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No experience wanted

Most of these young actors had never been on a set, but their directors sought an unschooled feel. The surprising result is acclaimed performances.

June 08, 2003|Andre Chautard Special to The Times | Special to The Times

Martin Compston, an athletic 17-year-old student from a small town near Glasgow, Scotland, was looking forward to a career in soccer when on a lark he attended an open audition for British director Ken Loach.

Within two days of receiving his final exam results, Compston was offered both a professional soccer contract from a local team and the lead role in Loach's gritty drama "Sweet Sixteen."

The film was scheduled to shoot during a two-month break in his soccer season, so Compston took the role. "If I'd never had that free time, I don't think I would have made the film," he says.

Since then, Compston, now 18, has received a standing ovation at Cannes for "Sweet Sixteen," garnered strong notices for his heartfelt performance and landed a Creative Artists Agency agent. He also quit professional soccer after eight months to pursue acting full time.

Making that decision was gut-wrenching, he says, but "a lot of people in Scotland would kill for the chance I have."

"To turn it up just wouldn't seem right," he added.

Compston is just one of several young discoveries with either no training or limited experience who have made impressive debuts in several recently acclaimed independent films:

* Victor Rasuk, 19, who in "Raising Victor Vargas" plays the cocksure yet vulnerable title character, a Lower East Side teenager who awkwardly romances neighborhood beauty "Juicy" Judy, played by another newcomer, Judy Marte, 20.

* Keisha Castle-Hughes, 14, who plays a preternatural Maori girl who challenges the patriarchal traditions of her tribe in the New Zealand drama "Whale Rider," which opened Friday.

* The ensemble cast of "Camp," writer-director Todd Graff's musical look at a group of theater-loving adolescents struggling with self-esteem, romance and sexuality while staging shows at a performing-arts summer camp. It opens July 25.

All were found in extensive casting searches and none had previous film or television credits. For the few newcomers who catch such a break, it can be a springboard to a Hollywood career; think of the low-budget films that introduced then-unknowns Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny ("Kids"), Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot"), Kerry Washington ("Our Song") and Anna Paquin ("The Piano," for which she won an Oscar).

Natural actors are rare

There are several reasons a director may turn to a young amateur, from budgetary concerns to avoiding the oversized acting style of youngsters who have worked in commercials or on Broadway, says talent agent Nancy Carson, whose roster of child and teenage clients included Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Britney Spears early in their careers.

"Often, a director will decide that they want somebody brand-new or a fresh and not that familiar face," Carson says. Or, if casting for a specific look or ethnicity, it may be necessary to go beyond the agency route. Although there are a lot of child actors out there, "there are not always a lot of great, natural child actors," Carson says.

Such recent films as "City of God" and "Rabbit-Proof Fence" have also found critical success using young nonprofessional casts. Chinese director Chen Kaige's new film, "Together," features non-actor Tang Yun, a violin prodigy, in the lead role. Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," inspired by the Columbine shootings, was cast mostly with students from the Portland, Ore., area and recently won the top prize at Cannes. Nikki Reed, 15, not only makes her debut in August's "Thirteen," but also co-wrote the script.

"I think that we really are seeing more 'real' kids than we used to," Carson says.

Loach, known for his docudrama style, has cast nonprofessional actors before, in his films "Kes" and "Bread and Roses." He wanted to cast a local to play the lead role in "Sweet Sixteen," the tale of a downtrodden teenager in Greenock, Scotland, who turns to drug dealing to buy a better future for himself and his mother, who is to be released from prison the day before his 16th birthday.

For "Sweet Sixteen," Compston first auditioned with his soccer teammates as a favor to his coach, who had arranged for tryouts at the school but couldn't get anyone to sign up. "An actor is seen as being a posh person or a wimp," Compston says. But his father encouraged him to stay in the running when he wanted to back out during the five callbacks. Compston was shocked when he got the part. He thought it was a joke, but a month later filming began.

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