Film starring local opens Friday

Published 8:53 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Young Grayson Russell went Hollywood, though much differently than you’d expect.

Instead of fleeing to the coast to begin forging his star on the Walk of Fame, he let the industry find him in the Southern United States.

As NASCAR star Ricky Bobby’s prison shank-toting youngest son Texas Ranger Bobby, all hopped up on Mountain Dew, Russell made his feature film debut in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” which grossed nearly $150 million.

Audiences surely recognize the Clanton kid as the redheaded, foul-mouthed son of man-child Will Ferrell, but he’ll switch gears March 19 when his film “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” opens nationwide.

Russell stars as Fregley, a bespectacled supporting character in a live-action adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s illustrated novel about a wisecracking junior high school student.

Filming took six weeks on location in Vancouver, which Russell’s mother, Crystal, said was his first opportunity to travel out of the United States.

What drew him personally to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was that the film, as well as all four of Kinney’s books, take place in middle school, which Russell recently began himself.

On his shoot in Vancouver, Russell enjoyed the beautiful country atmosphere and the company of his cast mates even if it was fairly rainy most of the time.

“We got to have fun with the cast most of the days when we weren’t working,” he said. “We’d go swimming, and we’d wrestle on and off set. It was fun.”

The well-spoken and mild-mannered Russell does what actors do by playing someone who’s nearly a polar opposite of himself.

The hyperactive, slightly awkward Fregley is someone you might find on the lower end on the social totem pole, Russell said, but that is to his credit in a way.

“He doesn’t really care about that,” he said. “He doesn’t try and be different than he is because he’s comfortable with himself.”

Russell said he’s read all four of Kinney’s books and is ready and willing in case of a sequel.

Russell attends Clanton Middle School, where he plays sports, participates in its enrichment program and sometimes shares his performing talents during talent shows. His father Jerry performs Christian music, with which Grayson enjoys assisting his father on weekends.

As is required by the Screen Actors Guild, of which he is an active member, Grayson is accompanied by a parent on set at all times. His mother typically joins him during his shoots.

While she had apprehensions about the content her son would recite in “Talladega Nights,” Russell said Ferrell and the film’s director, Adam McKay, were highly collaborative and never asked Grayson to do anything he or his family didn’t feel comfortable doing.

She said her son’s natural feel for the camera and joy of performing reassures her about the potential career path he will continue to pursue.

“He loves being in front of the camera,” she said. “I’m just very pleased he has had the opportunity to do something that makes him so happy. You can tell he’s in the zone. When he does it, you can tell it’s his niche. This is where he fits, and as a parent, it’s wonderful to see that.”

At 6, Grayson began shooting commercial work when a local McKinnon car dealership needed participants for a commercial shoot. After a strong response to his performance in that, he went on to shoot 20 more advertisements for other businesses that generated his liking for performing

Soon, an open call came for “Talladega Nights,” and his mom thought if he was interested in acting, it would be a good opportunity for him to at least learn how to audition. They never thought he’d actually land a role in an eventually successful Hollywood film.

“He’d never auditioned,” she said. “I just thought if it was something we were going to pursue further, he needed to know a little bit about the audition process.”

Sure enough, he got the call back. Just a few days before they left for North Carolina to begin shooting, the Russell family was given the script, which indicated some of Grayson’s lines would be rather coarse. One hurdle Ferrell and McKay had yet to jump was getting approval from Grayson’s mother on letting him use humorous but irreverent language.

“I was very unsure about it,” she said. “I knew what the character would be like, but I thought there might be a few things he would not be comfortable with at his age (7 years old).”

Through some prayer and counseling with the filmmakers, Russell allowed her son to proceed knowing he wanted to pursue his dream. She said the film’s second assistant director would always talk to Grayson and the boy who played his brother to reinforce the behavior in the film was for entertainment purposes only and that it was not how they should behave in their real life.

“He told them they were only doing it as a job,” she said. “The crew went above and beyond explaining to the boys how you’re supposed to treat people. They handled that extremely well.”

After taking the necessary precautions, Grayson delivered some of the highly quotable film’s more memorable lines, including “I’m gonna come at you like a spider monkey!”

Instead of darting out to Los Angeles to immerse himself into the competitive film industry, Russell and his family opted to stay in Alabama and let a film career revolve around their life at home.

“You can have a regular life and a movie career here,” he said. “It’s a lot more quiet. California’s so much larger and fast-paced. It’s just home here.”

In his spare time, Russell loves to draw sketches. Between takes on the set of his films, you might find him focused with a pencil and paper sketching away at his next masterpiece.

He also plays all kinds of sports, including soccer, football and basketball, for which he participates in the local Upward Bound program. He plays a little chess and even recently took up guitar.

Prattville will hold a premiere of Russell’s new film at its Carmike Cinema the Friday it opens at 6 p.m. Joined by his family and friends, he will appear to sign autographs before the film screens.

Also under his acting belt is a lead role in the independently financed movie “The Rainbow Tribe,” about a rag-tag group of children at a summer camp who help their counselor overcome a personal crisis. That film shot in California.

He also appeared on the popular Disney show “I’m in the Band.”

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and opens nationwide March 19.

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