This weekend, the locally made film The Playroom begins a limited run at Oak Cliff's historic Texas Theatre. Two familiar faces, John Hawkes and Molly Parker, have central roles in the movie as Martin and Donna Cantwell, a couple who share a drunken evening with a pair of friends while their four children spend the evening in the upstairs attic. Hawkes and Parker worked together on HBO's critically acclaimed Deadwood and have gone on to other high-profile gigs, with Hawkes earning an Oscar nomination in 2010 for his role in Winter's Bone.
But despite the star power they bring to the movie, the characters truly at its center are those four Cantwell children, played by four Dallas-area youths: Olivia Harris, Jonathan McCLlendon, Alexandra Doke, and Ian Veteto. Let's meet them.
Olivia Harris (Maggie) When casting began on the long-gestating project, director Julia Dyer (Late Bloomers) knew she wanted to find as many local performers as possible. That was especially the case with the character of Maggie Cantwell, the eldest of the story's four young protagonists. "We felt like if we could find a local Texas actress that could really play that role and we felt comfortable and had some time to work with her, that would be the strongest anchor point for the movie," Dyer says, recalling the casting process.
A casting call was put out just as Harris, then a senior at Booker T. Washington, was learning how to audition for college drama departments. She didn't know much about the project, and at that point didn't have a lot of experience with auditions.
"I knew I needed to get used to the weirdness of auditioning," she says.
Harris' character is the oldest of four children in a difficult family situation. "She is being asked to be a mother to her siblings," Harris says, describing her character as vulnerable and frustrated but also determined, a young woman caught between childhood and adulthood.
Harris is currently studying Musical Theatre at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama.
Jonathan McClendon (Christian) The character of Christian Cantwell occupies similar territory as Olivia's. Though he's years younger, McClendon points out that he's old enough to know something's not right, even if he can't say what exactly.
McClendan already had some acting experience when he auditioned for the role; he appeared as a bully in the Hallmark movie Front of the Class. He's 16 now and a sophomore, though he hopes to test out of high school soon. He was in Los Angeles when we spoke, doing auditions. Since working on The Playroom, he has completed voice work on a video game and starred in a PSA about sex-ed that garnered some controversy for comparing The Talk to neutering a pet.
Alexandra Doke (Janie) Doke plays Janie, the next-to-the-youngest child in the Cantwell family. She describes her character as the sweetheart of the family, young enough to believe they can all come together, even though they're having a hard time.
Like McClendon, Doke had some work under her belt already. She's billed as a birthday party guest in David Lowery's debut film, St. Nick. "Fortunately-thankfully she just walked in and killed the audition," Dyer says.
Doke remembers feeling a strong bond with her co-stars early on, even as early as their call-back audition. "I felt like they were almost my family," she says. "We didn't have to pretend like we were brother and sister. It was like it had already happened."
Doke has followed her role in The Playroom with small parts in an episode of Fox's short-lived drama Lone Star and the upcoming crime movie, The Iceman. Like Harris and McClendon, she hopes to continue performing. "It doesn't matter where I go as long as I'm acting," Doke says.
Ian Veteto (Sam) The part of Sam, the youngest child, was the hardest of all the parts to cast. After exhausting their options with the talent agencies, Dyer sent out an email to friends looking for anyone who might fit the part. "It doesn't really matter if he's acted before," Dyer says, recalling the message. "At this point we're just looking for someone who is interested and has something in common with this character."
Both Dyer and Veteto agree that Sam is a subdued character. "He's a pretty mellow kid," Dyer says, adding, "he's definitely deep."
That description contrasts sharply with Dyer's first meeting with Veteto at his house in Denton. She recalls him running around and playing with his dog.
"I was definitely interested in his energy," Dyer says. But she told him that she needed a boy who could handle a calm role. Suddenly, Veteto was a different person, both calmer and quieter. The part was his.
"It was a lot of work for a small boy," Dyer says. Veteto, who was still learning to read, would practice his lines with his mom after dinner every night. He turned seven during the filming of the movie. Unlike his co-stars, he's not sure yet if he wants to continue acting.
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As for Dyer, she's already at work on another project. It's a murder mystery she hopes to film "in a really special location that I'm not revealing yet." Her work so far has centered on families and the struggles they have, and while that's something she's interested in, she wants to expand her horizons with a bigger film and a bigger budget.
But despite her larger aims, staying local is still just as important.
"We all really want to build a sustainable film business that not only services film and TV shows that come from outside, which we love, but that also can generate really good quality, homegrown material as well that can compete out in a nation and international market," Dyer says. "That's what we're doing and we want to keep doing it."
The Playroom screens Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Texas Theatre.