When J.J. Abrams set out to find the young adult leads of Super 8, his homage to the beloved Amblin films of the early 1980s (such as E.T. and The Goonies) he wanted to find (according to the film’s press release) “fresh faces that the audience could have fun discovering.” He couldn’t have found a fresher face than that of his star Joel Courtney.
Joel, an Idaho native, was visiting his brother Caleb in Los Angeles for his summer vacation and taking auditions with this hopes of booking (maybe) one commercial and making a hundred dollars. “That was my goal,” the young star told us in our interview at the Los Angeles press event for Super 8.
Courtney far exceed his relatively modest goal when his acting coach suggested he go in and see her protege Jason James, who was conducting a nation wide search for the kids of Super 8. “Apparently I did really well,” the young actor reflected, “because they had me come back like eleven times. And then I kept getting acting coaches to help me through.”
Courtney’s innate charm and refreshingly artless manner won Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg over and landed him the staring role in one of this summers biggest and most highly-anticipated films. As early reviews have indicated, this newcomer’s performance is a stand-out as one of the most compelling aspects of the film. As we mentioned in our Super 8 early reviews and impressions piece, his is a bit of genuine casting magic.
Casting a first-time actor as the lead in his film is in line with J.J. Abrams’ (career consistent) desire to surprise audiences and create a sense of mystery. We have no preconceived notions about Joel Courtney before we meet him as his character Joe Lamb. Abrams is a self-proclaimed believer in the idea of “the mystery box,” the notion that audiences, “are most compelled by an unseen mystery, and that a movie should have all the potent unpredictability of an unopened box, out of which absolutely anything could emerge.”
As such, there has been just as much secrecy associated with this film as with Abrams’ previous projects. Secrets, as we know, are hard to keep — especially for kids who are working on something very exciting. When we asked Courtney if holding it all back from his friends has been difficult he replied:
“It has, it really has been. I wanted to tell my friends for a really long time, but I wanted them to be surprised at the same time. I’m really excited to show it to my friends,” the actor continued, “I really want to know what they think.”
Screen Rant: Did J.J. tell you that you were going to go to bed without dinner forever if you let anything slip?
“There weren’t any threats, but there was also that looming presence like…Oh! I love this. So, Zack [Mills] (who plays Preston in the film) and his dad and his mom were so funny, they treated it like if they said anything this black helicopter would come down and FBI agents would be like ‘get in the van!’”
On Pranking Abrams:
The kids in the story of Super 8 are in that first blush of puberty where rebellion and self-definition are the names of the game. They are likely to sneak out, steal cameras, and otherwise create all manner of mayhem in order to shoot the film within the film (titled simply The Case) that they (as a group) are working on when they witness the train crash that will change the course of their lives. The young actors portraying these kids are in the young-punk-prankster phase of their lives as well (a phase which some of us may, or may not, grow out of as adults). We wondered if there were a lot of on and off-set shenanigans in play. Courtney confessed that yes, on-set they, “Played jokes on everybody, it was just a big happy group of people.”
When asked which prank took the cake as the all-time best, Courtney told us a tale of the most perfect April fools joke possible to play on the notoriously close-lipped Abrams.
“The best prank would have to be off-set,” Courtney relayed. “It was April fools day…(laughing) J.J. will probably not ever forgive us for this one. Riley [Griffiths] (who plays Charles in the film) told J.J. that he had left his script in a mall and that he couldn’t find it and when he went back to look for it… it was gone. (Stopping to laugh again) It gave J.J like a heart attack. He was so scared, and then after a little while of just like freaking J.J. out — Riley’s like, ‘April fools!’”
SR: That’s amazing. What a perfect joke! Did he get mad…did he start sweating?
“No, no! He was just so relieved to hear that it was an April fools joke, and he was just so happy, ah (sighing) Riley got him so good. No he just blew it off as a joke — he’s such a cool guy.”
We can just imagine poor Abrams (the master of the “mystery box”) breaking out in a cold and clammy sweat envisioning some intrepid mall-goer happily making a hundred copies of his top-secret script at the local Kinko’s. Those had to be a long couple of minutes for the riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma director before the kids fessed up to the joke.
The director, as it happens, was not the only adult on Super 8 who was subject to the machinations of the teens.When we asked Courtney about his working relationship with Kyle Chandler (who plays his father in the film) the actor responded that Chandler, “Pulled a lot of the weight for the father/son relationship. He’s such a good actor,” Cortney continued, “and he can run around hotels better than anybody else.”
SR: What do you mean run around hotels?
“So Riley and Ryan [Lee] (who plays Cary in the film) ding-dong ditched him — and they didn’t tell me that they were going to do it. So they do it, and I’m standing there when he opens the door and so I point at him, and then point at them running down that hall, and I take off in the opposite direction. And he’s like chasing me and then apparently at some point in time he was chasing them — and I was like, ‘how can he chase us both!’ And then I went downstairs to the elevator, and I open up the elevator, and he’s (magically) in there!”
There is no end to the Bermuda-triangle-like vortex that opens on an Abrams set it would seem.