The Cast and Crew of Dolphin Tale

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“Let’s get one thing straight,” says David Yates with a smirk outside the entrance of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, “I’m not the guy who made ‘Harry Potter.'”

Not long ago, the similarities began and ended with a shared name, but now Yates, the CEO of the institution that saved the life of their resident celebrity, Winter (not to mention many other dolphins, otters and sea turtles), is the co-producer of a major Warner Bros. family film, Dolphin Tale, arriving in theaters this Friday. Starring the real-life Winter as herself, the magic on the screen is no fantasy.

Caught in a crab trap when she was just three months old, Winter was rescued from a nearby beach and brought to Yates’ facility for emergency care. Though the outlook was grim, Winter survived the ordeal with the loss of her tail. Still not out of the woods, Winter faced the risk of spinal injury with her attempts to adapt to tail-less swimming. That’s when the center made marine life history by working with Dan Strzempka and Kevin Carroll of Florida’s Hanger Orthopedic Group to develop the world’s first dolphin prosthesis.

“Reading the script for the first time, you get to the end and are like, ‘This is a true story? Holy cow! No kidding?'” says actor Austin Stowell, “…Then, all of a sudden, you get here and there she is. You’re in the water with her, experiencing this animal… [Y]ou can tell that she’s enjoying her life and is very, very happy and happy to be here.”

Stowell’s character, Kyle Connellan, is the cousin of the film’s human lead, young Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble). Serving in the military, Kyle returns to the United States with serious injuries that prevent him from making use of one of his legs. Though the character arrives from the imagination of screenwriters Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi, he’s based on the countless disabled visitors that Winter receives on a daily basis, inspired by her ability to make due after losing a part of her body.

“[There’s] a little kid with two prosthetics,” says Gamble of an experience on-set, “and just seeing five minutes of that was so inspiring. The idea of this movie is to tell people with that kind of disability not to give up hope and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Opposite Gamble is newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff in her first big-screen role. She plays Hazel Haskett, the daughter of marine vet Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) who, in the film, leads the team that saves Winter’s life.

“Cozi is one of the most unique people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Connick of acting alongside his onscreen daughter, “She’s an incredible pianist. She’s an incredible singer. She’s a brilliant actress. She’s never done film work before. You don’t just get a huge role in a movie and are able to do that. It’s very rare, and she’s a very unusual person.”

“I remember meeting Harry about an hour before Nathan did,” Zuehlsdorff recalls, “and we went into food prep, which is all the fish stuff. I knew he was a really nice guy because he was immediately like, ‘Call me Harry!’ because I was calling him Mr. Connick… I remember him meeting Nathan and them shaking hands and he whispered to me, ‘I don’t like him!'”

Both young talents also had a great time working with Morgan Freeman, who plays a fictionalized version of the two doctors that replaced Winter’s tail.

“I remember one time in November or December,” explains Gamble, “and it started to get a little cold, which is like 60 or 70 degrees here. We were in the water and my lips started to turn blue and I was shivering. He told the crew, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta get this kid out of here. He’s gonna freeze.’ I thought it was really cool that he stepped up and did that.”

“It’s the experience of a lifetime to work with somebody who has had the career that he has had,” says Stowell, “There are no words to explain it to yourself other than saying that I’m there to do a job, just like he was. I’ll admit, the night before was a little nerve-wracking before my first day of shooting with him. It was a little daunting and there I am, prepping for the day and I turn on my TV. There’s ‘Invictus.’ Just what I need! But you start to watch and it’s like, ‘I’m going to work tomorrow with this guy. That’ll be me.’ So I woke up the next morning and just had this kind of calm come over me.”

While Freeman’s role makes some use of this famously sagely demeanor, the film’s real fount of elderly wisdom arrives through Kris Kristofferson’s Reed Haskell, father to Clay and grandfather to Hazel.

“Kris had, I think, that role before me,” Freeman admits with a smile, “He’s not honing in on my territory. But I might be honing in on his.”

“Kris is just incredible,” adds Connick, “It’s very humbling being around him. He’s a helicopter pilot. He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s a boxer. He’s a songwriter. He’s an actor… It’s cool, when you see a guy who’s really, really rich and he drives around in a crappy car. That’s what Kris is like intellectually. You talk to the guy and he makes you feel so at ease.”

Of course, the cast doesn’t end with the human actors. In addition to Winter, the film also features sea turtles, sea slugs and, quite prominently, a pelican named Rufus.

“I was so scared of Rufus,” laughs Zuehlsdorff, “He had a hook on the end of his beak. When it hits you in the face, it’s like, ‘SNAP!’ I liked the real Rufus better than the puppet Rufus, though, because with the puppet Rufus, the guys would just get right in there and just clap on your head and stuff. It was like, ‘There’s a bubble, okay!’ But Rufus was especially into cold fish and ice and stuff. I guess he wasn’t warm and fuzzy.”

“I wanted the inside of the aquarium to be this wondrous place when the boy first walks in,” says director Charles Martin Smith of adding the comedic Rufus to the center’s collection of critters, “…I’m trying to bring a slight fantasy, magicalness to the proceedings.”

Smith, no stranger to working with animals, directed 1997’s “Air Bud” and the 2003 drama “The Snow Walker,” which featured a variety of Arctic wildlife. Working with Winter, this time, meant that the schedule had to be a bit flexible.

“She’s a very funny animal,” continues Smith, “She’s got a lot of energy. She’s a kid, basically. She’s about the equivalent of a human 10 year old. She’s not a baby, but she’s not a grown-up either. She has a kind of child-like way about her. She’s got a lot of energy, she’s noisy as hell. She’s this tweety bird… The marine hospital has said that that was one of Winter’s happiest times and she really thrived in that whole experience and the attention.”

The good news for Winter is that the filmmaking process has already helped the cause that she’s become the public face of. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has expanded thanks to the generous donation of outdoor tanks provided by Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros. and further development is planned for the future through the support of donations. You, too, can get involved and visit Winter live on the web at SeeWinter.com.

“I was so honored to be around the people at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium,” says Connick, “I really was. They make you examine your own existence… It’s great when you think about these folks and
how dedicated they are. It makes you examine, in my eyes, am I that dedicated to what I do? Can I possibly have an effect on people that would be positive as that? It was a great project to be a part of.”

“It’s too hard to make a movie to make an empty one,” Smith puts it, “…I want to bring something positive into this world. My mother used to say to me, ‘The whole idea is to try to leave the world a slightly better place than you found it.’ And that really is important to me. To put something positive out there without being preachy. We want to make an entertaining thing and something moving on a personal level, but that’s what attracted me to the story in the first place, was how much of a positive message it is without beating people over the head.”

Dolphin Tale hits theaters in 3D and 2D this Friday, September 23rd.