Super 8: The Characters

For director and writer J.J. Abrams, the heart of “Super 8” was always in the characters.  Even as the most bizarre and unexplained events begin to unravel their once-quiet Ohio town, these characters are moving through very real relationships and experiences of loss and love.  He knew that finding just the right mix of actors was going to be essential, so Abrams and his team began with a massive search.

The mission was to uncover fresh-faced young actors who would be fun for the audience to discover, but also an ensemble that could pull off that enchanted yet volatile chemistry that true childhood friends and rivals always seem to have.

Adds Bryan Burk:  “What is great about this group of kids is that they all have that rare ability to let go enough that it never feels like they’re performing.  I think it’s also a real testament to J.J. because he not only found just the right kids, he knew how to work with them.”

The final set of teens chosen was remarkably diverse.  Some were seasoned pros while others had never acted professionally before at all.  They hailed from across the nation: Elle Fanning (Alice) was originally from Conyers, Georgia; Joel Courtney (Joe) is from Moscow, Idaho; Gabriel Basso (Martin) from St. Louis, Missouri; Riley Griffiths (Charles) from Cedar City, Utah; Ryan Lee (Cary) from Austin, Texas; and Zach Mills, (Preston) from Lakewood, Ohio.

Elle Fanning

For the role of Alice, the filmmakers cast one of Hollywood’s fastest rising young actors: Elle Fanning, whose recent films include the award-winning “Babel,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Somewhere.”  Fanning could not have been more excited to get the part.

“It was crazy,” recalls Elle. “It was a total surprise to hear back from J.J. himself.  He said ‘Hey, Elle, this is J.J. Abrams, and it’s going to be so much fun working with you.’ I sort of burst inside, I wanted to scream, but of course I couldn’t because he was on the phone so I was like doing my little dance silently.  Then, when he got off the phone, I just shouted.  I was so excited!”

Abrams remembers being taken by surprise at Elle’s audition.  “When Elle came in, my first thought is that she might be too young, because she was 12 and had to play 14,” he says, “but I soon realized she’s infinitely more sophisticated than I am!  She has incredible poise, yet fit in perfectly with this goofy group of boys.”

Elle immediately fell in love with the complexity of Alice’s character. “She’s kind of a tough girl, a tomboy, and she’s had a hard life,” Elle explains. “Her mother is gone and her father is always drinking, so when the boys ask her to be part of their movie, she’s like ‘What the heck?  I’ll do it.’  Then it turns into this whole incredible event for all of them.”

Joel Courtney

The opposite of Elle, Joel Courtney had never had any professional acting experience at all when he was offered “Super 8’s” lead role of Joe Lamb, a kid trying to come to grips with the sudden loss of his mother.

“I knew J.J. was taking a real chance on me and I didn’t want to let him down.  I wanted to do a good job for him, myself and for everybody working on the film,” Joel explains.

Abrams adds, “I didn’t want the main character in ‘Super 8’ to be the director of the movies.  I wanted him to be the kid who follows the director, who’s there because he’s lost his mother and is having a tough time with his father and is looking for his way.”

From the beginning, Joel understood why Joe devotes himself to making his friend’s Super 8 movie at a time in his life when nothing else is certain.  “Joe’s mom has passed away and his dad, being the town deputy, is never really around,” Joel comments.  “So, Joe finds his only comfort with his friends.  His dad wants him to be a regular kid and play baseball, but Joe just wants to make movies.  He’s in charge of all the makeup, sound and special effects and he loves that stuff.”

Most of all, Joel was kept intrigued by the mounting tension of the story.  “I love the mystery of it and it is a total adrenaline rush,” he says.

Portraying Martin, the gullible kid who often finds himself the butt of his friends’ jokes while starring in their monster movie, is Gabriel Basso, who stars on Showtime’s acclaimed show “The Big C.”  Abrams notes that Gabriel is the utter opposite of his character.  “Gabriel is incredibly smart and I think you have to be to play dumb well,” the director notes.

As soon as Abrams explained the basic outline of the story to him, Gabriel was hooked.  “I love that it’s a story about kids who witness something they shouldn’t have seen,” he says.  “They’ve got their hands in the forbidden cookie jar.”

Another newcomer to film is Riley Griffiths who makes his feature debut in “Super 8” playing Charles, the driven, perfectionist visionary of the group and the writer/director of the movie they’re making.  “I love my character because he’s so determined and serious about making movies,” says Riley.  “Things like ‘production value’ are really, really important to him, but his friends don’t get it.”

Riley recalls that J.J. Abrams posed a big question when he told him he got the role.  “He asked me:  ‘Are you ready for this?’ and I said ‘I am so ready,’” he laughs.

Notes Abrams:  “Riley was amazing when he came in, but he had never been on a set before so he had a big challenge.”

Riley stepped up, becoming so obsessed with slipping into the role of a would-be director that he began shadowing Abrams around the set, picking up on the director’s style and mannerisms.  “I just watched how J.J. directs and then I tried to transfer all of that onto Charles” he says.  “J.J. also told me all about Super 8 cameras and how this was the same camera he had as a kid so that was really cool.”

Ryan Lee, who plays the group’s most mischievous member and pyrotechnic expert, Cary, and has already been seen in diverse film and television roles, was a huge fan of Abrams’ “Star Trek.”  “I had never watched ‘Star Trek’ on TV before, because to me, that was my parents’ era, but the way J.J. did it was so cool,” he says.  “When I found out I would be auditioning for J.J., my heart started pounding.”

The feeling was mutual for the filmmakers.  “Ryan was spectacular in his audition,” says Burk.  “He was hysterically funny and actually the first actor we wanted to cast.”

After winning the role, Ryan was especially excited to play Cary.  “He’s the kid who’s always making trouble and having a really good time.  He likes to blow things up and he’s a lot of fun,” he says.

Rounding out the group of fledgling filmmakers is Preston, the confident know-it-all who is one of the stars of the kids’ production.  Playing Preston is Zach Mills who has been widely seen in film and television, including roles in “Hollywoodland,” “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling”.

Zach got a kick out of Preston.  “He’s smart to the point of being a little obnoxious,” he confesses.  “He really knows his stuff and he loves giving out facts to people, which gets interesting when lots of very weird things start happening!”

He also had a blast with his co-stars.  “The friendships in the movie are very real,” Zach notes.  “We were always hanging out on the set and having fun together even when we weren’t filming.”  “We’ve become really good friends, almost like family,” Joel explains. “It’s been so amazing to have kids our own age to talk to.”

Elle sums up:  “As soon as we started rehearsing, we just clicked, and became best friends. We had so much fun together that just being together became another cool part of making the movie.”