Ross Thomas stars in “Soul Surfer”, the true story of teen surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack and courageously overcame all odds to become a champion again, through her sheer determination and unwavering faith. Thomas talks to Clint Morris about being part of such an inspirational flick, as well as working with greats Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell.
How did you get involved in “Soul Surfer”?
I had been aware of Bethany’s story potentially becoming a feature film as far back as 2007, while filming the television series, “Beyond The Break”. Sean McNamara and David Brookwell, the creators of “Beyond The Break”, had been interested in making the Bethany Hamilton story into a movie. I can remember both Sean and David meeting with the Hamilton family while we were on O’ahu filming the series. When they told me about their aspirations to make this film, I was immediately intrigued. I remember telling Sean McNamara that if the film ever came to fruition, to please consider me for a role if there was one available. However, time passed and the film still had not been made, so I just figured it wasn’t happening. Then over Christmas break of 2009, I got a phone call from casting director, Joey Paul Jensen, informing me that “Soul Surfer” was in pre-production and Sean McNamara was directing. She said they were searching for the role of Bethany’s older brother, Noah Hamilton, and asked if I’d come in to be audition on tape for the producers in Hawaii. I was so fired up to hear that this film was finally going to be made and of course jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. I auditioned on tape for Joey Paul Jensen and the next day I was offered the part. I was thrilled to be filming in Hawaii once again with Sean and David and all the Hawaiian film crew that I had made friends with over the years.
Obvious question, did you/do you Surf?
Yes, I do surf. I started surfing when I was younger in Santa Cruz, California. My parents rented a summer house there, so growing up I’d get about a month or so to get as much surfing in as I possibly could. Then when I moved to Los Angeles for school and to pursue my career, I had the ocean right in my back yard, so it became a big part of my life. However it wasn’t until I moved to O’ahu, Hawaii to film the TV series, that I really got to hone my surfing skills. As part of our training for the series, we got to learn from legendary Hawaiian waterman, Brian Keaulana. Brian taught me a great deal, not only about the sport of surfing, but about the ocean and more importantly, ocean safety. I also had the privilege of working with his father, legendary Hawaiian surfer, life-guard and waterman, Buffalo Keaulana, on “Beyond The Break”. Listening to Buffalo talk about his Hawaiian lineage and the deep bond with the ocean gave me a strong sense of appreciation and respect for surfing and the Hawaiian culture. In my opinion, surfing is all about respect…respect for the ocean, the environment, the culture and the rich history that has paved the way for us.
Were you intimidated at all working with Ms Hunt and Mr Quaid, and tell us about working with AnnaSophia Robb?
Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are terrific actors, both of whose careers I’ve grown up watching. Initially it was a bit surreal wrapping my mind around the fact that these major movie stars were going to be playing my parents. But as soon as I met the two of them, it was like I’d known them my whole life. We immediately hit it off and quickly became friends. Both Dennis and Helen are professional, down to earth, humble people who have an intense passion for the work we do. I think we definitely bonded over our mutual love for surfing. Helen is an avid surfer and Dennis had recently taken the sport up. Being in Hawaii together and especially playing the onscreen Hamiltons, we all took advantage of the surf and the aloha mentality that comes with the territory. It was a true pleasure working with Helen and Dennis and I hope to have the opportunity again.
AnnaSophia Robb is so captivating to watch. It always floors me to see such a young person with such a mature sense of professionalism and raw talent. She has incredible instincts and really commits herself to her craft. If she is doing this level of work at age 16, I can only imagine what she’ll be capable of over the course of her career. I felt a familial connection with AnnaSophia right from the get go…she reminded me a lot of my own sisters, so that made me really comfortable playing her older brother. We got along extremely well and although there is a big age difference, we became great friends over the course of filming.
Was it a smooth shoot – or did the weather and wets prove troublesome at times?
Overall it was a really smooth shoot. Of course when you are making a movie that relies in large part on the waves and weather, you have to have a bit of patience, as mother nature does not subscribe to our call sheet. We had a few really windy days, a few flat no wave days, a few rainy days…but the sunny big wave days always made up for it.
When the Earthquake hit Chile, we actually had to be evacuated from the hotel due to a Tsunami advisory. My parents had just arrived on the island to watch some of the filming. The night they arrived the Tsunami horns went off around the island and we had to relocate to high ground. Production was halted for a day and we all stood by crossing our fingers that the Tsunami wouldn’t hit. Luckily it didn’t and we were able to resume work as usual.
What type of films do you prefer to do, dramas like this or lighter fare like ”American Pie : The Naked Mile”?
I prefer to work in drama. Sure comedy is always a good time, but I tend to gravitate toward dramatic roles and stories. Comedy is wonderful because it makes people laugh and laughter is one of the best prescriptions our world needs. But it’s also important to see the ugly, the dark and the emotionally intense. Life is a duality and if we do not pay attention to the drama as well as the laughter, then we are merely shielding ourselves from truth. I do lean towards dramatic roles, but throwing some lighter fare in definitely gives a nice balance.
Can you tell me a bit about the documentary you shot in the Amazon last year?
I am a big proponent of protecting indigenous rights and territories around the world. I have spent time with several indigenous tribes, learning about their culture, their way of life and most importantly their vast understanding of sustainable living with our earth. I had a strong desire to give back to the people who had taught me so much. Through an organization I work with, Survival International, I was made aware of a shocking event that happened in the Peruvian Amazon, called the Bagua Massacre. On June 5th 2009, more than 30 people were killed in Peru’s northern Amazon province of Bagua when security forces violently clashed with indigenous protestors on a narrow strip of highway called “Devil’s Curve”. After learning of this horrendous atrocity I was appalled to see the lack of coverage and international awareness of this event. It was at that point that I felt compelled to take my camera and go in search of other indigenous issues that needed to be brought to attention.
Last year I spent several months in the Madre De Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. I linked up with German Anthropologist Jessica Bertram and a local indigenous organization called FENAMAD. I had become aware of U.S. based Hunt Oil’s encroachment into the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, home to the Harakmbut, Machiguenga and Yine people. Hunt Oil Company and Repsol Exploration Peru are co-owners of Lot 76 granted by the state in 2006 for the exploration and exploitation of oil in this part of the region of Madre de Dios. The oil project threatened the ancestral land of the indigenous communities who rely on the reserve for their sustenance. My goal was to travel to the indigenous Harakmbut villages and document firsthand testimonials from the people themselves about the oil company’s impact on their livelihood. The result was a short documentary film I titled “Extraction: The Plundering of the Amarakaeri Reserve”. It can be seen on the internet magazine site, Reality Sandwich.
What’s next for you? Auditioned for any Superhero flicks?
Right now I have a couple potential movie projects in the works, but nothing set in stone. This industry is very unpredictable in the sense that your life can change within 24 hours and a phone call. You never know when or what the next job will be, let alone where it will be. Needless to say, I keep a month to month contract on my apartment. If nothing pans out work wise by the summertime, I plan to go travel again and do some charity work abroad for a bit.
As for the Superhero flicks, I am undoubtedly game to take on one of these characters. I auditioned for Captain America, but then again, who didn’t? Hats off to Chris Evans. It’s highly competitive out there, but hopefully one day soon a director will ask me to rock a cape and bulletproof suit and attempt to save the world!
Photo Credit: Travis McCormack