THE ULTIMATE LIFE
Red, Hanna and Gus: The Teen Years
As Jason begins to read Red's journal, he is transported back to the 1940's, at the end of the Depression. His family, extremely poor, is living in an extremely small house with a sick mother who cannot afford medical care.
"It's during this time," says Eldridge, "that one of Red's teachers gives him a journal and encourages him to write down his feelings. His first entry is 'I'm tired of being poor.' A newspaper article about the life and riches of Andrew Carnegie inspires Red and he sets out to become a billionaire. He leaves home and goes on a journey to find himself, to find wealth, and along the way find people who will become his mentors."
Eldridge and his team traveled from Charlotte, NC to Los Angeles, CA to find the young Red. "We looked at thousands of kids to play the role," he explains, "but in the end, it was Austin James who won the role, his first big production since arriving in California."
"Red is me," says James. "I read the role and the lines came to me. I didn't have to study them, which was weird for me because normally you've got to spend a bit of time on the lines, but I got them within 20 minutes for the original audition. And then I sent the script to my parents and they read it and came back and said, 'You realize this guy's just you, right? He's got the same mindset. He's just you.' I dropped out of school early and moved to LA to seek, not my fortune, but my career. And I'm very headstrong. I'm set in my ways. I'm a Capricorn so I'm super hardheaded, and I just realized that so many aspects of Red are just like me.
"He is set on his path by a newspaper clipping of Andrew Carnegie who is a billionaire who didn't go to school," explains James. "He dropped out just like Red, but ended up paying for libraries and other things that allow kids to go to school when he didn't have the chance. It takes Red a while to connect to the fact that he does need an education and he gets it both from school and from some of the people he meets along the way.
"In my time period," he continues, "the 1940's, the first person who sets Red in motion, in a weird way, is his father, who tells him he's never going to make it, which challenges Red and sets him on his path. And then, there's his mother. He wants to be able to help her. He meets a hobo who helps him both physically to get on a train and then spiritually, making him see that he already does have things...that he doesn't have to just strive for everything.
"When he meets Jacob Early, Red finds a mentor and a father figure. Jacob is successful and Red goes to him and asks him, 'How can I be successful like you? I want to be like you. And, even more than that, I want to be you.'"
Playing the role of Jacob Early is legendary actor Peter Fonda. "Working with Peter Fonda was incredible," says James. "He's a legend, but on top of that, he's a really down to earth guy and he had so many stories to tell. They were great. And he was, in real life, a bit of a mentor. "He gave me some good wisdom and some good parting knowledge. He helped me. It was great.
"Then Red meets Hanna," James continues, "who convinces him he needs to go to school and is Red's first friend who he learns to care about more than becoming a billionaire. It's his other love. Hanna's the only person who can convince Red of anything. He is headstrong and set on this path to riches and she's the only one who can veer that path in a direction that she feels is a bit more accurate."
James found that preparing for the role of Red Stevens was his biggest challenge. "The first thing I did was rent The Ultimate Gift," he says. "And watching James Garner in that was neat because I was playing the younger version of him, which was awesome. Trying to pick up little idiosyncrasies from him was the first thing that I tried to do, and it was a tough one because he's being interviewed during the entire movie. He's on camera, so picking up cues from him was a little tough at first, but I think I found a few."
Abigail Mavity, who plays the teenage Hanna, helped James as well. "Abigail was incredible," he says. "She really helped me get into the scenes. If I was ever uncomfortable, she was a guiding hand. It was so easy to play off her, but not only that, she's just fun to hang out with."
Red's other friend was Gus. Played by Jack Depew, Gus is at first a rival, but ends up saving his life in the war. "Jack brought a lot to Gus that I didn't originally see," explains James. "He changed my view of who Gus was when I saw the way that he played it. It just clicked and it made so much more sense. He has this little red book where he writes notes about his acting. He's a great guy."
As great guys go, James felt that director Michael Landon, Jr., was "the best director I've ever worked with. He's so down to earth," he says, "but he doesn't have that directorial overhead. He's just on the same level with you as an actor and he knows exactly what to say at any point to get you into mode. He gives such clear and concise direction that you understand everything.
