Sunday, October 19, 2003

11-year-old finds sudden stardom

Union's Josh Hutcherson just 'wanted to entertain people,' so his parents looked into it. Now he's become a Hollywood commodity.

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Riding his motorized scooter up and down Tender Court, Josh Hutcherson looks like any other 11-year-old kid in Union, Ky. But he's not.

Josh Hutcherson
Josh Hutcherson has appeared in movies and TV shows. Miracle Dogs was shown on Animal Planet in August.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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For one thing, he's seldom home. About half of the year he's commuting with his mother to Hollywood, auditioning for TV and movie roles, or on location making movies like TNT's Wilder Days with Peter Falk, which premieres today.

Despite virtually no local acting experience, Hutcherson has established himself as a Hollywood commodity, appearing in ER, a feature film with Tom Hanks, and two WB sitcom pilots in less than two years.

"Since I was 3 years old, I wanted to entertain people," Josh explains in an interview at the family's kitchen table. "I liked to watch TV, and I always thought, 'How cool it would be to be like them.' "

His parents were not easily convinced, even as they watched him dance and entertain at their neighborhood block parties.

"Ever since he's been little, he's liked to perform for people. He has a personality the attracts people's attention," says dad Chris, a management analyst for the U.S. Environment Protection Agency in Clifton.

For six years, Chris and Michelle Hutcherson, sweethearts from Grant County High School who knew nothing about show business or acting, ignored Josh's pleas. They hoped it was a passing fancy.

"He bugged us so much. He wanted to do it," Michelle says.

Josh and mom Michelle
While they're home in Union, Josh's mom, Michelle, home schools him.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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"I have no clue," says Michelle, who quit her job as an emergency response trainer for Delta Airlines to home school Josh and manage his career.

"We just thought: He's a kid. He doesn't know what he wants. And finally, he just pushed and pushed enough that I said I'd look into it. And I did. And this is where it went, all of a sudden."

Chris says, "He does have talent. And it's part of a parent's responsibility - if a child wants to do something - to support him whenever you can."

Began two years ago

So two years ago this month, Josh and his mom met New York acting coach Bob Luke through the Heyman Talent Agency in Oakley. He recommended some Hollywood agents, and suggested that mother and son go to Los Angeles and audition for TV pilots. So they did. It was January 2002.

What: Wilder Days
Where: TNT
When: 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight today; 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Wednesday; 4 p.m. Saturday; 9:30 a.m. and noon next Sunday.
First Josh won a role in House Blend, a WB comedy pilot with Blue Ash native Amy Yasbeck, in spring 2002. Then came an Animal Planet movie called Miracle Dogs; guest shots on ER and Lifetime's The Division; and a voice-over for a Cartoon Network animated series.

Within a year, Josh was working with Hanks on Polar Express, a computer-animated feature directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future; Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?); appearing in American Splendor, which won the grand jury prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival; and shooting Wilder Days, a TNT family movie about a grandfather and grandson bonding during a road trip in a 1959 Cadillac.

It's been an unbelievable ride for the former New Haven Elementary School student who has never set foot onstage at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts, Playhouse in the Park or Ensemble Theatre. His only local acting experience has been in a Kroger TV commercial and a vacation Bible school training film.

'Extraordinary' thing

"This is truly a one-in-a-million kind of thing ... an extraordinary situation," says Terrell Finney, head of opera, music theater, dance and arts administration at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.

"The fact that he's had none of that (local) experience is amazing. This just simply doesn't happen," says Finney, a former SCPA teacher.

Born: Oct. 11, 1992.
Parents: Chris and Michelle Hutcherson, Union, Ky.
Recent movie: Miracle Dogs, Animal Planet movie shot in Cleveland with Kate Jackson, Rue McClanahan, Wayne Rogers, Stacy Keach, Ted Shackelford (August, 2003).
Next project: Wilder Days, TNT movie with Tim Daly and Peter Falk (in photo at left with Josh; movie airs today)
Commercials: Kellogg's Mickey's Magic cereal; McDonald's; Ace Hardware; Kroger (local).
Near misses: Hutcherson auditioned for, but was not hired for, Mike Myers' The Cat in the Hat (2003), Bringing Down The House (2003) and Home Alone 4 (2002).
But it did. And that's why Josh, Peter Falk and Tim Daly appear on billboards in Los Angeles promoting TNT's Wilder Days.

