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A budding star is found in the Lone Star state

Discouraged by what the usual sources had turned up, a casting exec strikes gold for 'There Will Be Blood.'

December 23, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — THE history of Hollywood is replete with remarkable tales, and sometimes fables, of how performers got their first big breaks -- think Lana Turner in Schwab's Drug Store. Now add to that the kid who wound up on screen thanks to a middle-school principal and a speeding casting agent.

He's Dillon Freasier of Fort Davis, Texas, who was 10 when he landed the role as Daniel Day-Lewis' purported son -- you have to see the film to understand the "purported" part -- in "There Will Be Blood."

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson recalled recently that the movie-making team initially looked at established child actors in L.A. and New York while searching for the right one to portray "H.W.," the stoic youngster who accompanies oil man Daniel Plainview, played by Day-Lewis, as he sweet-talks groups of ranchers into giving him rights to get rich off their land. But the candidates they found in those acting hotbeds, "young men with head shots and that sort of thing, and resumes," left them cold, Anderson said. "We thought they should be sent to their rooms. . . . We thought we needed a boy from Texas who knew how to shoot shotguns and live in that world."

Casting director Cassandra Kulukundis thus targeted schools in a number of rural areas but especially near where the shoot would be based, in Marfa, Texas, asking educators if they knew of, in Kulukundis' words, "a child who didn't play with GameBoys but worked outside," or as Anderson put it, "a man in a young boy's body."

So it was that a principal in Fort Davis, at a school so small it had perhaps eight boys of the right age, mentioned one who'd won belt buckles in rodeos, and prizes for showing pigs, and had horses at home, and was preternaturally self-composed. That's how the 30-year-old Kulukundis, who regular does casting for Anderson's films, came to do improv with Dillon Freasier, "and he just stayed in my mind, so I called [his mother] at home and asked if it was all right if I could come over that night."

But you don't put all your eggs in one basket. So soon after, Kulukundis was racing to another school to see more boys, "very late and very lost," and didn't see the car with the radar gun lurking under a tree.

She did hear the siren, though, and dutifully, if unhappily, pulled her rental car to the side of the road, where she encountered a stern female state trooper, who approached and asked, "Ma'am, do you know what you were doing?" It seems she was going 75 in a 25 mph zone, and she might have quibbled about how the speed limit dropped so suddenly (Speed trap! Speed trap!) had not the "very scary" trooper lady examined her driver's license and announced, "I think you're coming to my home tonight."

So that's how she met Dillon's mom, Regina, and wound up with "just a warning," thank you, and with a child actor who she discovered could memorize two pages of dialogue with one reading and didn't fidget or blink or any of that normal kid's stuff. He'd stand straight up too, with fingers in his pocket like a grown cowpuncher, and say "Yes, ma'am."

That said, the whole casting dream nearly had a sour ending when trooper momma got curious about whom her son would be working with and drove 45 minutes to a video store where she asked if they had any films with this Daniel Day-Lewis.

Day-Lewis takes the story from there: "She thought she better check out this bunch of people taking care of her son. . . . So she got 'Gangs of New York,' " in which Day-Lewis played, of course, the aptly named Bill the Butcher. "Absolutely appalled! . . . She thought she was releasing her dear child to this monster. And so there was a flurry of phone calls and somebody sent a copy of 'The Age of Innocence.' "

Parental concerns allayed, they started shooting "There Will Be Blood" with the required teacher and social worker on hand and a timekeeper to make sure he was not exploited child labor, all while Dillon begged to be allowed to stay and do more scenes.

"I remember having the first costume fitting," Anderson said. "And you would think that most 10-year-old boys would not look forward to wearing, what do they call them, those britches? But the second he saw them he said, 'I've always wanted to wear britches.' "

Ready to be mean

Day-LEWIS wondered how Dillon would take it when, as the determined Plainview, he had to summon up his inner Bill the Butcher and get nasty, or worse, with those standing in his way . . . and eventually with his supposed son, as well.

"I started to worry a little bit because we were very close," Day-Lewis said, "and I thought, 'Man, how's he going to feel when I start treating him harshly?' So I kind of sat him down. I created this sort of atmosphere . . . portentous atmosphere. 'Dillon, you know how I feel about you and there are going to be moments . . . I'm not going to treat you nicely. I want you to understand that I love you.' . . . He looked at me like I was insane."

Kulukundis, who felt like family by then with her young discovery, also recalls the shaking head of disbelief from the kid who was raised amid unruly horses and pigs and tough wranglers. "Dillon would say to me, 'Daniel thinks I'm taking this seriously . . . I know what I signed up for.' "

Much has transpired for him, naturally, since the filming the summer before last. He got to walk his first red carpet recently here in New York, with his mom, who has been able to leave her dangerous job with the state police. Dillon himself, now 11, also has moved on to an endeavor far more important in Texas than acting: He's playing football, as a fullback.

The casting lady, meanwhile, is staying in contact, ready with advice on what he should and shouldn't do next (No silly soda commercials, for starters). Kulukundis also has kept that written speeding warning as a memento of her unlikely path to -- who knows? -- "a little Daniel Day-Lewis waiting to happen."


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