, and he made my mom's life hell. It was an environment I grew up in. I saw a lot of gangsters," he says. "I guess that's why I'm able to play this character very well."

Osorio and De la Cruz credit the theater workshop class with not only sharpening their improvisational skills, but also keeping them out of trouble. "I'm surprised I'm still alive because where we live, it's not really safe," Osorio says. "Instead of being out there banging and everything, I'm rehearsing in class."

Counselors praise the class as better than therapy for the Los Feliz-area school's most troubled students, who battle teenage problems such as pregnancy, gangs, drugs and academic failure. Workshop students are encouraged by Kane to create theater pieces"My brother was a hoodlum when he was younger, and he made my mom's life hell. It was an environment I grew up in. I saw a lot of gangsters. I guess that's why I'm able to play this character very well."

HERMAN OSORIO

John Marshall High School senior

and now actor in "At Seventeen"

based on sometimes troubling moments in their lives, transforming them into monologues, poems, scenes, rap songs and dance performances.

"The class gives them a place where they can express all this stuff," Kane says. "Then to take it to another level and make it artistic, that helps them in a powerful way."

"At Seventeen" casting directors Sarah Finn and Randi Hiller contacted Kane when they began working on the movie--Finn's husband is a teacher at Marshall--and several of his students tried out for roles. She had attended some of the school's theater performances and knew the dedication of the program's students, a factor in the casting of De la Cruz and Osorio.

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