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SOUL SURFER

AnnaSophia Robb Learns To Soul Surf
The rousing drama of Bethany Hamilton's story would ultimately draw a highly accomplished cast, including Academy Award® winner Helen Hunt and Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid, as well as many rising newcomers, among them the pop and country star Carrie Underwood, making her film debut, and Lorraine Nicholson, Jack Nicholson's daughter. But the key to it all would rest on finding a young actress who could do Bethany's inimitable personality justice, who could capture the full pendulum of her journey as a buoyant, fun-loving, bold young athlete facing the biggest questions of her life, then discovering a strong sense of purpose.

They found all that in AnnaSophia Robb, the rising teen actress who had her first breakthrough as Opal, opposite Jeff Daniels, in the 2005 family film Because of Winn-Dixie, then won the coveted role of the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and went on to anchor such beloved family films as Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain. Sean McNamara knew the minute he saw AnnaSophia that she was exactly the match for Bethany's mix of inner grit and sweetness that the filmmakers had dreamed about. "AnnaSophia is an amazing actress and she brought everything we could have hoped for to this role,” McNamara says. "She did an incredible amount of research to prepare for the part and even learned to surf in a remarkably short time. She worked closely with Bethany and they made a great team together.”

As soon as Robb read the screenplay, she was ready to commit. "I thought it was such an uplifting story,” the actress says. "It was so unbelievable that I kept wondering: did this really all happen? Is it really true? I met with Sean McNamara a few days later and he said ‘yes, it all really happened.' Then he told me that Bethany had wanted me to do the role, and I was so honored, I was just like ‘oh, wow, that is so cool.' The fact that she wanted me to tell her story made me want to do a great job even more.”

Bethany was surprised at first to find that AnnaSophia is more than half a foot shorter (Bethany is a statuesque 5' 11”), but as soon as she saw Robb perform, she knew that she had the right stuff to get to the essence of her story. "I was stoked that AnnaSophia would be the one playing me,” she says. "At first, I wasn't sure if we would ever find someone who I thought could do it justice, but she did an amazing job. We're really good friends now and I think we always will be.”

Once she was signed to the role, Robb dove into physical training, working out for four hours a day to prepare for the film's physical challenges, including surf lessons, swimming and weight workouts, as well as stretching, some of it mirroring Bethany's own rigorous training and diet. Bethany herself gave Robb surfing lessons in Hawaii, along with her long-time coach, Russell Lewis. "AnnaSophia actually learned pretty quickly,” enthuses Bethany. "I mean, surfing takes years and years to learn, and she only had about a month or so, so she did really well. It was fun for me to watch her improve and to help her overcome her fears.”

Heading out into the warm, wild waves for which Hawaii is famed, Robb started to develop her own passion for the ocean, as well as the courage to tackle the big, intimidating surf. "I was so excited to get out in the water and learn,” she recalls. "But then I felt terrified because those little baby waves looked so big to me! I just thought to myself, ‘If Bethany could face her fears after the shark attack, I can face this.' Now that I've gotten past that, I find that there is something really peaceful and beautiful about surfing.”

Robb was especially grateful to spend personal time with Bethany and her family, gaining first-hand knowledge of how their closeness and faith kept them hanging on even when their lives were turned upside down. "I just loved hanging out with Bethany,” Robb says. "She is such a fun person, and also a great influence. We really became close and it was so nice to have her around during filming, because I could ask her any question – about her arm, her family, her thoughts on life, anything. No question was off limits with her. She was so receptive, and that was wonderful because I wanted to play her as realistically as I possibly could. It amazed me that she doesn't mind talking in detail about her arm – but I came to see that's because it's no big deal to her at all.”

Bethany's journey to accepting her altered, but no less remarkably strong and capable, body has led her on a personal mission to help teen girls overcome body image issues. She hopes AnnaSophia Robb's performance will convey to young audiences that what really counts in the world goes far deeper than flesh and bone. "A big part of the film is that there is so much more to life than what your body is,” Bethany comments. "What matters the most is who you are inside and how you treat others. It's really important to accept yourself as you are. I have one arm and a lot of people think ‘oh, no' but I accept myself for who I am. To me, real beauty in life is being kind to other people and that's what the filmmakers and AnnaSophia really understood.”

While many people are blown away by the fact that Bethany surfs at an elite level with just one arm, to Bethany that was just a matter of figuring out how to think past what other people imagined would be her limits. "Surfing with one arm is challenging, but I just have to use my brain a lot more and position myself in the best possible spot for catching the wave,” she explains in her typical, easy-going manner. "It has helped me really focus on technique.”

As Robb, too, became more accustomed to using only one arm during production, she became increasingly aware of all the unseen work that has gone into Bethany's indomitable attitude. "I had a lot of conversations with Bethany about how she does every day things, like how she drives, and even how she opens up water bottles,” the actress explains. "She has a lot of interesting methods. I learned so much from watching her and the thing I learned most of all is that she makes it all looks so easy because she's so strong, not just in her body but especially her spirit.”

For Dennis Quaid, what made Robb's performance stand out was her ability to get to the core of that spirit. "You couldn't ask for a better person to play this part,” Quaid comments. "She's so dedicated and so skilled as an actress that everything she does feels absolutely natural, which makes everyone else that much better as well.”

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