Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Finding the Right Kids

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“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is the feature film adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s novel of the same name. The film, directed by Thor Freudenthal and starring Zachary Gordon, is being released on March 19th by 20th Century Fox.

Kinney’s book provided all the essential ingredients for the film, but its episodic nature – it’s a diary (journal!), after all – necessitated that the filmmakers come up with a stronger narrative drive. So they focused on the friendship between Greg and Rowley Jefferson. Having known each other since elementary school (all those years ago!), Greg and Rowley are connected by their shared experiences. On the other hand, they’re polar opposites: Greg is battle-weary and hyper-ambitious. He has a harsh view of the world, yet is optimistic about his ability to work the system to his advantage. Rowley is the omega to Greg’s alpha – and happily so, at least to a point. He’s an innocent kid without an agenda, whereas Greg is all agenda.

A Dynamic Relationship

The character of Rowley is one of the most popular among the book’s fans, including the filmmakers. “He’s certainly one of my favorites,” admits Jeff Kinney. “Rowley just wants to enjoy the world and his school experience.” Adds Nina Jacobson: “We all love Rowley’s humor and innocence and freshness. One of my favorite Greg-Rowley exchanges is when Rowley tells his friend that ‘My mom told me that people will like me if I am just myself.’ To which Greg responds, ‘Well, that would be good advice, if you were someone else.’ That pretty much sums up their dynamic. Greg feels that Rowley has to be molded, improved, shaped and finessed, but Rowley’s pretty comfortable in his own skin – and that ends up translating into something that looks a lot like confidence. And confidence is the key to surviving middle school.”

As work continued on the script, the filmmakers turned their attentions to the critical task of finding their Wimpy Kid. In Kinney’s books, Greg is a stick figure with a round head, three hairs, and big shoes on a skimpy, slumped frame. It’s a rendering beloved by Wimpy Kid readers but one that wouldn’t work in a live action film.

Robert Capron, as Greg’s best pal Rowley, was cast first. “There weren’t many (would-be) Rowleys,” says Nina Jacobson. “Robert was Rowley. In his first audition, he was Rowley.” But Capron, too, had an unusual journey to Wimpy-dom. Once attached to the project, he participated in three different screen tests with six different “Gregs.”

Zachary Gordon – The Essence of Greg

The filmmakers were looking for a young actor who could convey Greg’s charisma and many flaws, while always keeping him likable and fun. “Finding the right actor who could capture that certain ‘Greg Heffley’ quality while remaining sympathetic, was very difficult,” admits Nina Jacobson. “He had to be cute and endearing, but also have a lot of chutzpah.”

The actor playing Greg would have the formidable task of being likable amidst the character’s non-stop shenanigans, schemes and attitude. “One of the ways we had to make Greg likable was finding the right kid to play him,” says Brad Simpson. “If you don’t have the right actor – if you don’t find the real ‘Wimpy Kid’, who combines charisma with a bottom-rung quality – then it’s not going to work.”

The filmmakers undertook a nine-month, nationwide search for their Wimpy Kid, during which over a thousand youngsters were auditioned. Prospective ‘Wimps’ could also register for casting calls at a special website. The filmmakers’ herculean efforts finally paid off when they found Zachary Gordon, a Southern California resident who had done lots of voiceover work and a few film and television appearances. Says director Thor Freudenthal: “Zach really conveyed that, with every ‘Aren’t I the greatest’ line of dialogue or feeling, there’s an ‘I hope you like me’ quality.'” Adds Jacobson: “Underneath Zach’s likability is a certain audacity and courage of his convictions feeling – a certainty about who he is and what he wants, that connects Zach to the character of Greg.” And Brad Simpson notes that “to say Zach has a bundle of energy is an understatement. He also has a little bit of Greg’s huckster qualities. He’s also a really good kid, and that shines through.”

For Zachary, playing Greg was both exciting and the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. For one thing, he was already a huge fan of the books. In addition, Zachary embodies Greg physically and, more importantly, he captures – even channels – the inner-Wimp. “Well, I’m small and thin like Greg, and that helps me play him,” says Zachary. “But I can also think like him. If you say something about Greg, I can sort of picture it in my mind, and imagine myself doing those things or having them happen to me. And that just puts me into the character.”