It was an average day on the red carpet. While waiting for the talent to make their way down the press line, I watched cameras flash and reviewed my notes. Soon enough it was my turn and the actors stood before me eager to answer my questions. They were poised, proficient and thrilled to talk about their movie. They were 11-year-old Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Anyone who has children or has watched over a little one while his or her parents are occupied knows, at times, it’s not an easy task. But Gordon and Capron aren’t children; they’re young professionals. Gordon stars a Greg Heffley, a middle school student who avidly writes in his ‘journal, not a diary.’ He’s not the most popular kid in school and is on the slender side making him a prime target for bullies. He may play the wimpy kid in the movie, but Gordon assured me, he’s not really a wimp, “I’m small and thin, but I have no other characteristics.”
Capron’s character, Rowley Jefferson, doesn’t fair much better. He’s got some weight on Greg, but that doesn’t provide any extra protection from those looking to push a geeky kid around. But at least they have each other. Not only are the boys best friends in the film, but they’ve grown close off the set. Of Gordon, Capron said, “I’m very good friends with him now. We love hanging out with each other. We have a blast.” Gordon added, “Ever since we met we had a great bond together and we just love seeing each other and we keep in touch.”
The boys were thrilled to reunite on the carpet, as was the author of the popular book the film is based on, Jeff Kinney. According to producer Nina Jacobson, “[Jeff] really has a great way of capturing what it is to be sort of stuck in the middle at that time in your life where you’re sort of too old to be cute, too young to drive.” Clearly that unique technique struck a chord with the right people. “The first book came out in 2007,” Kinney recalled. “They got interested probably only a few months later. I would say this was probably about as fast as they could have turned it out.”
Not only is the quick turnaround a fantastic accomplishment for the author, but it’ll be a special experience for the fan base the story amassed as well. “It’s neat because we’re right at the crest of the wave right now and it’s the right time,” Kinney explained. “This first generation of the readers of the book will get to see the movie too which I’m excited about.”
But, of course, the author had reservations about turning his book over to a film studio and potentially tarnishing his creation. “I felt very defensive and I didn’t want to ruin a good thing.” However, he added, “I was invited to be a really active participant. I’ve been completely involved from the beginning on this from hearing writers pitches to choosing a director to the casting to helping with the writing all the way through filming and even in post-production I’ve been doing a lot of work.” Jacobson was eager to sing Kinney’s praises, “[he] has been extraordinarily involved to a degree that’s quite unusual for the author of a book to be involved in the adaptation of his own work and he has been a fantastic asset to it because it was so much about his voice that there’s times that really nobody can get it right but him.”
Even with Kinney aboard, it was up to the stars to translate that voice onto the big screen. Jacobson admitted, “I have an almost 12-year-old, I have a nine-year-old, I have a three-year-old and I honestly don’t think any of my kids, well, especially the three-year-old, but any of them could remotely do what I saw Zach and Robert do.” It was no easy task tracking down actors of such a high caliber. Jacobson explained, “We knew that unless you find Greg Heffley, you’re not making this movie. You’ve got to find a kid who can capture the role, capture the sort of paradoxical nature of this character, which is the likable jerk.” She added, “We were looking for someone who was short, felt like an everyman, not a typical leading man.” And with that, the search began, “We searched all of the major cities, we had a casting director here in L.A. who was working with regional casting directors all around the country, plus we had the online iamthewimpykid.com where kids could put themselves on tape on the Internet for us to watch. We brought those kids in. We literally saw thousands of kids.”
Jacobson’s co-producer, Brad Simpson, was thrilled with the results of that lengthy endeavor. “I had a great time working with the kids.” He added, “It wasn’t like some adult actors where it’s just another job. It was actually this amazing experience for all the kids and they all had an exuberance, they were all incredibly professional and incredibly prepared, but also just incredibly excited everyday to be on set. To have a whole bunch of people who are just excited to be on set everyday creates this great mood.”
But the one thing even the most professional child actor can’t work around, is the timing restrictions. “You have a limited number of hours you can work everyday,” Simpson explained. “The kids were in every scene and so we had a limited amount of time to get our moments and that was always a challenge, but the flipside is we got to go home early.”
Even if the production team opted to bend the rules and squeezed in a few more hours, I doubt Capron or Gordon would mind; both were thrilled to be on set at all times. Capron’s favorite part of the gig? He preferred the scene during which, “Rowley’s driving his Big Wheel and Greg throws a football and he hits the tire and so Rowley goes like ‘Ahhh.'” He continued, “They had to hang me up on a wire like 10 or 12 feet in the air.” Capron was keen to squeeze in his appreciation for the Mother Son Dance scene. “I got to do it with my real mom which was so fun.” He grinned and added, “I had to like slap my butt and all.”
Gordon had a fondness for a more physical moment as well. He preferred “the Halloween scene because I got sprayed by a fire extinguisher, I got to hold a weed wacker and I got to have buckets of water poured on me and I got to run at twelve o’clock at night in a forest.” Besides getting to use some cool props, Gordon valued the uniqueness of the experience. “[This] would never happen to you if you’re really a regular ordinary kid because I would never get sprayed by a fire extinguisher if I didn’t get this movie.”
Another unique experience for a kid Zach’s age? Working with a seasoned actor like Steve Zahn. Of Zahn, who plays Greg’s father. Gordon said, “It was great because he likes all these war miniature stuff like his character and it was fun talking to him about some cool movies, about battles scenes and about the Indians. It was really cool.” “Steve Zahn is a very together guy,” Jacobson added. “Steve’s a total professional and came in always funny, always fresh, always ready.”
Gordon and Capron may be following in Zahn’s footsteps in hopes of continuing their acting careers, but in the meantime, they’re just enjoying being kids. Both have a special place in their heart for comic books. Gordon is a fan of Marvel comics while Capron has a more narrow preference, “I love Spider-Man.” He was in the know when it came to the franchise’s reboot plan but regretted succeeding Tobey Maguire isn’t an option. “I wish I could, but you’re supposed to be a high schooler and I think I’m a little short.”
This could work to Capron’s benefit considering he may have his own franchise to attend to. Diary of a Wimpy Kid focuses on just one of a series of four books, with a fifth on the way. When asked about a potential sequel, Gordon excitedly replied, “I would love to do more and hopefully they make more.” If “Wimpy Kid” performs well at the box office, Gordon may get his wish. Even with another kid-friendly film, How to Train Your Dragon, entering the competition just a week after his film, Simpson is confident “Wimpy Kid” will be a spring break favorite. “We’re looking at it not just about weekends, but about people taking their families to see our movie over the course of spring break.” Naturally, the word ‘family’ entails more than just the youngsters, so will “Wimpy Kid” appeal to adults as well? Simpson thinks so. “We hope we made a timeless movie and that anybody who’s been to middle school will recognize then relate to the troubles of Greg.” Sealing the deal for anyone in their 20’s, Simpson added, “We’ve given it a sort of irreverent ‘Freaks and Geeks’ quality.”
With the film’s release date fast approaching, everyone on board is confident a sequel could be on the horizon. Simpson revealed, “Our screenwriters are writing a sequel right now, ‘Rodrick Rules,’ which would be based on the second book. And, you know, we hope that the people want to see a second movie that we are in position of going again right away and making another film. I certainly know that the fans would like to see all the books made into movies.”
Diary of a Wimpy Kid hits theaters nationwide on March 19th.