"He took it very seriously, his job," Johnson says. "He didn't goof around. There's not a lot of stories about him hamming it up or making an outtake. It was all about doing the work right and giving the director what they needed. I don't mean he didn't have a sense of humor, but when the rest of the cast started goofing it up and going off the page, he would be like 'Come on guys, let's get together and do this.'"
5-25-77 tells the story of Johnson's childhood passion for filmmaking and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jaws, which eventually led him to Hollywood and becoming the first person to see Star Wars who didn't work on the project. 5-25-77 stars Freaks and Geeks' John Francis Daily as Johnson, and Mentell plays his sadistic, small-town bully, Tony.
But the world never got to see how high and bright his star could shine.
However, when 5-25-77 opens in theaters Thursday, the world will get to see Mentell's talent in his final theatrically released film. He performed in the film 13 years ago, but it's finally getting a wider distribution. The Alamo Drafthouse locations in Dallas and Richardson will screen the film Thursday night.
"It'll be nice to see it on the big screen," says Mentell's mother, Alicia Mentell, who lives in Denton.
Justin Mentell played his first role at the age of 4. His mother says they moved to Denton from Austin, where she worked as the city's parks and recreation superintendent. The director of the community theater company needed a small child to play an immigrant boy traveling to Ellis Island in the musical Miss Liberty, Irving Berlin's lyrical retelling of the sculpting of the Statue of Liberty. He asked Alicia Mentell if her son would like the part.
She says the adorable, precocious kid only had one line and a couple of short appearances on stage, but he had the whole cast cracking up during rehearsals. However, he turned into a total pro on show nights.
"He had to do 12 shows at night," she says. "The remarkable thing is that Justin got his cue and made his mark every single night."
Justin Mentell's penchant for performing continued throughout his schooling in Denton and later when the
In his teenage years, Mentell added drumming, painting and speedskating to his talents, the latter of which scored him a spot on the U.S. Speedskating junior national team alongside future Olympic stars like Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis. However, he was still determined to make acting his life's profession.
"He wanted to be an actor probably since he was 3," Alicia Mentell says. "He knew that was his calling. He never wanted to be anything else."
Justin Mentell had been professionally auditioning since his teenage years, but he started his acting career in short films and extra roles until an audition for ABC's Desperate Housewives caught the network's eye and landed him his role on Boston Legal as the brash young lawyer Garrett Wells.
"They were so amazed that he went there and got it and how he picked up the cadence and rhythm and style of Boston Legal," his mother says. "He became really adored. Bill Shatner would call him: 'Hey kid! Let's walk the red carpet, kid.'"
James Zahn, a longtime friend from Lake Villa, Ill., who first met Mentell when they were extras on the same movie and later worked with him on 5-25-77, says Mentell had a personality that people gravitated toward, especially on a set.
"He was very introspective, but there was a joyful aura that surrounded him wherever we went," Zahn says. "People just felt comfortable around him."
In 5-25-77, Mentell is almost unrecognizable under his mullet wig and pubescent mustache. The character's mean and dark demeanor is also like night and day compared with Mentell's personality.
"He was a very funny, warm person, but boy, if you asked him to turn on the darkness, he could do it really fast, and I don't know where that came from because I don't suspect he dealt with that much darkness," Johnson says. "He was just an observer of people and an observer of humanity, and he was able to channel a version of himself that he would re-create that was not him but was the dark version of him."
Johnson's film finished shooting in 2004 but struggled to find distribution, and Mentell's performance was only seen by a few film-festival crowds and at exclusive screenings as Johnson pushed for a wider distribution deal. Mentell later moved to Los Angeles to pursue more acting opportunities. His early success hinted that he could become a major star, even if he still was "the shy, Midwestern kid" inside, Johnson says.
"He's a charming guy and a cool guy, but he wasn't the most gregarious person, and maybe he was a little intimidated by the Hollywood scene," Johnson says. "He would call and say he didn't know how to do this Hollywood party scene and this schmoozing thing."
Zahn says Mentell didn't brag about the famous parties he attended or the celebrities he met when he called his friends in the early hours of the morning.
"It would not be uncommon to get a phone call at 2 in the morning because he wanted to run lines for an audition in the morning or talk about a project," Zahn says. "There are very few people who exist like that. I would have bent over
Mentell may have been headed for a remarkable career in acting, but those who knew him remember him for much more than his acting talent.
"There are no words that can make it any better," Johnson says. "The only thing that can make it tolerable is that he left such a mark. When you met Justin for the first time, that grin and those eyes and that truly lovely personality that would extend from him
The Alamo Drafthouse Cedars theater, 1005 S. Lamar St., will screen director Patrick Read Johnson's 5-25-77 at 9:05 p.m. The Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, 100 S. Central Expressway, will screen the movie at 9:50 p.m. Visit drafthouse.com/dfw for tickets and more information.