Jacob Wysocki plays the lead character in the new movie, "Terri." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Following the screening of the new film "Terri" at the Los Angeles Film Festival last week, the cast and crew mingled with the audience as viewers made their way toward the exit. Jacob Wysocki, the 21-year-old newcomer who plays the title character, politely stepped aside so a fan could take a photo with his Academy Award-nominated costar John C. Reilly.
It was a small gesture that spoke volumes, the sort of moment that could play out in the film itself. Directed by Azazel Jacobs, "Terri" stars Wysocki as an awkward adolescent tasked with caring for an uncle (Creed Bratton from "The Office") who fades in and out of lucidity. He gives up on the normal high school experience and takes to wearing pajamas, but with some assistance from a vice principal (Reilly) who is also in need of a little help, Terri makes a few strides toward inner peace.
Much of the film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, rests on Wysocki's broad shoulders. "I tell girls I'm six-three," the South Bay native said of his oversized frame.
As to landing his first starring role at such a young age, Wysocki marvels at the strange hand of fate.
"It doesn't make sense to me — why me?" Wysocki said over a recent lunch at a gourmet hamburger place in Hollywood. "I guess I must have done something pretty good in a prior life. To me, I'm just a kid that likes to make goofs, do funny stuff with my friends and now I'm in a movie opposite John C. Reilly. It's almost like a joke."
"Terri" originated with a series of interwoven stories penned by novelist Patrick deWitt, whose imagination had been sparked after seeing a large teenager walking in pajamas with an elderly relative. Together with his longtime friend Jacobs, who gained critical acclaim for his 2008 film "Momma's Man," he set about shaping the screenplay for "Terri," though neither man had a specific vision of the actor they might cast for the lead role.
Wysocki had been attending a local community college and performing with a sketch comedy troupe when he landed a part on the short-lived ABC Family television show "Huge," and it was while shooting "Huge" that he went through the audition process for "Terri."
"All the way up until very close to casting I was wavering," Jacobs said of casting Wysocki. "I asked him to come over in his pajamas and … shot the opening scene and one of the scenes with his uncle. We went for a walk in the park and talked and shot some video. And just the sheer act of doing that told me so much about who Jacob was. He puts everything onscreen."
"I remember seeing Jacob and being like, ah, yes," said deWitt.
Despite his relative lack of experience — the first day he stepped onto a film set was the first day of shooting on "Terri" — Wysocki's comedy background made him confident he could pull off the moments of sly humor in the film. The story's more serious underpinnings were a bigger challenge.
"A lot of it had to do with getting him to see what the character's world was and then bring him into that world," Jacobs said. "It eventually came down to a shorthand, where I would say, 'Not like Jacob, like Terri,' and he knew what that meant."
"I have zero confidence in my ability as a dramatic actor," said Wysocki. "Aza was just so good at talking to me and helping me find that place that a little more dark and scary. I just had a lot of faith in him."
When "Terri" premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, critics praised its humor and poignancy. Now, Wysocki is hoping to build on his success — he's filming a part in Matthew Lillard's adaptation of the book "Fat Kid Rules the World," currently shooting in Seattle.
Though he certainly hopes his size won't always be the thing that defines him as an actor, he realizes it sets him apart.
"There's the thing of I know I'm big but what does it matter? Why can't I just be a person that's comfortable with myself?" he said. "I had friends and I wasn't a loser like how sometimes big guys are portrayed.... I don't understand why just because I'm bigger it's a big difference."