"In one very emotional scene, he yelled at me to get me into that moment and it worked. It didn't mess with me at all. I knew what he was doing and it put me right into the scene and the take was great. He's such a nice guy that you could never be mad at him no matter what. We kind of get each other."
"I think Abigail Mavity, playing the young Hanna, brought a tremendous passion to the project," comments Eldridge. "You see some real synergy and a connection between Austin James and Abigail as their characters fall in love and begin to build their relationship."
Abigail Mavity loved everything about her character. "I think she's the girl that everybody would want to be friends with," she says. "She's the girl that everybody would want to be like. She's kind. She's outgoing. She's spunky and I think it's great that she's popular, but still kind and sweet. I love that about her. But it was a challenge finding something to ground me. Because she's so spunky and spirited, I tend to get caught up in that and not find the solid grounding of who Hanna is, where she comes from, but once I found it, Hanna was awesome.
"And then Red comes along and he's eccentric, new, mysterious and a breakaway from the stereotypical teenager. When they meet, there's an instant connection. Austin is fantastic as Red," Abigail exclaims. "I, as a person, am sort of shy and keep to myself and he completely brings me out of that, so it's wonderful working with him. He's become a really good friend outside of filming.
"And Jack Depew, who plays Gus, is also awesome," she continues. "He's such a cool guy. He's just that big, jock guy but so nice and talented. Both of the guys are incredibly talented.
"Gus is that guy that really likes Hanna and is always going after her. She likes him okay but not really in 'that' way. He's always there, waiting for her, but unfortunately along comes Red."
Mavity found working with director Michael Landon, Jr. a "fantastic experience. He's fantastic," she says. "He's definitely an actor's director. He knows how to direct you, how to work with you. He's very caring and nurturing. He's very lighthearted about things which brings a great atmosphere to the set."
"Our Gus character was always the best buddy of Red," says Eldridge. "Though you don't see them on the screen interacting, when you saw James Garner and Brian Dennehy in The Ultimate Gift, you just know that they had a phenomenal relationship with each other. So now we go back to the prequel, and see how that relationship got started. And one of the things we looked for, along with a great actor, was someone that could believably become what Brian Dennehy looks like, which is a bigger-than-life, huge smile guy, robust cowboy that Dennehy plays in Gus and I think with Jack Depew we found that. As soon as he did his audition and gave that big smile, I said, 'That's our guy!'"
Jack Depew sees his character of Gus as a polar opposite to Red. "When Gus meets Red for the first time, it's rough, it's rocky," says Depew. "They don't quite get along. They seem to like each other on the surface but they have totally opposite personalities. Gus is that guy who likes to play practical jokes on his friends," he explains, "and go out and stay out late and play games. He loves to smile. He's a fun guy. His dream is to move to the South of France and own a pancake factory and make his own shoes. Red's sole objective is to become a billionaire and he's a quieter, more conservative guy."
Depew feels that James has captured the character of the teen Red perfectly. "He brings a very conservative, very pointed point of view to Red," he explains. "He has a very clear objective of what he wants to do in the future, and in doing so, he portrays that to other people very well. It creates a great combination between the two characters. Austin is a fun guy, and when we're between takes, he's always having fun. He's always got something new to say, but when we start the scene, he's like 'Okay, now I'm Red.' And then boom. It's great."
The competition between the two young men continues when Red shows up out of nowhere at the local high school that Hanna attends and Gus reigns as king. "It puts me on the back burner and frustrates me," says Depew, "and apparently, he wins the girl."
"Showing up out of nowhere" happens again two years later when Red, a soldier in WWII, falls into a foxhole occupied by Gus. "I tell him to get out," explains Depew, "but once he does, he gets wounded and I have to save him. This was definitely the best scene. "At lunch one day, Michael Landon, Jr. said to me 'You thought you were coming just to shoot a movie, but we're giving you the real deal.' And that was exactly what happened."
Depew was particularly interested in what the director brought to the role of Gus. "Once we all started to work and settle in," he says, "I started to watch what Michael was doing and it was great. He knows what he wants and there's a rhythm to it. He's always on track."
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