"I honestly started crying when I saw the billboard," says Michelle, who has been in Los Angeles with Josh since Sept. 7. "You never imagine that one day your 11-year-old son would be on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in the middle of Hollywood. Josh just started screaming when he saw it!"

In Wilder Days, Josh stars as Chris Morse, who accompanies his ailing grandfather on a trip so the old man can prove that his colorful stories were fact, not fiction. When his grandfather becomes ill, Josh gets to drive the Caddy.

"He was so tired, and he pulled over at a rest stop," Josh says. "I was looking around, and heard scary noises, so I got in the car and just drove away, and tried to find a hotel. Then I hit a deer. And I get out and try to bring it back to life with jumper cables, because that was one of his stories.

"I sat in the driver's seat, while the stunt coordinator was low down in the car, and he pressed the gas and brakes. I just steered the wheel," Josh says.

Daly (Wings) plays Chris' father, who chases after the two, and tries to convince his father to return to the nursing home. The film was made in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson, which produced Bill Macy's Door to Door, winner of four Emmy awards last month.

Daly says he was impressed with Josh during the four-week shoot in Vancouver last June. "He's an exceptional kid. He's a really good actor, and he's very smart and very confident in himself," Daly says.

'He's a natural'

"Some kids are just special. Josh is special. He's a natural," says Selena Smith, Josh's local acting coach.

• Connor Hutcherson has a couple of Hollywood credits to his name, but he's not really interested in following his older brother's footsteps.
• "I like the off-camera work better," says Connor, 7.
• While living with his mom and brother, Josh, in Los Angeles, Connor has won voice-over roles in two cartoons: Marcel's Animal Friends on the Disney Channel and Tarzan 2, a Disney home video to be released in 2005.
• Connor, a second-grader at New Haven Elementary School in Union, prefers living at home with dad, a management analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Clifton.
• "Back here is better," Connor says. "My friends and toys are here."
Josh says he had even more fun filming Polar Express, based on Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's book. He was rigged in harnesses to fly through the air as "young Hero Boy." (Hanks plays adult Hero Boy.)

"I supposedly fall off a train, and grab onto the back of it, and slingshot myself back up onto some guy's shoulders, and then we fell off again," Josh says.

When the film finally arrives in theaters at Thanksgiving next year, Josh won't be seen as "Hero Boy." That character will have been created by computer animators, based on Josh's "facial expressions and body movements" captured by digital cameras, his mother explains. "Leave it to Zemeckis. He's out there. He always does the newest stuff."

>By that time, Josh could be seen in a dozen TV shows and movies. In recent weeks he has read a movie script with Ben Stiller, and auditioned for Fox's Oliver Beene, CBS' Yes, Dear and several films. His agent sends him on casting calls for roles requiring a "boy next door," "nice looking" or "all-American."

For Josh, the toughest part of acting isn't memorizing scripts, or being rejected at numerous auditions. It's living in a tiny Studio City apartment, three time zones away from his friends, father, brother Connor, 7, their backyard swimming pool, and his motorized scooter and dirt bike.

"The hardest part is being away from here," he says. "But the good thing is that I know I always have this to come back to. Yeah, I'm gone a couple of months - but when I come back, I visit all my friends and have fun with my stuff."

Michelle and Chris says one of their top priorities is to give Josh an ordinary childhood - at least as ordinary as possible - while being paid with checks that have lots of zeros on them.

"We work hard to keep his life as normal as we can be," his mom says. "He doesn't get to go out and buy things. His three big purchases - a dirt bike, a laptop and a gas powered motor scooter - have been spread out over 18 months.

"Every kid around here has a motorized scooter, but he was the last kid to get one in our subdivision. We didn't let him (at first). He kept working hard, and doing chores around here, so we decided to let him get one.

'He's still a kid'

"We give him as normal of a life that we can. We let him be a kid. That's what a lot of people say to me - he's so professional, yet he's still a kid. And I think that's because we let him be a kid."

And they want Josh to be that "boy next door" in Northern Kentucky - not Southern California - as long as possible.

"We want to the do the commuting thing. We really do," Michelle says. "Moving to L.A. would mean that Chris gives up his career, and we don't want to do that. Sometimes child actors don't have very long careers, and then we would have given up our home and Chris's career. We really like keeping our home as home, because that's where all our family is."


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